Saturday, January 16, 2021

Detroit Borders III: Cornerstone Annexation & Lochmoor Village


Much of Detroit's easternmost neighborhood, Cornerstone Village, came into the city when a half square mile of territory was annexed from Grosse Pointe Township in 1926. Homebuilding was booming on the east side in the 1920s, whether developers were constructing bungalows for middle-class workers, or designing exclusive enclaves for the rich. The various municipal boundaries coming into shape here, which would influence class divisions even more greatly over time, would sometimes be decided by a surprisingly small number of votes.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Detroit Borders II: St. Clair Heights & the Hillger Annexation

In this series on the City of Detroit border, we are breaking the city limits down into segments and uncovering the history behind them individually. The previous post covered the border from Windmill Point to Mack Avenue, 233 feet east of the center of Alter Road. Continuing from where we left off, the border runs down the center of Mack, 1.3 miles east to the center of Cadieux Road. This line is also the north border of the City of Grosse Pointe Park.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Detroit Borders I: Grosse Pointe Park

Detroit's current borders superimposed over an 1876 map of Wayne County.

Researching exactly where Detroit's sometimes confusing borders lie—and how they got that way—has been a long-overdue topic for this long-neglected blog. This post will be the first installment of an in-depth series on the history of the borders of the city. We will begin following the municipal boundaries starting where the eastern border meets the Detroit River, and then progressing counterclockwise from there.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Why I Left the Detroit Institute of Arts

I began working at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a bookkeeper in April 2007. I had moved to the city two years before, but I was still working in Warren and excited to both live and work in Detroit. In 2011 I was promoted to Accounts Receivable Specialist. If you made a donation to the museum in the last six years, I was involved in processing that transaction in one way or another.

In October 2017, the DIA demolished the Barat House in order to expand its parking lot by 65 spaces. (I recently wrote a post about the history of the building and its architect. I recommend reading that first.) Although my job was just a minor clerical position, I have decided to leave the DIA in protest of the demolition and the manner in which the decision was made. Below are the four main reasons why I believe the DIA has made a terrible mistake.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Brief History of the DIA's Parking Lots

(This is not the post where I explain why I quit my job, or make any radical political statements. This is simply a history of how the DIA came to own its parking lots, in case any readers find this information interesting.)

* * * * *

According to public property records, the Detroit Institute of Arts owns the four parking lots seen on the map below. The Cultural Center Parking Lot is the only one currently open to the public. The Barat House was purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts in September 2016 and demolished to expand the Cultural Center Parking Lot in October 2017. But how did the DIA get into the parking game anyway?

The Detroit Museum of Art, founded in 1885, came to be owned and operated by the City of Detroit in 1919 and renamed the Detroit Institute of Arts. Originally housed in a building on Jefferson Avenue, the DIA moved to its current location in 1927.

Below is an aerial photo from 1961 when the Barat House was under construction, and before the museum's north and south wings were built. The sites of today's parking lots are outlined in yellow. You can see a small surface lot on the north side of the museum, which today is occupied by the museum's loading dock.

Wayne State University

Going Underground

In March 1963, construction began on a 368-space underground parking garage beneath the DIA's south lawn. Work started on the museum's new south wing that fall. When the parking garage opened on February 12, 1965, an elated Louis Cook of the Detroit Free Press called it "a giant step forward for culture in Detroit." When work began on the new north wing two months later, city officials considered adding a second parking garage beneath the north lawn, but it never came to be.

Detroit Free Press
The DIA's south wing and underground parking garage under construction, 1964.

A massive plan to clear 200 acres east of the DIA was unveiled on April 21, 1965. It called for the construction of musical and theatrical arts centers, a museum of science and technology, and a "hall of man and natural history", the basements of which would contain parking for a total of 5,750 vehicles. The grounds between the new buildings were to be landscaped with gardens, fountains, and reflecting pools.

Detroit Free Press, April 22, 1965.

This plan was of course never carried out, but off-street parking began to appear in the neighborhood. Around the early 1970s, a building that stood at 81 East Kirby Street was demolished and the land converted into a parking lot. The parking lot was owned by the City of Detroit, and use of the property was split between the DIA and the International Institute at 111 East Kirby. Below is an aerial photograph of the area from 1981. The Cultural Center Lot had not yet begun.

Wayne State University

In June 1988, the University Cultural Center Association unveiled another ambitious plan for the DIA vicinity. One feature of the proposal was an underground, 800-car parking garage to be built on the block bounded by Frederick, Brush, Farnsworth, and John R. Streets--the site of today's Cultural Center Parking Lot. A landscaped promenade leading to the DIA was to appear on the surface.

Detroit Free Press

The City of Detroit began to buy up the houses that sat on this block and demolish them one by one. The underground parking garage was never built, and the vacant lots were simply used as surface parking (probably as a "temporary" measure). Photos of these lost buildings from a 1976 survey of historical neighborhoods have survived. Below are a few of the homes bulldozed for the Cultural Center Parking Lot.

Place Promo

In 1997, the alley that ran through the block bounded by Frederick, Brush, Farnsworth, and John R. Streets was officially vacated and became part of the Cultural Center Parking Lot project. To this day, the entrance and exit of the parking lot align with the former alley. Below is an aerial photograph taken that year. At this point, the City of Detroit owned the DIA and all of the parking lots outlined in yellow in this image, except for the building outlined in red.

Wayne State University

That lonely building was the First Philippian Grace Church, previously known as Bethany Tabernacle. Although the structure was not very old, the congregation considered obtaining historic designation for the church in order to protect it from demolition. "The thought that Old Bethany might be torn down someday chills Ms. (Sophia) Ellis, and with reason," wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Louis Cook in October 1979. "Several institutions in the area are coveting territory there, including the Scarab Club, for parking space." But it wasn't the Scarab Club that finally got its hands on the property. The DIA itself (and not the City of Detroit) purchased the property on July 16, 1997, paying $325,000 according to public records. The church was town down and incorporated into the Cultural Center Parking Lot.

Place Promo
Bethany Tabernacle, 265 Farnsworth, in 1976.

In 2013, the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy. As part of the "Grand Bargain" that shielded the DIA's collection from the city's debtors, the City of Detroit ceased to own the DIA (including both the museum building and the art collection). Because parking revenue had always been used to support the DIA, the four parking lots would become museum property as part of the bankruptcy restructuring. The DIA reverted to an autonomous nonprofit organization and became the sole owner of these parking lots on December 10, 2014.

The underground parking garage, now in need of an extremely costly renovation, is no longer open to the public. The Barat House site is currently being converted into an extension of the Cultural Center Parking Lot. The Scarab Club is now the last structure standing on this entire city block.

And that is how the DIA came to own four acres of surface parking lots in Midtown.

Top photo: Wayne State University.
Bottom photo: Bing Maps.
The block containing the Cultural Center Parking Lot in 1948 and 2016.

Coming soon: Why I'm leaving the DIA after the demolition of the Barat House.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Eulogy for the Barat House

The signs are everywhere--the caution tape, the marking of underground utilities, the removal of trees--that a demolition is near. The Barat House at 5250 John R. Street shows every indication that it is about to be razed. As reported last year, this midcentury building was purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts with the possibility of being replaced by a surface parking lot for 60-70 cars. Today, the DIA's final decision is self evident. (Disclosure: I am an employee of the DIA.)

The Barat House stands boarded up and roped off.
The Detroit Institute of Arts lies in the background.

Buildings are like people--they exist until the irreversible moment of death. Once destroyed, they are gone forever. Even an exact reconstruction would only be a clone, a lookalike. Before we say goodbye forever to this particular building, I think it is important to recall the history of the building and its architect. It was constructed originally as an inpatient psychiatric facility for teenage girls in 1961. The organization that built it, the League of Catholic Women, had roots in Detroit going back to the turn of the century.

In 1906, a group of Catholic women in Detroit founded the Weinman Club with the aim of providing relief to immigrants coming into the city. The group changed its name to the Catholic Settlement Association five years later. In 1912, the group raised funds to set up a home where young working girls new to the US could obtain low-cost room and board while receiving a basic education in both scholarly and domestic subjects. Catholic Settlement Association member Mrs. Annie Hammond Casgrain offered space in her home at 162 (later 622) West Lafayette Boulevard free of charge to the organization. The home opened in February 1913. This building has since been demolished.

Detroit Free Press
The first Barat House, 622 W. Lafayette Blvd.

The association called this project the Barat Club in honor of Saint Madeleine-Sophie Barat (pronounced Ba-rah). Saint Barat was a tireless advocate for free education to all children regardless of class, especially young women and girls. She founded the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1800 to carry out that mission.

Saint Madeleine-Sophia Barat

The Catholic Settlement Association reorganized as the League of Catholic Women in 1915. The following year, they purchased, renovated, and expanded a three-story home at 47 (later 89) Watson Street in Brush Park. The first floor and basement of the building facilitated the League's social functions, and the upper floors were outfitted to shelter up to thirty young women of the Barat House. This home has since been demolished.

Detroit Free Press
The second Barat House, 89 Watson St.

As immigration to the US declined, the League of Catholic Women widened the scope of its service to the community. The Barat House evolved from being a home for working immigrant women to a safe haven for underprivileged and at-risk girls of any race or religion. In 1945, the League purchased a home at 460 East Grand Boulevard to be used solely as the new Barat House. This was the former home of Albert Fisher, an automotive pioneer who died in 1942. This home has since been demolished.

Detroit Free Press
The third Barat House, 460 East Grand Blvd.

By end of the 1950s, the League of Catholic Women had need of a larger and better accommodations. They would require a proper inpatient psychiatric facility in order to better serve the young female victims of abuse and mental illness who sought refuge at the Barat House.

"Mental Health Architecture"

In October 1960, the League of Catholic Women announced that a brand new building was to be constructed at John R. and Frederick Streets, scheduled to be completed the following September. "For the past year," reported the Detroit Free Press, "[Director Patricia] Bebin has worked with Dr. Joseph Fischhoff, consulting psychiatrist at Barat House, and Robert H. Snyder, the architect, to 'build a warm and attractive home in which the girls could realize their best possibilities.'" The 24-bed treatment facility was an architecturally experimental work, as the Free Press reported:
According to the architect, Robert Harter Snyder, the home provides "an environment that would improve the emotional stability of the girls. We had no real precedent to follow, for little has been done in the field of mental health architecture. We sought to develop a spirit of containment without restraint." Instead of bars, "maximum security is provided by decorative sun screens of pre-stressed concrete," Mr. Snyder says. "The outside will be soft gray brick, and the inside walls cement block."

Living space is to be increased by foldaway beds and hidden wire storage basket units which replace the usual chests of drawers. Bookcases are to be built-in, with pre-fabricated desks welded to the wall.
(Detroit Free Press, Oct. 8, 1960)
Detroit Free Press
A pre-construction rendering of the Barat House.

Robert Harter Snyder was born on August 2, 1918 in Toledo, Ohio. After obtaining a Bachelor of Architecture from Syracuse University in 1941, he went on to work for Albert Kahn's architectural firm, teach at Syracuse, and serve in the US Navy. In 1948, Snyder was admitted to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he studied architecture and urban planning under Eliel Saarinen and obtained his Master's Degree in 1950. After Saarinen's death that same year, Snyder was appointed Head of the Architecture Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a position he held until 1965.

Cranbrook Archives
Snyder (right) with a student, May 1952.

Another example Snyder's work that makes a creative use of sun screens is the office building for the Shatterproof Glass Corporation in southwest Detroit, also built in 1961.

Photograph by the author
Shatterproof Glass Corporation Offices, 4815 Cabot St., Detroit

Photograph by the author
Shatterproof Glass Corporation Offices, 4815 Cabot St., Detroit

Snyder openly criticized the urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s that destroyed so many communities in Detroit. "Urban renewal is extravagantly wasteful," Snyder said in testimony before Congress in 1960. If every slum in every city were cleared, he asked, "would we have corrected the basic social faults that relate to the development of slums in the first place?" He pointed out that the condemnation payouts "reward the slum landlord handsomely for his failure to maintain his property at decent, livable standards."

Water Winter Wonderland
Miracle Mile Drive-In Theater, Pontiac. Ticket booths and concession stands designed by Robert H. Snyder. Constructed in 1960, demolished 1986.

Snyder's work can be found beyond Metro Detroit, scattered throughout Michigan and his native Ohio. One notable early commission was the home of James and Doris Byerly, built in 1954 on a twelve-acre wooded estate in Owosso Township. The "binuclear" home was two buildings connected by a glass corridor, thereby separating the living and sleeping areas for the family of six.

Detroit Free Press
The living room of the Byerly House, 575 N. Delaney Rd., Owosso Township.

A 1957 article in the Detroit Free Press describes the exterior of the home as sided in "vertical fir boards (in) rich brown ... accented by occasional panels of yellow, blue or persimmon."

Detroit Free Press
Exterior of the Byerly House, 575 N. Delaney Rd., Owosso Township, in 1957.

The house is still standing, but has since been painted gray and appears to be vacant and dilapidated.

Exterior of the Byerly House in 2014.

Built around the same time as the Byerly House was the home of Noel and Isabel Buckner. It was set into the side of a hill with a walk-out basement overlooking Walnut Lake in West Bloomfield Township. The Buckners remained in the home for the rest of their lives.

Cranbrook Kitchen Sink
The Buckner House, 2633 Cove Lane, West Bloomfield in 1955.

Detroit Free Press
The Buckner House interior in 1955.

After the passing of Isabel Buckner in 2012, the home was sold, torn down, and replaced with a structure of a different character.

Upper image: Google Street View | Lower image: Photograph by the author
2633 Cove Lane, West Bloomfield, in 2013 and today.

Robert Harter Snyder died on October 12, 1985.

* * * * *

Let us remember the legacies of both Mr. Snyder and the League of Catholic Women, as the Barat House will itself soon no longer stand as a testament to them.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Grid Part II: The Survey of Metro Detroit

A grid of one-square-mile sections stretches across Detroit and its suburbs.

(This is the second and final installment of an article on the survey of Michigan and Detroit. Click here to read Part One.)

One of Lewis Cass' objectives as governor was to attract enough settlers to Michigan for the territory to achieve some degree of self sufficiency. His plan reached an obstacle when Congress decided that the two million acres surveyed in the winter of 1815-1816 were unworthy to be used as bounties promised to soldiers who would serve in the military for five years. This land was to be put up for sale, but its distance from any existing settlement and the disparaging report of the surveyors meant that it was unlikely to bring in homesteaders.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Grid Part I: The Survey of Michigan

We are living in a 200-year-old matrix marked by brass and iron. It is such an integral part of our daily lives that we barely even notice it. This complex system hides in plain sight--in fact, it is visible from outer space.

Shane Kimbrough

It's no accident that Metro Detroit--a region historically apathetic to organized urban planning--ended up with a neat grid of roads set one mile apart. But there is a deeper order and complexity to the system beyond a convenient grid. Its origins lie deep in the early history of the United States, and is one of the boldest utopian social engineering experiments ever proposed by its founders.