The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1585] The Plight of Detroit's Historic School Buildings

United States

Detroit is in a crises unlike it has ever seen before, where government scandal and failing business models are leaving the city to question its identity as a successful metropolis. As the 2010 Census will most likely reveal, Detroit has shrunken so dramatically that other formerly smaller Michigan cities may actually now exceed it in population numbers. This poses many problems for how the city will conduct its budget, its school systems, and presents a special challenge in how it will reconcile its current status with its illustrious and prosperous past. The Detroit Public School system in particular has been hit hard by the decline in population, where misplaced spending and poor performance has outshined any positive achievements the institutions may have made. In the past decade alone over 60 school buildings have become defunct within the public school system. The majority of these buildings were built in the late 19th to mid 20th century. Each has a distinct architectural history that represents both the era it was built in and its surrounding neighborhood. Now, acting as a sort of visual record for the current economic state Detroit is in, these schools are left as boarded, vacant, and pillaged shadows of the success they used to represent. They sit alone, monolithic shrines of failed progress in neighborhoods that declined along with the schools themselves. However, these neighborhoods are deeply attached to the schools that sit within them. The families that still reside there have memories and love for the once iconic symbols of their education and childhood. These buildings have the potential to once again become a useful tool for their community’s growth if they are preserved and adapted for a contemporary use. These historic schools could be useful tools for community enhancement and rejuvenation.

Detroit, as I saw it as a child, was a special place that required dressing up and my best manners. Our family destinations were the glittery and exciting world of theatre productions, art exhibits, the ballet, symphonies, sports and operas. I knew Detroit as the Fox Theatre, as the Detroit Institute of Arts, as Tiger Stadium, as Orchestra Hall and the Detroit Opera House. The network of expressways to and from the city and the suburbs were the arteries of arrival. The rest of the city, save for the downtown river skyline with its center jewel of GM’s Renaissance Center, was a blur of inertia viewed from the inside of my family’s staionwagon. It was not until I became older and less ignorant that I came to properly focus my vision on the rest of the “blur” of Detroit – the many miles of historic and decaying houses, the failed and vacant low-income high-rises, Eastern Market, the many old manufacturing plants, and the sectors of the city associated with different cultures such as Mexican Town, Greek Town, Cork Town, and Lafayette Park. I began to understand Detroit as an urban hub beyond privileged arts and sporting events. Its current status as a city with an infrastructure designed for the motor vehicle, and more importantly as a city with a tarnished political and economic history emerged.

During the summer of 2009 I volunteered at the University of Michigan’s Detroit Community Design Center, where I had a firsthand opportunity to experience daily life in downtown Detroit. This experience eroded my naïve view of the city and gave me insight into the lives and struggles of Detroiters and how they have dealt with their city’s decline. One of the projects I worked on with the Design Center was researching many of the inoperative historic school buildings and understanding the communities that surround them.

Many of the nonfunctioning school buildings are in a similar state of dilapidation and disarray. One example, Atkinson Elementary (located on the east side of Detroit) was built in the 1930’s with beautifully crafted masonry and woodwork finishing. It is one of the more intact buildings given the neglect and poor maintenance it has suffered. Its windows and doors are clad with perforated metal security panels and its grounds are unkempt and used as a litter dump by the surrounding residents. Through the Design Center, the City of Detroit gave us a tour of the interior. While the windows and doors had security panels, it was not impenetrable. Evidence of squatters, pillagers, and other miscreants was visible through graffiti in the hallways, obscene writing on chalkboards, and stolen copper piping and other valuables. Like most of the closed schools, very little maintenance was given to this school and others once they were shut down. In other schools this lead to severe warping of the wood floors due to high levels of moisture in the air, to asbestos leaking from broken plumbing, and to thieves demolishing exterior walls for easier access. Atkinson, as a recent closure, was one of the lucky few schools that was not ravaged as soon as its doors were closed. Names of children still decorated the front of their old lockers; classroom doors still had their teacher’s last names attached, and most eerie of all, many chalkboards had the ghosts of lesson plans still drawn on them. These schools have been left to defend their integrity with only luck as their protection because of the city-wide state of neglect. It is a horror in itself that these institutions have been left defiled, but the condition their respective neighborhoods are in is an even more telling story of the affect these schools had once they closed and were left to ruin.

A large part of the communities these schools sit in appeared to break apart once their schools closed. The neighborhoods usually consisted of single-family homes in blocks surrounding the entire perimeter of the school lot. These homes are either vacant due to foreclosures, burnouts, or are inhabited but poorly maintained. The lack of streetlights and haphazard traffic flow in these forsaken communities leave them deserted, dark and uninviting. As part of the research the Design Center conducted, two school communities were asked to attend a series of meetings in order for us to understand how the communities identified themselves and what their hopes were for a potential reuse of their beloved closed school. It became quickly apparent that below the surface of these neighborhoods, there was a strong community still intact. When given the opportunity to speak these people were very receptive to discussing their fears and desires for what their community could become. They identified the basic needs they lacked such as banks, ATMS and grocery stores, especially those with fresh produce. Specialty needs like health clinics and job-training resources were mostly unavailable, and outdoor activity spaces were limited to a few vacant and private lots. The closed schools seemed to have provided some of these needs in a familiar and safe setting. It is unclear whether the neighborhood decline came before or after the school’s closing, but once the school was closed, there was little support from the city to help the community fight the decline.

The historical and architectural importance of these school buildings is immeasurable. Besides acting as a catalogue of the progress and growth Detroit experienced in the early to mid 20th century, they are a visual symbol of knowledge. Their architectural styles vary depending on the era when they were built. Many schools showcase the pre-World War style of red brick and stone with varying elements of Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, and Collegiate Gothic. Elaborate and proud stone plaques with the name and year of their dedication are carved in the entrances. The plan schematics of each school could act as an index of education design. Many schools have elaborate murals painted in their hallways and classrooms depicting the social fight for equality and freedom so important in Detroit’s history. Elementary schools have fireplace installations from Detroit’s historic Pewabic Pottery that are now shattered and disintegrating. It is not only the old historical relevance these schools have to offer through their architectural design, but what they could offer in their place in Detroit’s current political climate. Detroit Public Schools have slated all 69 defunct schools to be either sold or leased, while congruently the Detroit City Council’s Historic Designation Board has been filing to place many of these schools on the historic registrar to protect them from demolition. The Detroit Public School System’s need for money could easily result in short-term choices with a likely result that the historic integrity of these buildings will be lost to the lowest developer’s bid.

If we could peer through the whirling chaotic mess of Detroit’s social and economic troubles, we could see an opportunity to ease some of these problems with adaptive reuse. There are a slew of culturally important school buildings left vacant and decaying, and there are many neighborhoods surroundings those buildings that are in need of basic facilities. These two problems have the potential to be jointly resolved. Furthermore, there are resources in and around Detroit that could make this solution a reality, such as universities and community associations. The design solutions could be solicited from these universities with direct help from the people they would be servicing if there was an initiative to make this collaboration happen. This imperative initiative could service three agendas: First, to raise awareness of Detroit’s problems and combine its strengths in history and community; Second, to service academic communities with a practical and critical outlet for study; and Third, to provide inspiration throughout the architectural community that adaptive reuse of historic buildings is potentially as academically important as initial conceptual design.

By providing the adaptive reuse of these historic school buildings as services to ailing neighborhoods, both history and community may be preserved. The families and individuals still residing in areas with defunct school buildings often have a longstanding relationship with those schools. Older generations of these families attended those schools and were proud to do so. The school acted as a social hub for many residents, a catalyst for forming relationships in and around the neighborhood. These precious relationships are what hold many of the dwindling neighborhoods together. One neighborhood within Atkinson Elementary School’s district, despite mass displacement over recent years, still has past members return to the neighborhood yearly to reconnect with friends and family. Another neighborhood that is particularly devastated with drug houses and criminal activity, bands together once a year and “storms” three or four blocks of said houses and cleans them out with shear force in numbers. It is a small dent, but the act invigorates and reminds residents that there is hope for better living conditions. Unfortunately, without necessary nearby facilities, these neighborhoods may fail to thrive. If the closed school buildings within their communities were adapted to contemporary standards, ADA requirements, and their architecture preserved, the adapted school building would act as a beacon of reassurance that survival is possible. Residents could treasure their memories of the past evoked by the exterior of the old school building while creating new experiences through new programs housed within. Gyms could be restored as physical activity venues; classrooms could be retrofitted into small businesses or health clinics; cafeterias into information resources.

Nevertheless, there are existing constraints to achieving this solution. Not all of the historic schools are structurally intact due to fire, theft, and continuing disintegration caused by age. Money is an issue. Health concerns are called into question because of mold and asbestos infiltration. The cost of new construction may be cheaper than renovation. Adapting these beautiful schools for community resource centers, however, is a solution for the long-term survival of their communities. Like all preservation, the schools that are the most viable for reuse would stand as living artifacts of Detroit’s past and present. The communities would grow again because members would be attracted to the resources available for healthy living. The monetary loss from choosing renovation over new construction could level out in a relatively short time. With a resurgence of growth in population and living standards, the adapted school buildings could yet again adapt to new concerns and needs. The history inlaid within the bricks and mortar of these school buildings cannot be replaced, but their function can be.

What my experience working at the University of Michigan’s Detroit Community Design Center has taught me is that there is a grave lack of student involvement concerning Detroit. The trend in design involves a paradigm that focuses on imaginative architecture paired with completely new construction. Given all of the various examples of uninhabited buildings within Detroit – including the historic school buildings – at least within my own curriculum, there appears to be very little investigation surrounding the concept of adaptive reuse. This is not to say that urban decline is a new prospect in need of discovery, but certainly when studying architecture within the state of Michigan, Detroit’s plight is undeniably apart of our vernacular makeup. Historical adaptive reuse ought to be included when thinking about the future of design; it directly addresses both the environmental and social concerns that cities such as Detroit are and will continue to face over time. If studio design projects were directly engaged with social needs and their projects were implemented start to finish as part of the course, both students and communities could benefit. Students could give each community with a defunct school a plan of adaptive design that could be provided to developers by the community. Michigan academic institutions should invest time in investigating the preservation of Detroit’s school buildings so that students and society could both benefit from the productive interaction. By choosing to recognize preservation and adaptive reuse as a possible solution to revitalizing suffering communities, academics can pave the path for preservation as a recognized and equal component to contemporary and future design.

As part of working at the Detroit Community Design Center, I came in contact with many of the closed Detroit Public School buildings and their respective communities. The main project was to conduct a design process dealing with the dilemma of these closed historic school buildings and what they could become for their communities. Through intensive research and community meetings, we came up with an architectural solution to adapting two of the many closed historic school buildings. Lack of funding and community awareness allowed for only two schools to be considered in a pool of many. These other communities could equally benefit from a design solution for allowing both the preservation of their historic school buildings and allowing them to function to service current community needs. It is up to the architectural design collective to act as the persuasive voice for historic building preservation as a means of social community preservation. Many architecturally and culturally important Detroit historic school buildings deserve to be preserved for the revitalization of their communities and the city of Detroit.

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