When the District of Columbia was designated to be the nation’s capital there was no city. Building started from scratch based on a street plan drawn up by Pierre Charles L’Enfant that sent broad avenues radiating through circles and plazas. When Detroit was named the capital of the Michigan territory in 1805 before the new government could get up and running the entire settlement burned to the ground so it too was starting from scratch. Justice Augustus B. Woodward based his street grid for Detroit on L’Enfant’s plan for Washington. Woodward ran all his streets from the central hub of Grand Circus Park.
The main thoroughfare extending away from the River was Woodward Avenue and it has been the town’s major artery for more than 200 years. The land beyond the downtown area was parceled out in ribbon farms that ran north away from the Detroit River. A typical ribbon farm might be 250 feet wide and up to three miles long. Some of the owners of these farms included Lewis Cass and Elijah Brush, names that resonate in Detroit today.
The areas along the east and west sides of Woodward Avenue did not begin developing until after the Civil War the more well-to-do in the town began to buy up land and build houses away from the bustle of the city. Streetcar lines were established in the 1860s to serve these new “commuters.” Commercialization began rearing its voracious head early in the 20th century, much of it related to the new automobile industry. Not all the neighborhoods were devoured but as the people began settling further north, this became “Midtown.”
After World War II educational and cultural institutions began holding sway over this area which continues to this day. The mixed-use community today includes churches, mansions, middle class homes, hotels and apartment buildings, schools, clubs, utility buildings but we will start our walking tour of Midtown at the museums...
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Avenue
This is the second largest municipally owned museum in the country with over 100 galleries and 65,000 objects of art. The Institute began in the 1880s with a five-month European tour by Detroit News publisher James E. Scripps. Scripps serialized his art and culture discoveries in the paper which proved so popular it led to a book, an art exhibit and a museum. Scripps led a parade of well-heeled donors in town and the Detroit Museum of Art was incorporated on April 16, 1885. Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret won the commission for the main building here and delivered a monumental Beaux Arts structure executed in white marble. The Institute building boasts iron work by master craftsman Samuel Yellin, tile from the local Pewabic Pottery Works and architectural sculpture by Leon Hermant.
ACROSS THE STREET IS...
Detroit Public Library
5201 Woodward Avenue
The first public library in Detroit opened in 1865 as a reading room operated by the Detroit Board of Education in their high school. In 1905 the library function was turned over to the Detroit Library Commission which operated small branches around town. In 1910 steel magnate-turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated funds for a central library, one of some 2,500 libraries he endowed around the world. Minnesota-raised architect Cass Gilbert emerged the winner from a design competition in 1912 with his plans for a three-story, Italian Renaissance building. Gilbert already had the world’s tallest building, the Woolworth Building in New York City, and the Minnesota State Capitol on his resume and would later add the United States Supreme Court. Here he indulged his classical tendencies with Vermont marble and serpentine trim. His son would add wings to the library in the 1960s. Today the Detroit Public Library anchors the the second largest library system in Michigan behind the University of Michigan.
WALK NORTH ON WOODWARD AVENUE (THE INSTITUTE OF ARTS WILL BE ON YOUR RIGHT AND THE LIBRARY ON YOUR LEFT).
Detroit Historical Museum
5401 Woodward Avenue at Kirby Street
Clarence Monroe Burton, a successful lawyer and businessman was an avid collector of historical works and documents who morphed into a prolific chronicler of Detroit history. In 1914 Burton donated his collections to the Detroit Public Library and in 1921 he brought together 19 local historians to form the Detroit Historical Society. The Society opened its collection to the public in a room in the Barlum Tower in 1927 and later spent time in a house across Cass Avenue from this building, which opened in 1951.
15 East Kirby Avenue at Woodward Avenue
This tri-tower began life in 1926 as The Wardell, a residential hotel. Fred Wardell had founded the Eureka company in Detroit in 1909 to build vacuum cleaners. By the time he invested in this property Eureka was selling one out of every three vacuums in the United States. Sheraton purchased the gray Neoclassical high-rise in the 1940s and turned it into the kind of hotel where Hollywood celebrities would check in while in town. In the 1970s, the Park Shelton Hotel was converted to apartments and in 2004 a $15 million renovation created condominiums. It has survived under almost every configuration except a time-share.
Colonel Frank J. Hecker House
5510 Woodward Avenue at Ferry Avenue
After serving in the Civil War, Frank J. Hecker, still in his teens. went to work on the railroad, first as an agent and then as project manager. In 1879 Hecker tapped the seemingly unlimited supply of Michigan pine to begin manufacturing box cars and the Peninsular Car Company made him rich. In 1888, Hecker hired architect Louis Kamper to design his home. The German-born Kamper worked in the fabled New York shop of McKim, Mead and White and was newly relocated to Detroit at the age of 27. Completed in 1892, the spectacular Hecker Mansion, with its French Chateauesque style and 13 fireplaces, acted as the launching pad to place Kamper and his firm among the most prominent in Detroit. he would go on to complete over 100 major projects in the city over the next 40 years.
TURN RIGHT ON FERRY AVENUE AND WALK DOWN TO THE NEXT HOUSE.
Charles Lang Freer House
71 East Ferry Street
Charles Lang Freer was Frank Hecker’s partner in the Peninsula Car Company and built his home right next door. Freer was a frequent traveler with one of his favorite landing spots being Newport, Rhode Island where he admired the shingle style summer cottages built by America’s wealthiest elite. Freer wanted a similar style for his 1890 home, which was completed in 1890 on plans drawn by Wilson Eyre with hard blue limestone on the base and tightly-bunched Michigan oak shingles above. Today Charles Freer is best known for endowing the Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO WOODWARD AVENUE AND CROSS THE STREET. CONTINUE ON FERRY TO CASS AVENUE AND TURN LEFT.
Herman Strasburg House
5415 Cass Avenue
Marcus R. Burrowes attended the Denver Art Academy in the 1890s where he attended lectures and received instruction by architects of note, as well as serving an apprenticeship to a leading architectural firm in the city. He began his working career in Canada, designing post offices. Burrows crossed the river back to Detroit, however, where he would eventually design more than 1,000 structures. This half-timbered house from 1915 is considered one of best examples of English Tudor architecture in Detroit. It was constructed for dance school entrepreneur Herman Strasburg. In 1949, Wayne State University bought the property, using it first as the Wayne University Choral Studio and later as the Wayne State University Music Annex.
William C. Rands House
5229 Cass Avenue
William C. Rands started in the bicycle business but caught the wave of automobile manufacturing and began making windshields and cloth roofs and fancy lamp brackets among other products. As the Rands Manufacturing Company was prospering this neighborhood began filling with distinctive middle-class homes such as this Prairie-style house built of ashlar block for Rands in 1912. Almost all of the home have been demolished in Wayne State’s expansion through the area but the Rands House survived as the school’s Business Annex.
4841 Cass Avenue at southwest corner of Warren Avenue
This Romanesque assemblage of gables and pinnacles was constructed in 1894 as the city’s Central High School. The limestone for the building was quarried from the ground right out front. Architects William G. Malcomson and William E. Higginbotham were newly partnered when they won the commission for this building and it pleased the Detroit Board of Education enough that the firm designed 75% of the city’s education buildings over the next 30 years. The structure contained 103 classrooms, laboratories, offices, and space for 2,000 students but it wasn’t big enough by 1926 and the city deeded the property to today’s Wayne State University, which had begun with classes here in 1917 as the Detroit Junior College.
4756 Cass Avenue
George DeWitt Mason began his architectural career in Detroit in 1875, working as an apprentice without pay. His career would stretch for over 50 years and this is the best surviving example of his early work, constructed as a home for aged women in 1884. Funding came from the estate of David Thompson, a prominent Detroit businessman. The four-story Queen Anne confection is dominated by a central tower which is flanked by protruding bay windows. Look up to see artistic brickwork and painted beltcourses around the building.
4743 Cass Avenue
This was the First Church of Christ Scientist when it was constructed in 1917. The congregation sold the building to Wayne State University in 1963, with president Clarence B. Hilberry personally raising the funds to convert the space into a 500-seat open stage theater.
4735 Cass Avenue
David Mackenzie was born in Detroit in 1860 and educated at the University of Michigan. He began a long career as an educator teaching elementary school in Flint. He returned to Detroit in 1913 as principal of Central High School and while there started the first junior college curriculum in Michigan that evolved into Wayne State University that now owns the house he used to live in. The brick Queen Anne house with a conical corner tower was the creation of William G. Malcomson and William E. Higginbotham in 1895.
William C. Boydell House
4614 Cass Avenue
John Boydell founded a small paint company in Detroit in 1865 and the business blossomed into the Boydell Brothers White Lead and Color Company, with national accounts for its paints and varnishes. His brother William constructed this three-story double-house in 1895 as rental property. Architect Almon Clother Varney designed the Beaux Arts building to look like a single-family dwelling with a unified brick and limestone facade.
McAdow House/First Unitarian-Universalist Church
4605 Cass Avenue
Perry McAdow left Kentucky to join the California Gold Rush in 1848. That didn’t work out and he made his way back to St. Louis. He set out west again in 1861 for Montana where he became the first recorded settler in the Yellowstone Valley and helped found the town of Billings. He also was finding gold almost every place he went. His gold discoveries and the Spotted Horse Gold Mine made McAdow rich. He invested in land, cattle, orange groves and the pineapple industry; he started banks and opened stores. In 1882 McAdow started Montana’s first streetcar service in Billings with horse-drawn cars in 1882. The fare was 25 cents, and in an effort to get more riders, McAdow offered free beer at his store at the end of the line in Coulson, just outside Billings. In 1891, he and his wife Clara moved back east and built this elaborate mansion for a cost of $65,000 as an entrance into Detroit society. The couple lived here until 1897 after which the house was used as a private residence until 1913, when it was sold to the First Universalist congregation. The church used it as a place of worship for three years until a new church immediately to the north was completed, after which the house was used as a parish house.
TURN LEFT ON CANFIELD STREET. AT MID-BLOCK, THE LARGE BUILDING WITH THREE SMOKESTACKS ON YOUR RIGHT IS...
Willis Avenue Station
50 West Willis Avenue
Detroit Edison was organized in 1903 to build and operate electric plants in Detroit. The Willis Avenue station was the first steam power substation used by Detroit Edison for the production of steam heat. When the plant wet online in 1904 there were 12 customers and barely a half-mile of pipe. By the mid-1940s there were 42 miles of underground mains carrying steam through Detroit. The plant continues to operate over 100 years later.
TURN LEFT ON WOODWARD AVENUE.
David Whitney House
4421 Woodward Avenue at Canfield Avenue
David Whitney began lumbering in Massachusetts in the 1840s and came to Detroit at the age of 27 in 1857. He gobbled up timberlands across the upper Midwest on his way to becoming Detroit’s richest citizen of the 19th century. He poured $400,000, at a time when a good salary was $1,000 a year, into this house between 1890 and 1894. Crafted of rose-pink South Dakota Jasper stone, the Whitney mansion was described as “an American palace enjoying the distinction of being the most pretentious modern home in the state and one of the most elaborate houses in the West.” The 52-room, Romanesque-styled landmark operates today as a restaurant.
TURN RIGHT ON GRISWOLD STREET.
First Congregational Church
33 East Forest Avenue at Woodward Avenue
This is the third church building for the congregation that was established on Christmas Day, 1844 down near the Detroit River. John Lyman Faxon based his design on the works of fellow Boston architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential American architect of the post-Civil War decades. The church exemplifies Richardson’s fondness for brawny buildings with a tower, prominent gable, wide arched entrances and groupings of columnettes. Most Richardsonian Romanesque buildings were executed in rough-cut stone and Faxon selected red limestone for the First Congregational Church that was dedicated in 1891. The 120-foot campanile is topped by an eight-foot copper figure of the Archangel Uriel, the God of Light. An addition to the church, known as the Angel’s Wing, was constructed in 1921 by Albert Kahn.
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
4800 Woodward Avenue
This parish was founded in 1824 as the first Episcopal and the first Protestant congregation in the Michigan Territory. The current Gothic Revival building came in 1907 from the pen of Ralph Adams Cram, the leading cheerleader for the Medieval style and designer of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, the largest Anglican church building in the country. The building boasts soaring, pointed arches, wide expanses of stained glass, and elaborate tracery, exemplary of Gothic architecture, and includes a large architectural installation of Pewabic Pottery, founded by local artist Mary Chase Perry Stratton. A planned bell tower was never built. The funeral service for Henry Ford was held at Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Thursday April 9, 1947.
TURN RIGHT ON WARREN AVENUE. TURN LEFT ON JOHN R STREET.
Detroit Science Center
5020 John R Street at Warren Avenue
Dexter Ferry, a Detroit businessman and philanthropist, founded the Detroit Science Center in 1970. In 1978 the center moved into this William Kessler-designed facility and today is one of the ten largest science museums in the country.
TURN LEFT ON FARNSWORTH STREET.
Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building
100 East Farnsworth Street at Woodward Avenue
Detroit lawyer Horace Rackham was notoriously cautious with his money - when the stock market crashed in 1929 it caused scarcely a ripple in his portfolio. Once, though, Horace Rackman took a speculative flier. In 1903 Henry Ford hired Rackman and his partner John W. Anderson to draw up papers incorporating the Ford Motor Company. While tending to the paperwork, Ford convinced the partners to buy stock in the company, one of hundreds of new automobile companies helmed by dreamers at the time. The price for one of the 890 shares was $100 and Rackham had to borrow money and sell some real estate t scrape together $5,000 for a block of 50 shares. The dividends alone enabled Rackman to quit his law practice in 1913 and when Henry Ford bought up all the outstanding shares in 1919 Rackman’s haul was $12.5 million. The Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building, intended for use by the Extension Service of the University of Michigan and the Engineering Society of Detroit, was built in 1940 using money willed to the University. It was designed by the firm of Harley and Ellington Architects and Engineers and is faced with white Georgia marble with black granite accents. The windows are cast bronze and the exterior features sculptures by Detroit artist Marshall Fredericks.
CONTINUE TO WOODWARD AVENUE. THE TALL BUILDING LOOMING IN FRONT OF YOU IS...
5057 Woodward Avenue
Detroit’s favorite architect of the early 1900s, Albert Kahn, designed this beefy limestone pile in 1926 for the Knights of the Maccabees, a Canadian fraternal organization who specialized in providing affordable insurance to members. A nine-story Art Deco tower rises from a five-story Romanesque-flavored base highlighted by a three-story barrel vault arch entrance. Excess space was rented to other businesses, most notably radio and television station WXYZ. The “Lone Ranger” radio show starring George Seaton debuted in the WXYZ studios here in 1933.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.