The Big Red Burn

Photos from 2004 to 2005, scanned from film.

The old Scovel Memorial Presbyterian Church used to sit at the south corner of Grand River Avenue & McGraw, and once shared that corner with another much more famous Detroit ruin, the Olympia Stadium (with the Riviera Theater and Grande Ballroom not far away). Unfortunately the Olympia and Riviera were both demolished by 1999, and on February 13th, 2005, this church burned down, reducing it to a blackened shell that stood a little too close to a "Reelect Kwame Kilpatrick" billboard overlooking the Jeffries Expressway. So naturally its ruins only lasted about as long as it took for people to start taking photos of the uniquely "Detroit" juxtaposition, before it was demolished:

Obviously you can't have your political adversaries using imagery such as that in TV ads against you. Too bad it takes such extraneous coincidences for large hazardous structures to actually get removed in this town. Well, you all know what happened to Kwame.

Here it is again in 2004 before the fire, in a blithe out-the-car-window shot that indicates I clearly had no idea it soon would not be available for photography anymore:

I meant to go in...I knew plenty of people who had gone in before the fire but I never got around to it.  Ooops. I guess late is better than never.

This church was not so lucky as to receive a final "memorial service" from Preservation Detroit after it was torched and demolished, as First Unitarian Church did recently.

Some nice Lake Superior sandstone, and you can see the cornerstone, which contained historical church documents:

After the demolition, a few of the larger red sandstone blocks remained on site, though I am not sure what eventually became of them.

My partner Chisel, as well as David Kohrman, and Detroitblog were among those who had interior photos from before the fire, but none of them currently remain online. The church featured a Byzantine-style sanctuary, and the fire was blamed on arson at the hands of "the homeless," but whenever I hear that tired old excuse I feel inclined to distrust whoever is trying to sell it, and to probe a little deeper. Anyway, too late now.

Scovel Memorial Presbyterian was built in 1898, designed by architect W. E. N. Hunter, and founded by elders of the Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church—one of whom was Charles Scovel, the principal land and funding donor, according to Detroitblog's October 2004 writeup. When it was built, Grand River was still a plank road leading into the wilderness of Western Michigan, and a toll gate still stood near the site.

Believe it or not, Henry Ford and his wife Clara actually used to attend this church. I imagine this was during the early 1900s when they lived in Boston-Edison. Detroitblog goes on to explain that the entryway held a plaque and Pewabic tile donated by Ford, "whose teacher in the Greenfield Township school he attended, Mrs. Abbie Woods Scovel, married into the Scovel family that donated the land and money to build the church."

The church received extensive renovations and expansions in the early 1920s, and was attended by a predominantly Scottish-descended congregation. This was also the era in which its membership peaked, at about 2,500. Scovel Presbyterian was also noted for its city-wide champion athletic teams, fielding mens', boys', and girls' basketball, baseball, and softball squads. Their music program was formiddable as well, producing two male quartets and a 17-piece orchestra, some of whose members played with John Philip Sousa's band and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

I wonder how many times Detroit Redwings fans (or Redwings themselves!) might have stopped in here to pray before historic championship hockey games at the old Olympia?

Interestingly, only two ministers ever led the Scovel flock in its history: Rev. James D. Jeffrey, who served from 1898 to 1929, and his son, Rev. George D. Jeffrey, who served from 1929 until his death in 1975. The last service held here was in 1977, before a sparse congregation who had mostly already moved out of the city to the suburbs. It then underwent a transformation into the "Prayer Tabernacle Church," which was relatively short-lived, and still later was used by the Motor City Blight Busters as a shelter for battered women—an equally short-lived venture.

See the links below for a few better photos:

"Let us Pray,", October 28th, 2004
John Monteith and Detroit Presbyterianism, by Harold F. Fredsell
The Scotch Presbyterian Church of Detroit: Its History from 1842 to 1938, by William R. Carnegie


  1. The Riveara Theatre was not on the same corner the Riveara Theatre was 2 miles north at Joy and Grand River.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Hi. My name is Kathy Scovel. My husband, Craig Scovel, is a decendant of the Detroit Scovel family who donated the land and money to build the church. We are interested in learning more about the church documents and Scovel Cross, which we understand the property agent donated. Any chance you can help us?

    Thank you for this write up. We'd love to see the pics you took of the interior.


    1. I'm afraid that this is all I have on the church.

  4. 2.17.2019.SU My Dear Ms. Scovel; My grandmother attended this church throughout the 1920s (resided on Chope Pl., bulldozed for the Jeffries Fwy.). I suspect that this link might help if you've not already found it:

    Sincerely Yours, Daniel M. Enos (

  5. I was able to recover five kawaba tiles from the entryway after the fire, before the demolition.


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