"Second To None"

August, 2007.

This building is the famous Cass Technical High School, the pride of Detroit and producer of its greatest minds, better known as Cass Tech. Sloop and I went in four days after the vacant school was set on fire by three scrappers who were cutting pipes from it, resulting in a three-alarm blaze. Cass Tech celebrated its 100th anniversary on August 10th and 11th of 2007—a week after I went inside.

I really wasnt as interested in exploring and photographing Cass Tech to the hilt, because at the time I was suffering from a general lack of interest or jadedness in the whole thing; not to mention the school got a little hot for awhile after it caught fire in August 2007, and then metal scrapping was getting underway, the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) bankruptcy publicity was heating up, a certain Youtube video showing all the left-behind stuff that DPS had abandoned in there made it onto the local TV news, and most of all because I was just getting shellshocked by the acceleration of the terminal decline of the city in general.

A shot from the Film Exchange Building:

Cass Tech had long stayed sealed up and for it to be open season for looting was just too depressing...I didn't want to think about the fact that it was going to fall into the same ruin as all the rest. After all, if Cass Tech could fall, nothing was sacred. So therefore I don't really have a lot of pictures for you to look at, but then again you've probably seen enough of them too. But what interior photos I do have date to immediately after the first fire, when you still had to climb into the place through a tight board, and none of the vandalism or looting had happened yet.

According to the classic book All Our Yesterdays, A Brief History of Detroit, Cass Tech was named after patriarchal Michigander Lewis Cass, not simply to honor his name, but because it was built on one of two parcels that the man himself donated to the city of Detroit. It was said to be the first school in the city to be named after a person, though I think this only holds true if you don't count existing schools that became part of the DPS by virtue of land annexation; McMillan School in Delray comes to mind. The other parcel Lewis Cass donated was turned into Cass Park.

According to Detroit, Then And Now, by Cheri Gay, the first building was constructed in 1907 and existed under various other names, such as High School of Commerce, and Cass Union High School, before settling on the present name. It was Detroit's first dedicated vocational school. That first building burned in 1909 and was rebuilt, but in 1963 was demolished for the construction of the Fisher Freeway. The present building was erected next-door in 1922, designed by Malcomson, Higginbotham & Palmer. Before the freeway was built, the two buildings stood side by side and were connected by a skyway.

In 1985, Albert Kahn, Associates was contracted to build the modern addition onto the rear of the building, probably putting the school close to the 1 million square foot mark. In 2005, this second building was closed down and the school moved into its third, and current building, another 50 yards north of the now darkened old neo-gothic edifice.  There was a crusade to save the old Cass Tech, and plans to renovate it into lofts and apartments, but that all obviously went to smash when it was demolished in 2011.

At its peak, this building housed over 2,500 students, and there was a huge waiting list to get in. Before the c.1907 building was demolished, it had a capacity to serve up to 4,800 students. Cass Tech is an "Examination High School of Choice;" students must have a 3.0 grade point average to get in, and maintain a 2.5 grade point average to stay in.

These arched entryways were the portals through which Detroit's most promising young men and women passed; today they merely served as shelter for homeless people who huddled against the doors to get out of the weather.

According to an old webpage belonging to the Cass Tech Chess Club, in 1918 overcrowding at the school due to the high demand for its industrial training programs resulted in the administration asking students who had completed two years of training to leave and find jobs. Fortunately, because employers knew just how valuable Cass grads were, there was no lack of companies willing to hire them. That same year, Ford Motor Company supposedly "requested that the school hold classes outside of regular school hours so that their employees might have access to the industrial training facilities," and "in the 1920s, local hospitals sent their nurses to Cass for special courses in chemistry, bacteriology, biology, and dietetics."

Some famous Cass Tech alumni are: Motown singer Diana Ross, Jack White of the White Stripes, gospel singer and actress Della Reese, actress Ellen Burstyn, John Coltrane's wife Alice, jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, actress/comedian Lily Tomlin, actor David Alan Grier, Detroit Mayor / Thugsta Kwame Kilpatrick, Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins and endless other less corrupt city politicians through the years, and revolutionary car designers Preston Tucker and John DeLorean. Even Charles Lindberg's mom, Evangeline Land Lindberg, taught chemistry here for 20 years. According to the Free Press, Cass Tech "educated Detroit's smartest kids." Mary Wilson of the Supremes also had the chance to go to Cass like Diana Ross, but allegedly turned it down because she didn't want to do the extra homework that it would entail, according to author J. Randy Taraborrelli. Cass Tech is also known for its excellent music program, especially its harp ensemble, which I saw perform in 2010 at Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church.

According to the c.1946 book, Frank Cody: A Realist in Education, in the early 20th century Detroit faced a crisis; the boom of the auto industry had caused an immigration flood that surpassed the historic California Gold Rush of '49, and as a result of this massive influx to Detroit, the public school system (and other aspects of the infrastructure) were unable to keep pace; in 1910 over 52,000 children were out of school simply because there was not enough room for them. Most of these were the children of unlettered laborers, many of them from overseas, who had come to work in the factories. Detroit's school system was about to undergo the greatest expansion and building campaign of its history.

It was only natural that from the center of this one-city industrial revolution would emerge an industrial education program unparalleled anywhere, with Cass Tech as its radiant crown jewel. By necessity the city would need to find a way to prepare the coming generations for the developing technological workplace, or risk its survival as the manufacturing capitol of the nation. The administration of the Detroit Public Schools, led by Superintendent Frank Cody, responded to this challenge with genius.

The ideas had begun to germinate under previous superintendents Wales Martindale and Charles Chadsey, but it was Cody who really was able to pull DPS out of the mud of administrative scandal and prepare it for the radical expansion that it, and the city it served, were about to undergo. Not only did they establish manual training for the school-age children, but they also established the nation's first night-school and Americanization classes for adults, tailored to the hours of third-shift factory hands who had no other way to attend school. It was in 1911 that Cass went from being a commerce school to a vocational school, and changed its name to Cass Tech.

Here is the new Cass Tech, glowing across the street:

Standing at seven stories tall, old Cass Tech has been described as being of both skyscraper construction, and of factory construction. Fitting, since it literally was a factory of sorts; not only was it designed to efficiently educate large numbers of children the same way a factory churns out product, but it quite literally housed many of the live trades that would be taught under its roof, such as printing shops, chemistry laboratories, machine shops, and a foundry on the seventh floor. In some cases, the school was outfitted with better facilities than the universities that the students would go on to after graduating, or indeed than the factories in which they would finally be employed!

When Cody's term began in 1919, manual training for boys in the DPS meant classic woodshop and pattern making, essentially, with the occasional machine training. From 1920 to 1940 he developed the program to where they were now engaged in auto mechanics, metal fitting, industrial mechanics, electrical construction, and advanced machining. Detroit was awakened. Under Cody this same kaleidoscopic expansion was applied to all other program areas of the school system as well, from art to music to physical education, and the buildings were enlarged and modernized to accommodate these advancements accordingly. Within a few years the DPS was very arguably the model public school system in the world, and many other cities were adopting similar measures under the examples Detroit had set.

But it was not Cody alone who facilitated the DPS's manual training program, John H. Trybom was the  long-standing Vocational Director who helped usher in many of the new practices that would make Detroit's hive of industrial education what it was. He was brought to DPS in 1900 to head the Manual Training Department. Under the administration of Superintendent Wales Martindale the Cass Technical program was initiated in 1911-1912, and the Manual Training Department was rebranded the "Department of Vocational Education." It heralded the dawn of a new realization of cooperation between schools and the industries of Detroit; Cass Tech was the "portentous opening of a new regime in vocational education." The "indispensible Trybom" was kept at the helm of these advancements for the next two decades.

Even with all its "spaciousness and splendor," Cass was not enough to fulfill the demand, so the Wilbur Wright Vocational High School was established in 1928 near 12th Street and Grand River Avenue as a part-time trade school for 500 boys. Frank Cody's idea was that schools should cooperate with industry in this manner to ensure that every student left the school system equipped to make a living in one field or another. I featured Wilbur Wright School in a different post.

When speaking of the "Arsenal of Democracy" that gives Detroit much of its non-Motown related historical cache, everyone always begins and ends the story with the factories and the companies themselves, not realizing that the skilled labor force needed to man these factories did not materialize out of nowhere. It came from the grass-roots level, at Detroit Public Schools.

When the federal government declared that total war was upon the nation, and that certain quotas of war material must be filled in order to adequately fight the menace, where did the skilled men come from who would operate the machines to produce this insurmountable number of airplanes, tanks, and bombs that were being asked for? "Detroit, the cradle of industry says, 'We can.' And Detroit turns to her schools." Because of the long-standing reputation of the DPS for maintaining such high standards, they were able to answer the call.

Both Cass Tech and Wilbur Wright had fully outfitted machine shops with the latest equipment and most highly-skilled teachers to train the ranks that would rise to the task of national defense. Even in the regular high and intermediate schools across the entire city, shop teachers were put on overtime at federal expense, to train more boys for the war effort, who would in turn disseminate their knowledge as leaders in their field.
A third story mushrooms atop Wilbur Wright Vocational High School. The emergency is sprung in the midst of summer vacations: wires go out recalling industrial arts teachers from Yellowstone, Palm Beach, Lake Louise, Hollywood, and Fish Lake. Overboard goes the fishing tackle, and home they come.
An article in TIME Magazine for December 22, 1941 called Detroit the "busiest educational center;" the Detroit Public Schools became, according to the book, "the arsenal for the arsenal of democracy!"

The view of the skyline from Cass Tech's roof was excellent, but it really made downtown seem as if it were surrounded by a moat:

One of the things I managed to loot that night was one of the several 1988 Cass Tech yearbooks that were left behind, which contained several photos of Kwame Kilpatrick, who graduated that year (as well as Saunteel Jenkins).

Looking north up Second Street:

Looking straight down at Second Street:

This part of the freeway trench is exactly where the original Cass Tech stood:

This room I believe to have originally been the forge mentioned earlier:

In my estimation, the facilities of Cass Tech equalled or exceeded not only those of other high schools, but also those of most other colleges and universities. It was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For this building to have been simply thrown away when it was in such salvageable condition is a sin. Had it been possible to uproot it and move it to the campus of any university in America, institutions would have been fighting each other for the privilege of having it, to the tune of millions of dollars.

Likewise, if DPS had simply taken proper care of the place from day one instead of squandering their resources through corruption and incompetence for decades, it would not even be abandoned, but rather a cherished asset. Is that glitzy new Cass Tech across the street going to last as long as this one?

This seems to be a disturbing pattern with DPS: Allow closed landmark school building to rot, build new school immediately next to it with the same name, tear old one down. Off the top of my head this pattern has been repeated at Chadsey High School, McKenzie High School, Mumford, and Finney. McKenzie itself was only a few shades removed from the architectural grandeur and historical significance of Cass Tech. Stay tuned for a post on that school.

According to Jeffrey Mirel’s seminal book about the Detroit Public Schools, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System, CTHS's auditorium was used by the Communist Party in 1932 to conduct a mock “trial” of Henry Ford, Frank Murphy, and other prominent Detroiters. It found them guilty of the deaths of the four "Hunger Marchers" who were slain that spring by Dearborn Police and Ford Security.

This drew flak of course in the papers and with political lobbies who were outraged that public school property had been used by the commies.

I have also heard that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has performed and recorded here in the past.

I made at least one more return trip during the day in October of 2008, and scrapping had progressed quite a bit since my first visit.

It began with the quiet dismantling of these interior courtyard windows' aluminum frames, long before any outward appearance of active scrapping on the building would be seen by any passerby on the street.

It allows an overall glimpse into just how much material was simply left in place in the classrooms when it closed.

The signature industrial "M" roof truss design seen here at left stands over the forge room:

Seen at left here are racks of what I believe had been a horticultural experiment group:

I-75 South:

I've always thought that Detroit Edison's headquarters looked a lot like Cass Tech, architecturally:

There were a few good books to loot from the library:

In retrospect, I'm not sure that this was the main library, as it doesn't seem magnificent enough; I have even seen intermediate schools in Detroit with more ornate libraries than this:

There was a secret passageway however, haha:

One thing I noticed is that despite the fact that Cass Tech was considered so worthless to the bankrupt DPS in recent times that they literally threw it away, back when the massive right-of-way for the I-75 trench was being plotted out, they actually put a huge curve in the freeway in order to go around Cass Tech. You can't see it so well here, but I took this shot in 2005 from the roof of the Donovan Building:

Check it out on aerial view:

Cass Tech was important enough to put a kink in I-75, the most major freeway in Michigan. Now it's a vacant lot.

Detroit, Then And Now, by Cheri Y. Gay, pg. 91
The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-81, by Jeffrey Mirel, pg. 114-115
Detroit: A Postcard Album, by Richard Bak
Diana Ross: A Biography, by J. Randy Taraborrelli
All Our Yesterdays, A Brief History of Detroit, by Woodford and Woodford, pg. 128
The Detroit Almanac, by Gavrilovich and McGraw
Frank Cody: A Realist in Education, by Detroit Public School Staff


  1. The school actually had classrooms on 8 floors. John Campbell was the basic drafting teacher there. The floor was not the foot print of the building but like a small penthouse.

    Commerce High was the school for girls that would go on to be secretaries & such. There were almost no boys there. Curiosity led me there once, but I felt like they would know I was out of place, so I never went back. The Bridge was on the 2nd floor.

    I went there from September '62 thru December '65. I did appear in the '66 yearbook.

    There were some kids that rented an apartment directly across the street & had parties there. Never knew about that until years later. On the northeast corner of 2nd & Henry was a parking lot with a little diner in it. It was owned & called Flo's. There also used to be a place called Henry's near Grand River & Henry that may have closed by 1964. They had a lot of older, wilder kids in there & it was always packed.

    I tried to get the Design, Drafting, & Technology dept. to go back in the building to look for a 1/4 scale plaster model of the Ghia Chrysler Dart concept car, which we used as a drawing model to learn car design in '63. Dept. head totally uninterested in exchanging history for some modern reference material for current students. Demolition company blew me off big time, too. Bunch of barbarians, all!

  2. I went there 1967 to 69. I remember Mr. Campbell on the 8th floor. He used to want good dark pencil lines on drawings so they would show up on blue prints. A favorite saying of his was "no ticki no washy."

  3. At its peak, Cass Tech housed over 4500 students rather than the 2500 cited in the article. I attended Cass from 1967-70 and my brother attended from 1963-66. Cass was also unique in the mid 60's for its computer programming classes. CT had its own IBM 1620 mainframe computer. My husband developed the math department's computer curriculum and taught there for more than 20 years. The business department had its own curriculum.

  4. I went to CT from 1965-67 and had Mr. Campbell in the 8th floor homeroom and for drafting in the 10th grade. Does anyone know when he stared at CT and when he retired? He was quite the guy always saying "shall I say" and always pushed for those dark pencil lines. Wii never forge the photo display on one of the upper floors that showed all the graduates. What a place it was then.

  5. Thanks for this! I was a Technician from ‘62 - ‘66 when there were 4000+ students. What a place! I went to U of M after graduating. Many of the CT text books were used there too!

  6. I attended Cass during 1967-69; my sister 1965-68. It was a privilege. Your discourse and photos, and these comments, have touched me deeply. Thank you very much for doing this. I learned many things from you today. Peter Cubra, now in Albuquerque, NM.


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