Neighborhood Night

With the Detroit Public Library system celebrating its 150th birthday (in 2015), I figure that it's time for a little tribute to one of the fallen and forgotten branches. Since I'm such a bookworm and since I spend so much time in libraries in Detroit, I always take a special excitement and a certain wistfulness in exploring abandoned ones.

The Hosmer Branch Library on Gratiot Avenue was a nifty building I had eyed while passing by for a long time. I always assumed that the interior would be gutted and uninteresting, so I never stopped to check it out.

It wasn't until some friends took me there one night when we were bored that I realized just how cool its interior actually was.

It was basically one big open space, completely encircled by those arched windows all the way around, and in the central aisle stood a double row of tall Ionic columns, with a skylight in the middle.

Granted, it was pretty difficult to get shots in these close quarters at night without a tripod, but I managed to manage okay. A return trip in the daylight was nonetheless an inevitability in order to do this place justice, but for now the eerie spills and moody tones of nighttime ambient light would do just fine.

A view out across quiet, lonely Gratiot Avenue at this late hour, combined with a cheap beer buzz and grimy arc sodium street light was just what the doctor ordered.

According to historian Clarence Burton the Hosmer Branch Library first opened in the year 1900, inside of Harris High School on Pulford Avenue, but it was moved to 887 Gratiot Avenue in 1903.

It was not until January 7th, 1911 however that this building was completed and would become the Hosmer Branch's permanent home, serving the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood at 1030 Gratiot (renumbered to 3506 Gratiot). The Mark Twain Branch Library stood a couple miles further up Gratiot, at Burns, and of course the Skillman Branch--also on Gratiot--still operates downtown at Library Street.

The interior of this place looks like it suffered from some ill-conceived remodeling, with a lot of dropped ceilings and flimsy temporary walls sectioning-off several offices. Thankfully a lot of them had already been destroyed, and would not obstruct my shots.

According to Detroit Public Library Branches, 1914, by Glen G. Mosher, this Italian Renaissance style structure was designed by local architect Louis Kamper. You may remember him from such better-known Detroit buildings as the Broderick TowerBook TowerBook-Cadillac HotelFine Arts BuildingEddystone HotelHotel Park Avenue, and many others.

Mosher also says that this library was constructed of Kittanning brick and Bedford stone, with red oak interior trim, at a cost of $24,500.

Mosher's record goes on to say that the main floor of the library was the "General Reading Room," and there was also a children's room, a reference room, staff room, and the librarian's office. Any books, stacks, or other library furniture that were once here are now long gone.

This library was named after George S. Hosmer, who according to was a prominent Detroit judge that married into the Bagley family. He died in 1921 and is buried in Woodmere Cemetery. There is also an (abandoned) elementary school named after George S. Hosmer.

Having been in a lot of DPL branches both in-use and closed-down, I can say with authority that this must have been one of the coolest ones, back when it was pristine.

Via Google Books I came across an old periodical called Library Service, which seems to have been the Detroit Public Library system's internal newsletter. In several volumes of it I gleaned interesting little factoids, and mundane snippets of what life was like in the neighborhood libraries of Detroit in the early 20th century, particularly at the Hosmer Branch.

For instance, I learned that in January 1918 the telephone number to this library was Ridge 249, and that Wednesday was Neighborhood Night, where a speaker was scheduled to give a talk, and "all are invited to make use of the branch on this evening especially."

There's that blacked-out skylight again:

A November 1917 issue of Library Service tells of another neighborhood exhibition under the direction of the Recreation Commission. All patrons were urged to leave examples of handcraft for the exhibition, including "pottery, lace, embroidery, weaving, costumes, metal work, woodcarving, and exampled of work from the Colonial period of this country" were "earnestly requested."

Pictures on loan from the Museum of Art (predecessor of the DIA) were displayed, and more "interesting talks" were given.

Beginning that March, the Recreation Commission was to hold "'sing-songs,' as the Tommies say," every Saturday at 7:30. In case you're wondering who "Tommies" were exactly, it's some WWI-era slang that is lost on modern ears; "Tommy" was the nickname that British foot soldiers referred to each other by, sort of like we have "G.I. Joe" I guess.

Speaking of World War I, another new service was introduced at the Hosmer Branch in November 1918, for soldiers of the Motor Transport Corps stationed at the nearby barracks on Bellevue Avenue. They wrote to the librarian of Hosmer, saying, "We wish we had a quiet place to go and write letters," and so the library set aside a room for them to do so.

Okay, just a couple more photos of the arches and columns...

Through the doorway was the employees-only area:

After I was able to tear myself away from the lobby area, I checked out the back offices.

There had been a small fire in here at one point, since the walls of one room were blackened. No real damage to the building however.

Some kind of old district map of the city:

I tore away part of the blackened map, to reveal...another copy of the very same map underneath, without the district lines:

It was pretty old, since it still showed East Detroit and Gratiot Township.

There was this strange rounded apse on the back of the building, which I presume contained more offices, but may have originally been one open area--perhaps the aforementioned children's room:

I also saw what looked like several small study rooms in the basement:

Then of course, the usual utilitarian areas:

Out back I saw the apse in fuller detail:

And then I proceeded to get my vehicle stuck in the snow for several minutes.

An article in September 2016 states that this library was recently purchased for $35,000 by a small private entrepreneur who hopes to turn it into a bookstore (provided the city agrees to a zoning change). As of 2019 another fire has damaged the building, and it has apparently been seized by the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

I have explored these other abandoned libraries in Detroit:
Bernard Ginsburg Branch
John S. Gray Branch
Mark Twain Branch
Gabriel Richard Branch
John Monteith Branch

The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 1, edited by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 843
Detroit Public Library Branches, 1914, by Glen G. Mosher
Library Service, Volumes 1-2, (January 15, 1918), p. 4
Library Service, Volumes 1-2, (November 17, 1917), p. 4
Library Service, Volumes 1-2, (November 15, 1918), p. 4
Library Service, Volumes 1-2, (March 1, 1918), p. 4

Hit by the Bus

Photos from December 2008.

As far as school buildings in Detroit go, the old Mackenzie High School at 9275 Wyoming Avenue stood unparalleled in terms of its physical stature and appearance except for Cass Tech, which was of course "Second to None." Yet Mackenzie was demolished in June of 2012, so that a new modern building could be erected there.

Built in stages from 1927 through the 1930s, the old Mackenzie hardly qualifies as "old" in the scheme of things, since the vast majority of the structures still standing in the city today were built in that exact same time period. 

This school was designed by the firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, and it is almost a certainty that it came from the desk of Wirt Rowland, though the book I have cataloguing Smith, Hinchman & Grylls' history does not mention it in much detail.

The book does however mention that as the Great Depression was setting in, the City of Detroit remained one of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls' most reliable sources of work contracts, at least until the economy really tanked. Mackenzie, Pershing, and Denby High Schools, as well as the Mark Twain Branch Library, were that firm's big jobs for the city at the time, and Rowland also designed Breitmeyer Elementary School some years earlier.

I think it's safe to say though that if the Guardian Building were a school, it would be Mackenzie.

Mackenzie was where many prominent--and even some famous--Detroiters went to school, including actor Tom Skerritt (1951), Funk Brothers member Dennis Coffey (1959), six National Football League players, and three Super Bowl champions, all of whom were trained under Coach Bob Dozier.

Most people associate Mackenzie High School with Jerome "The Bus" Bettis however, because of his hometown hero role in the 2006 Super Bowl XL, which, notably, was played here in Detroit, to much fanfare. Bettis grew up at 10384 Aurora Street.

Mackenzie High School was named after David Mackenzie, one of the most important educators in Detroit's history, whose antique home still stands on Cass Avenue near Wayne State University, and today serves as the offices of Preservation Detroit. For many years Mackenzie was the principal of Central High School, known today as Wayne State University's "Old Main." He was also essentially the founder of Wayne State University itself, in 1917.

The book Frank Cody: A Realist in Education also makes the claim that while principal of Central High, David Mackenzie also implemented what became the first model of modern student counseling, in 1913. By breaking the student body into "houses," and assigning a counselor to each "house," it took a major burden of routine off of the principal's shoulders by essentially giving him six assistant principals--which in turn allowed Mackenzie more time to be an effective administrator.

According to the seminal book about the Detroit Public Schools, Jeffrey Mirel's The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System, Mackenzie High School was part of a racial protest in January of 1962. A redraw of district lines in 1961 suddenly excluded a group of black Sherrill Middle School eighth graders from graduating to the all-white Mackenzie High School. The Sherrill blacks were sent instead to Central and Chadsey High Schools, which were almost all black, and further away from their homes.

The parents organized, the NAACP got involved, and a lawsuit was filed against Detroit Public Schools, alleging that the school board was operating a de facto segregated school system. As a result, changes were enacted upon the DPS in terms of hiring practices and resource allocations, and all the while Detroit continued to get "blacker"...or, less "white," anyway, as whites moved to the suburbs rather than let their kids mingle with those of other races.

You know the rest of this story; we've heard it a thousand times...the '67 Riot occurred a few years later, and Detroit went into an undeniable tailspin before it finally crashed and burned in bankruptcy in 2014. During that fiery week in July of 1967 McKenzie sat a mile outside of the battle zone, but I'm sure emotions ran high in the students as their eastern horizon was completely blotted out with black smoke while Grand River Avenue burned.

Mirel cites an article that says that the principal of Mackenzie was forced out of his post in the second semester of the 1968-'69 school year as the result of "protest and controversy," and that the same thing happened at two other schools.

Mackenzie was the site of another large demonstration in March of 1971 against cuts made that seemed to unfairly affect majority black-attended schools. By this point it seems as though Mackenzie had already swung toward becoming mostly black, and students actually took over the school to protest a majority white school board governing a majority black district, and so that "black militants" could demand changes in staff and curriculum.

According to Mirel "the Detroit desegregation trial" began in April of 1971, since apparently the district was still galvanized along racial lines even after the aforementioned lawsuit in 1962. Racial violence between students also broke out at Osborn High School, where Detroit Police made 15 arrests, after white students antagonized and attacked protesting blacks.

On a different note, Hollywood and TV actor Tom Skerritt may have played on this stage before he was famous. Skerritt is perhaps best known for his roles in such well known Hollywood movies as M*A*S*H*AlienTop GunA River Runs Through It, Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke, and Stephen King's The Dead Zone. Skerritt also guest-starred on the popular TV shows BonanzaGunsmoke, and Cheers.

He grew up at 12003 Cheyenne Street, according to the book Home in Detroit. Another famous actress, Ellen Burstyn, lived around the corner from Skerritt when they were both about six years old, but she attended Cass Tech, not Mackenzie. Incidentally, another M*A*S*H cast member, Harry Morgan grew up nearby at 198 Rhode Island Street in Highland Park.

The top of the auditorium led to roof access.

I love how sometimes, in out-of-the-way areas that the public never sees, the builders will use up some scrap mismatched materials such as the beige bricks seen in the previous photo.

The Barton-McFarland neighborhood around McKenzie was still basically hanging on for the moment, and there was a decent view of it from the roof:

As you can see this place was in almost immaculate shape, but for some reason the DPS decided that it needed to be torn down at great expense, and another *new* school built in the same spot, also at great expense. But hey--we "created" like 50 (temporary) construction jobs, right?!

Look at this art-deco powerhouse...the snazz factor is off the charts:

Might be a little too snazzy though, if you know what I mean. Better tear it down, just to be on the safe side--we wouldn't want our children to be distracted by inspiring architecture. You remember what happened when we gave them colored chalk, right?

Here's the clock that faced out over the football the rest of the building's cornice, it's made out of glazed, multi-colored terra-cotta blocks:

Some top pieces are missing however, because there was copper flashing under there that someone needed to perform some alchemy on. Apparently you can now transmute copper directly into crack cocaine...maybe it's because they both start with "c"...or at least that's what I remember from chemistry class anyway.

Going back inside, here was some small lecture room, or perhaps choir room?


Faux ancient Greek style art:

The Stags are Mackenzie High's mascot:

Gym floor is looking a little wrinkly there...I bet it would've been fun to skateboard on.

Locker rooms near the pool...with the lockers "mysteriously" missing:

The pool:

"You Can't Hide That STAG Pride":

These gorgeous built-in wooden cabinets that are found in almost every Detroit Public Schools classroom are one of my favorite things about exploring school buildings...

...despite the fact that it would cost a medium-sized fortune to build classrooms like this today, all of these cabinets are being sent to landfills. Not even the most expensive Pulte-built house in Novi has cabinets this good.

Then there are the sheets and sheets of pristine marble...thousands and thousands of dollars' worth....which Detroit taxpayers paid to have put in a landfill:

If I recall correctly this may have been the ROTC drill hall:

There were many modern additions built onto Mackenzie; this used to be a backdoor to the school, but now it merely led into an annex:

Time to hit up my very favorite part--the library.

The astute observer may recognize a very similar style of decorative woodwork here as was found in the also demolished Mark Twain Library--further evidence that this place was most likely designed by Wirt Rowland.

All of this immaculate old-growth wooden paneling is now in a landfill too, by the way. At least someone might have rescued the clock face:

Sorry, I just can't get enough of this...

This landmark has been wiped from the face of the Earth, so I might as well post every photo I've got.

It's amazing what good shape this school was in; renovating it would have cost far less than demolishing it and building another one, but hey--when you're the DPS, you can spend money on whatever you damned well please.

Heading back toward the front lobby and administrative offices, I noticed there was a lot of fancy tile and marble. Of course it was dark and I didn't have a tripod, so enjoy this incredibly amateur photo of a Pewabic tile fountain taken while my camera was balanced on a book:

Happily, not all of it went to the landfill or scrapyard...

When demolition became imminent, I rescued one of the massive, intact hunks of glazed orange terra cotta that made up the school's cornice, but which had been ripped out by some scrapper because there was copper flashing underneath it. It weighed about 50 or 60lbs, but I carried it out nonetheless.

The clock from the principal's office now also resides on my dining room wall. I figured the nice rusty / peely-paint patina was perfect as it was. It was driven and synchronized by a central pneumatic system that controlled all the clocks throughout the building, but I have designs on buying a generic battery-powered clock motor to retrofit it and make this baby tell time once again.

It's 2:15--School's out!!

The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-81, by Jeffrey Mirel, p. 262, 382, 348
Smith Hinchman & Grylls, 125 Years of Architecture and Engineering, 1853-1978, by Thomas J. Holleman & James P. Gallagher, p. 131
Frank Cody: A Realist in Education, by Detroit Public School Staff, p. 292, 303
Home in Detroit, by T. Burton, p. 60, 82