The 1,001 Blights of Scheherrazard

January, 2009.

On Cameron Street north of Clay Avenue stood a pair of attractive old school buildings: the Breitmeyer Elementary School at 8210 Cameron, and the Sherrard Intermediate School at 8300 Cameron. Sherrard School was built in 1925, and both schools narrowly avoided becoming victims of the construction of the I-75 freeway trench, which they are practically perched at the edge of. Sherrard had an ugly modern addition tacked onto the front of it in 1972, it closed down in 2006, and was demolished in 2010.

As you can see, the allegedly invincible (and very expensive) VPS / DAWGS panels that were used to secure this building have been reduced to so much scrap metal, and merely await the return of Fred  G. and Lamont, so that they can get cashed in at the scale.

The "impenetrable" panels are about as effective as the concept of law itself; it works as long as there is a cop or someone standing there to enforce it--otherwise criminals with cutting torches ignore it and do what they want.

Our brilliant DPS administrators also figured they could cut a corner and save some money by only placing the panels on the ground can see how well that idea worked. Who would have guessed that scrappers would have access to such things as ladders, or that they would be intelligent enough to use them to go in by way of the second floor?

Navigating my way to the vestibule area at the school's original front entrance, my flashlight beam swept across two beautiful carved stone tablets, one with the seal of the City of Detroit on the left and the seal of the State of Michigan on the right...

It gave me a strange sensation there in the darkness, almost as if I were in some movie scene, exploring an ancient temple of a lost civilization. They had been painted over, but they were still in perfect condition.

I made my way into the rest of the school, which had plenty of natural light coming in.

This was the auditorium I think, though it looks as if it might have been converted over for use as a gym or maybe a library?

A glimpse of old decorative plaster above the dropped ceiling reveals memories of a happier time:

Standing in the former balcony...?

Here's an awfully fancy bulletin board in a hallway upstairs...that's wrought iron (painted blue):

These fancy clocks were one of the signature features of Sherrard School:

Of course they were original to the building, and I'm sure that if they were for sale in some antique store, the price tag would likely say something well north of $200 each.

The gym was interesting, it had a balcony from which you could see outside to the surrounding environs of the industrial Milwaukee Junction neighborhood.

Here, you can see the bulk of the Russell Industrial Complex taking up the horizon:

It puts in perspective just how industrialized Detroit's neighborhoods used to be. This school and many others like it were nestled in the center of the classic Motor City of the 1920s when they were built; the Russell Industrial Complex was originally built as a factory for building Detroit Electrics, an early model of battery powered car, and later it served as a plant for the Murray Body Co.

The legendary Dodge Main plant was not far away, and the Fisher Body plants were close by as well.

Tall narrow windows overlooked the adjacent stairwell, offering a view of the Chrysler Freeway behind the school:

The sad thing about Sherrard, and many other recently abandoned Detroit Public Schools is that it was in very good shape, structurally.

Unfortunately the school system could not afford to hire anyone to guard these vacant structures, so they were stripped of all their metal window frames by scrappers, ensuring that the structure wouldn't stay nice for long.

These corner windows on the third floor were neat:

Here, Breitmeyer School is visible next-door:

Jeffrey Mirel wrote in his seminal book The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System about the Detroit Public Schools, that Sherrard was a “black” school, where black teachers were sent in the mid-1940s as a response to pressure from the community to hire more faculty of color. The DPS increased the number of black teachers from 156 to 286, but they still only comprised 4% of the overall DPS faculty.

In the early 1960s, the Detroit Public School system was embroiled in a series of protests and court cases alleging that white administrators were operating a dual "separate but not equal" school system for whites and blacks by rigging district lines to keep white schools white, and to invest less revenue into the black schools. Mackenzie High School was one of the schools at the epicenter of this student and parent unrest.

Sherrard School was also where Tony Newton went to school, one of the legendary Funk Brothers, who played as anonymous session musicians on all of the Motown Records recordings. Newton played as second bassist on several famous recordings with James Jamerson when he was just 17, including "Nowhere to Run" by Martha & the Vandellas, "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" by The Four Tops, "Baby Love," by The Supremes, and many others. Newton eventually joined the Motown Review European tour in 1965, and played live with The Miracles.

In his autobiography, Tony Newton wrote that he attended Sherrard School, and it was there that he met a girl named McKinley Jackson, a trombonist who went on to become Marvin Gaye's music director, and later arranged for Holland-Dozier-Holland. Newton said he played saxophone in an after-school band with Jackson, a six-piece called The Mount Royal Clefs. Tony Newton also played with John Lee Hooker and other famous Detroit musicians during his career.

All these fine details are in a landfill now:

After I thought I had seen all of the cool surprises that Sherrard had to offer, I stepped out into this courtyard, now hidden from public view by the modern wing of the building that had been added-on in recent years.

It was there that I noticed these little guys:

These stone "grotesques" as they're called, appear to portray academic themes.

Remember, a stone carving of a creature that funnels water from the roof of a building is called a "gargoyle," while any other carving of a living creature that does not serve that practical function is called a "grotesque."

But it doesn't matter because they're in a landfill now.

And since I knew that was going to be the case, I took extra photos of the building's stone and brick details on that freezing cold day...

I want to say this building was undoubtedly designed by the architectural firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls since they designed so many other schools in Detroit during this time period--including the Breitmeyer School next-door, but the book I have cataloguing SH&G's history does not mention Sherrard.

Sherrard School was named after Henry Gray Sherrard, described by Detroit biographer and historian Clarence M. Burton as having been among the most eminent of the city's educators, who specialized in linguistics.

Born in Illinois to a learned father of Irish descent before moving to Brooklyn, Michigan (in the Irish Hills), Henry G. eventually graduated from the University of Michigan in 1882. Sherrard then began teaching Greek and Latin in Detroit, first at Central High School, and later helped found the Detroit University School. Mr. Sherrard was also a member of the National Committee of Twelve on Classical Education.

Burton's glowing eulogy on Mr. Sherrard ran for much longer than the usually allotted length, and included quotations from a former pupil of his that went on to be come principal of Northwestern High School--Edwin L. Miller--who described the man as "a gaunt apparition, over six feet tall, from whom it was well to flee."

Miller went on to describe Henry Sherrard's slave-driving lessons, his utter strictness as a teacher, and his penchant for coming down thunderously on students for sub-par work. "On such occasions he tore his hair, screwed his face up into weird and awful lines, and anathematized our ancestors for bringing into the world a generation of blockheads."

One of Sherrard's methods for terrorizing the children who made mistakes in their drills on the chalkboard was to cross them out by dragging a piece of chalk over it so that it produced a shrill, "blood-curdling" squeak. I guess you would call that "negative reinforcement" nowadays.

Other times, his voice could be heard "for rooms around" as he denounced some slackard for shoddy work. "And yet we all adored him," Miller stated. "Five minutes after he had flayed you, you were again his firm friend...probably marching down the hall arm in arm with him."

Sherrard's name came up again in the book, Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and Turning Points, by Wilma Wood Henrickson, mentioned in a very interesting Chapter Five, an excerpt written by Walter Pitkin that exhibits German culture in Detroit. Walter B. Pitkin (1878-1953) was a prominent American philosopher, educator, and author from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who apparently studied Greek under Mr. Sherrard, and knew the Rickel family of Detroit.

The young Pitkin described spending evenings with "old man Rickel" (proprietor of Rickel Malt Co., one of the main suppliers to the now-defunct Detroit brewing industry), who remarked that it was good Pitkin was studying Greek "under Sherrard," before referring him to a German tutor of his own choosing.

There is more discussion of Mr. Sherrard as a teacher in Pitkin's book On My Own, from which this chapter was excerpted, but sadly I do not own a copy, and it is only partially viewable on Google Books.

After a while of standing in this courtyard I suddenly noticed this item hanging from the tree:

It looks like it might have been a lantern? Makeshift birdhouse?

At the other side of the courtyard was a round stone projection from the building, which I think was actually the principal's office, judging by what papers I remember finding inside:

In December of 2009, Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager of Detroit Public Schools made a speech in front of Sherrard School, saying that,
Vacant schools across Detroit have been blights on the community and safety hazards for far too long... Thanks to the taxpayers of Detroit for supporting Proposal S, we can now move forward with substantially changing the landscape of the city and remove these long-standing eyesores.”

Bobb was quoted by MLive as saying that the 14 schools currently being demolished were the "worst of the worst." It cost the taxpayers $33 million to tear them all down (not including however many millions of dollars were wasted on futilely securing them with VPS panels beforehand).

I don't know about you but I know I certainly can sleep better now, knowing that this disgusting eyesore has been expunged from the landscape once and for all.

The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-81, by Jeffrey Mirel, p. 191
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 3, by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 472-476
Histories of the Public Schools of Detroit, Volume 3, by the Detroit Board of Education, p. 1367
Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and Turning Points, by Wilma Wood Henrickson, p. 106
Gold Thunder: Legendary Adventures of a Motown Bassman, by Tony Newton, p. 28

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