Across the Street

Undoubtedly the main reason that anyone knows about the Emma Thomas School on Detroit's east side is because it sat across the street from the Packard Plant and thus often filled the viewfinder of the typical "urban explorers" who strolled in numbers through the window-filled main corridor of the plant along Concord Street.

These two photos were taken from the third floor of the plant, before and after the school burned.

The school opened in 1906, named after a very influential local woman who had just passed away the year prior, Emma A. Thomas. According to the book Women Music Educators in the United States: A History, Ms. Thomas was the supervisor of music education for Detroit Public Schools, as well as a teacher of vocal culture at the old Detroit Conservatory of Music.

Ms. Thomas was responsible for moving the National Summer School of Music from Chicago to Detroit in 1891. She was also one of the teachers included at the 1893 session held at the Detroit Conservatory; the outgrowth of these summer music classes in Detroit was the founding of the Thomas Normal Training School, directed for many years by Emma Thomas's daughter, Jennie Louise Thomas.

Emma Thomas was also vice president of the National Endowment for the Arts Dept. of Musical Education in both 1898 and 1901, making her one of the first females to hold an office in that organization, author Sondra W. Howe writes. Emma Thomas is mentioned in a litany of other similar books about the history of music education in America, illustrating just how well-remembered she was.

This school is also listed on Marygrove College's excellent "Literary Map of Detroit," by virtue of the fact that it is prominently mentioned in Gloria Whelan's story, The First CityGloria Whelan is a Detroit-born writer of some fame, who wrote a narrative account of living in this neighborhood as a child in the Great Depression when the Packard Plant was booming, and of going to class at Emma Thomas School.
From the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the fate of Detroit’s schools and the fate of Detroit’s automobile factories have been inextricably intertwined. Nowhere is this more apparent than on East Grand Boulevard at Concord Avenue, where the shabby hulks of Emma Thomas School and the Packard Motor Car Company factory stand like monuments to the boom and bust cycle of the city’s industrial history.

Marygrove's webpage says that The First City "captures the intimate—and ambivalent—relationship between the school and the factory," and as the narrator struggles in her new surroundings the two "become symbols for innocence, learning, and the intimidating, malevolent power of the industrial city." The Packard Plant is in fact a central figure in Whelan's story, as well as "an emblem" of the Motor City's "stark and menacing energy"...
I was eight the year we all moved into Detroit and nothing in the city seemed safe or even reasonable to me, least of all the Packard plant ringed round with its snarls and tangles of railway track. We moved to the Boulevard in the heat of summer and the windows of the factory were open so that you could see the blue-green glow of the plant and hear the screams and clank of the machinery. On a hot, windy day you choked on its sulphurous odor. In the music room of my grandparents’ home on Mt. Elliott Street my grandfather had painted a mural of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung.” I was convinced the inside of the factory must be like the cave where the ugly Alberich hammered away in the eerie glow of the flames from his forge.

Thomas Sugrue even draws from Gloria Whelan's portrayal in his Origins of the Urban Crisis, offering this vision of the Packard neighborhood as a portrait of Detroit in its peak years:
At shift change time, the area came to a virtual standstill, as cars, buses, and pedestrians clogged the streets. The whole area was often covered in a grayish haze, a murky combination of pollutants from the factories and car exhaust. Even at night the area bustled...

The narrator of The First City says that on the first day she attended the school she could see "the factory breathing hell fire" from across the street, and noticed that “everything at this school was old or broken,” in comparison to the school she had attended before—
—the drinking fountains gave up only a stingy trickle of water; the desks were gouged and stained; the inkwells had lost their covers; and the window shades, like dried leaves, had thin places through which the light came.
So bewildered by this austere environment, she accidentally leaves school by the wrong door, and finds herself advancing "deeper and deeper into the incomprehensible world of the factory."

The Marygrove article suggests that Whelan is portraying the factory in this way as a sort of metaphor or synecdoche for the industrial city of Detroit itself—"frightening and harsh," but also necessary. "It may be hellish, ugly and sulphurous, but it puts food on the table. The factory is a world of compromise, and the school it looms over bears witness to that lesson." It also seems to be just as austere as the Packard Plant; despite the pleasant trees and homes on the boulevard, the adult realities of Detroit life in the 1930s are portrayed as very harsh through the eyes of a child narrator.

My own visit to the school came as an unexpected choice of change...for so many years we had looked at this school from the windows of the Packard Plant across the street saying that one day we would bother to go over there and check it out. Of course, it was almost a decade before we actually got up the motivation to walk across the street and go inside.

When we finally did so on a whim one day, it was like entering another dimension; I had become so accustomed to experiencing this area from the same side of Concord for so long that when we finally crossed the street it seemed as if we had stepped through a portal to the other side of a mirror.

I could remember back well before this school was burned, before it was even vacant. When I first started exploring the massive Packard Plant, there was even a huge "PACKARD" banner draped over the front of the school (seen in the first photo of this post), and some vehicles were parked outside. Little did I know, this was one of Mr. Cristini's hiding spots before he finally went to jail. It was when he started dealing drugs out of this building and holding raves in the Packard that he was finally pinched.

There was one day where some friends of mine "met" Mr. Cristini, or perhaps one of his cohorts...which is to say, more accurately, that they saw someone standing on the roof of this school with a shotgun, and cocking it so that they could see that it was loaded. Apparently he was not interested in giving any tours of the Packard Plant that day.

Well, ahem...

Emma Thomas School was originally built in direct response to the need for schools in the face of population expansion where Detroit's new automobile manufacturing plants were being built. It was built to accommodate the education of the flourishing immigrant children that were filling up the sprawling neighborhoods of the new city.

Originally a K-8 school, Emma Thomas was changed to a regular elementary school some years later once the DPS began erecting more purpose-built intermediate schools such as Hutchins and Sherrard Schools.

The school closed in the 1970s, after which it eventually became part of the venture known as "Motor City Industrial Complex" at the Packard Plant, and it was occupied by small businesses.

You can see just how closely and how massively the Packard Plant looms across the street from Emma Thomas School, from these photos. In one line from The First City, the narrator's father asks, "I wonder how the children can study with all that noise?"

Emma Thomas School burned around Thanksgiving of 2009. I sort of wish I could have been there to see it from the Packard Plant, as I'm sure the blaze was unreal. The ruined shell stood until 2013 when it was finally bulldozed.

Venturing down into the basement levels, I noticed that the building sat on an all-masonry foundation.

We heard what sounded and smelled like a mall fountain...the loud rushing of water, and the slightly chlorine-scented mist in the thick air told us that a rather large municipal water leak was erupting nearby. Given the fact that the tunnels under the Packard Plant across the street were also basically like a waterslide park unto themselves, this didn't surprise us in the least.

"Hold on a sec, I think I have a paper clip...we can fix this." ;)

Women Music Educators in the United States: A History, by Sondra Wieland Howe, p. 67, 82, 100
History of Public School Music in the United States, by Edward Bailey Birge, p. 135
A Concise History of American Music Education, by Michael Mark, p. 73
Giants of Music Education, by James A. Keene, p. 43
Origins of the Urban Crisis, by Thomas J. Sugrue, p. 125

Haunting the Chapel

I'd been eyeballing this church for a long time since it closed, since I often drive past it on my way to my girlfriend's house (so like, a lot). It is on West Grand Boulevard, just down the road from the Motown Museum.

Not to be confused with Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on Vernor, this church, the Redeemer Episcopal Church, was built at 2746 West Grand Boulevard across from Henry Ford Hospital.

According to Landmarks of Wayne County and Detroit by Robert Budd Ross and George Byron Catlin, this church was originally established in 1888 as the Church of the Redeemer, their first building was at Holden & 5th (Forscythe Ave.), a corner which no longer exists, having been in the path of the Lodge Expressway, which was dug in 1953 or so, taking the church out with it. 

According to the Detroit Historical Society, the intersection of the Lodge and Edsel Ford Expressways (right about where the old church would have stood) was "the first complete interchange between two freeways built in the United States." The congregation was Reformed Episcopal, and one of five churches then in Detroit that was a reformed version of a specific creed.

The Church of the Redeemer had already moved to a new spot long before the freeway was dug however, having erected their second location here at West Grand Boulevard in 1913. That's the smaller brown brick building you see on the right in the previous photo, which according to The American Contractor was designed by architects Stahl & Kinsey.

The most recent congregation to occupy this pair of sanctuaries was the Sweet Home Baptist Church.

A look at the c.1910 Sanborn map of this area shows nothing at the corner of the Boulevard & Sterling, and very few houses built yet. Also, what is now considered the north end of Trumbull was then labelled as Dillon Avenue.

Two years after the church was built Henry Ford Hospital opened here in 1915 on the edge of what would soon become New Center, reflecting the build-up of the area as the booming city of Detroit began sprawling northward. What was then considered the "north end" of the city would quickly be overtaken by the wave of Motor Capitol prosperity, and with the settling of the "Ten Thousand-Acre Tract," found itself designated as the city's "New Center," with new skyscrapers rising just a few blocks east of here.

General Motors built their massive new world headquarters and laboratories in 1922, and the monumental art-deco Fisher Building sprang up in 1928. Lee Plaza was built a little to the west in the same year. Two other historic churches of note in this area that I have explored on previous posts are St. Agnes Catholic ChurchKing Solomon Baptist Church; both of which were also expanding around the same era as the Church of the Redeemer.

This stone building was built in 1924, the Church of the Redeemer's third structure, reflecting the fact that the population of the area was soaring, and required a larger sanctuary to house its burgeoning flock. It also undoubtedly reflects the increased wealth of the newfound church members, since this was a much fancier building, architecturally, than the modest brick church it superseded.

It was designed by Detroit architectural firm George D. Mason & Company.

The Inventory of the Church Archives of Michigan noted in 1940 that the Church of the Redeemer changed its name in 1936, to Redeemer Episcopal Church (actually, it has it down as Redeemer Presbyterian Church, but this might be a typo).

How I ended up inside this well-sealed and well looked-after church at night is a matter of coincidence mostly, one of those things where I just happened to make use of a momentary portal to pop my head in and out briefly before said portal disappeared again. Kind of like Bugs Bunny popping his head out of the ground, looking for Albuquerque.

Coming up into the loft, I was stunned by the inadvertent beauty of divided streetlight being somehow prismatically cast in multiple hues upon the opposite wall. And thankfully I actually had my mini-tripod with me, so I sat down and made a novice effort at capturing it since my more professional partners had actually not brought any of their gear...

...I guess lugging around 40lb vintage accordion cameras and the practical meth-lab setup required to do collodion process glass plate photography on the street does get burdensome after awhile, especially when getting in here involved such filthy acrobatics.

A view across the street to the massive Henry Ford Hospital:

The hospital has its own police authority, who I know from experience actively patrol areas of the city beyond the hospital grounds, so stealth was key.

I have a feeling that this church may have had real stained-glass windows at one point, and that these are cheap replacement windows that were put in during the 1950s or whenever the original congregation moved on. Those in turn must have been replaced with the clear plexiglass panes, as the colored ones were lost to damage.

A little "flashlight-painting" here during my long exposure brought out the details of the ceiling beams adequately enough:

An organ console up next to the altar:

Looking from the altar to the rear of the sanctuary, while doing more flashlight-painting:

As you can see, the beginnings of water damage are already starting to take effect.

With some of these shots I really had a hard time Photoshopping / auto-correcting the originals...even though they are dark, I think they lost something when they were lightened.

This next one was some handheld cowboy sh*t, since I was getting too lazy to worry about figuring out how and where to set up my mini tripod...but I like the composition so much I'm willing to deal with the blurriness and graininess. Anytime you can fit the Fisher Building into a shot is a win:

...also seen there is that strange, recently-demolished coney island / apartment building with the tall three-story Greek columns on the front of it.

As a matter of fact that building, and both of these churches were demolished by the close of 2016, with Henry Ford Hospital planning to use all of this land for a huge new cancer center. The rumor I heard was that the facade of the bigger stone church is going to be deconstructed and re-incorporated into the new development.

Moving over to the older brick church structure, we found what looked to be a day care center, lately known as the "Sweet Home Academy."

Aside from the gothic-arched windows and door, the interior of this structure certainly didn't look anything like a church anymore, having probably been heavily modified to be used as a parish house after the big stone church was completed in 1924.

Oh for god's sake...yet another abandoned Detroit house--in the stairwell even!

Somebody call the Blight Busters, or the Land Bank or something.

Landmarks of Wayne County and Detroit, by Robert Budd Ross, George Byron Catlin, p. 532
Perry's Guide of Detroit and Suburbs (1917), by E.A. Sauer and C. M. Perry p. 190
The American Contractor, Volume 34 (March 22, 1913), p. 76
Inventory of the Church Archives of Michigan, by the Michigan Historical Records Survey Project (1940), p. 44
Sanborn map for Detroit, Volume 6, Sheet 29 (1910)