"Doing Her Part in the World's Work"

In September of 2013 my girl and I went to a pipe organ concert at the chapel of historic Marygrove College, whose campus is located in northwest Detroit at McNichols & Wyoming Avenue. Marygrove just announced that it is finally closing its doors after 92 years, so I figured I would share my photos of wandering the building that day.

The good news is that while Marygrove College is closing forever, the campus and historic buildings already have a solid reuse plan in the works, as I will explain.

This 53-acre campus in Detroit was established in 1927, but the college was founded in 1905 by the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) to provide college education for women, "long before it was fashionable." The IHM sisters began in 1845 in Monroe, Michigan (a small port town to the south of Detroit) when three nuns were invited to Monroe by a Belgian missionary, Father Louis Florent Gillet. Their initial foray into offering education for women began as the St. Mary Academy in 1846, and Marygrove College is one of its direct offspring. The academy in Monroe expanded and eventually realized in the 1920s that a move to Detroit would be prudent.

The Detroit campus was designed by Oscar D. Bohlen, an Indiana-based architect (which might explain all the Indiana limestone), and was built from 1925 to 1927. It is worth noting that Marygrove is not featured in the American Institute of Architects' Guide to Detroit Architecture, which I suppose goes to show the surplus of fine buildings we have here in town. The college is also not protected by any city, state, or national historic registers or district designations.

Marygrove's first president was Dr. George Hermann Derry—he was the first layman to ever be at the head of a Catholic women's college. For decades the college went on to earn a reputation for excellence, and alongside standard academics it maintained a focus on the importance of social reform, educational justice, and community outreach. According to marygrove.edu, by the early 1950s, two-thirds of the students were involved in volunteer service programs, for which the college received several national awards.

The college's own history states that President Derry encouraged its female students to "look beyond the prospect of eventual marriage" and to become capable of "doing her part in the world's work in whatever sphere of life she may be placed." By 1936, the college catalog spoke with even more emphasis on female independence.

Marygrove also pushed legislative support for the Michigan Tuition Grant Program. The program began in 1966 and was the first to provide state grant money to students who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend a private college.

With the outbreak of the 1967 Riot / Rebellion, Marygrove suddenly became aware of its own insularity to the changing community. In response, they initiated the “68 for '68” recruitment program, designed to attract 68 additional black students for the coming 1968 semester. It offered one scholarship to a senior from every public high school in Detroit, and also reached into the parochial schools of Detroit and even Philadelphia. 

By 1968, 25% of Marygrove's 260 freshmen class were black, which more closely reflected the demographics of the surrounding area. It is also worth noting that after the 1967 Riot, great numbers of Detroit's Catholic population began to move out of the city for the suburbs, which resulted in lowered enrollment among whites.

By the 1970s the college also opened its doors to male students. Marygrove was undergoing financial difficulties by that time, and faced recommendations that it should move to the suburbs where it would be more prosperous. Marygrove rejected these recommendations and instead rededicated itself to Detroit's urban core. The college's financial outlook improved through the 1980s and 1990s.

In August 2017, the school abruptly announced that it would close its undergraduate program, and only offer graduate study. Since the Great Recession it had been under financial strain again for awhile, due to declining enrollment. At that time it had 285 undergraduate and 427 graduate students. Again a drive was initiated to boost enrollment at the school, which included a strong media advertising campaign. Billboards and commercials spread little Marygrove's name into the world like never before, but in an era of mega-colleges like University of Phoenix were competing for sacred tuition dollars across the entire nation, this little school tucked into Detroit's outskirts was up against Goliath.

Here is what looked like a library, but it was locked so I fired a couple photos through the window:

It is also worth noting that Marygrove College is just down the street from University of Detroit Mercy—another historic Catholic college. In fact, they are so close together that I sometimes mix them up in my head. And of course there are Wayne State University and Wayne County Community College downtown, not to mention the plethora of other colleges and universities in the Metro-Detroit region.

As of 2019 when the announcement to close Marygrove was made, a mere 305 students walked its cavernous halls.

An article at insidehighered.com says that Marygrove is at least the fifth private, nonprofit college in America to announce its closure this year alone, and that's not counting ones that have merged. "The closure provides some new perspective on the struggles of both small private colleges and Roman Catholic institutions, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast," the article claimed.

That is, all is not lost, since a new partnership is set to take over old Marygrove completely:
In addition to radically revamping program offerings, Marygrove leaders sought to transform the college’s 53-acre campus into a “cradle-to-career” site that would host education at levels ranging from preschool to graduate. The City of Detroit, the University of Michigan, Detroit Public Schools Community District, a developer and other nonprofit organizations are involved in the effort, called one of the first “P-20” partnerships in the country. A Michigan-based foundation, the Kresge Foundation, committed $50 million, including money to stabilize Marygrove and restructure its debt. 
The Marygrove Conservancy was created to manage and preserve the campus. Plans for the cradle-to-career campus will continue, the conservancy said Wednesday. 
A new public school, a ninth-grade academy, is scheduled to open with 120 students in September, with a grade expected to be added each year until all grades K-12 are offered. The University of Michigan plans to launch a teacher residency program modeled after physician training programs. A new early childhood education center is expected. With the new school, the campus is projected to serve over 1,000 children, largely from surrounding neighborhoods.

There are also discussions ongoing with other institutions that may take on Marygrove’s programs, and they have already entered into a teach-out agreement with Oakland University in the suburb of Rochester.

Marygrove President Dr. Elizabeth Burns told Model D that "It's a big leap... The hope is that this is going to become an educational model that can be used in urban areas throughout the country."

We wandered the campus a bit before going home on this forlorn, rainy day. Among the many statues to be found on campus, there was one commemorated to Madame Cadillac, wife of Detroit's founder Antoine Cadillac. She became the first white girl in the D when he sent for her from Montreal.

This one however was “Our Lady of Marygrove”:

The old front gate, facing McNichols Avenue:

A view of the chapel, where we heard the pipe organ concert:

Let's hope the new chapter for Marygrove is at least as prosperous as the last one.


Second Chance

December 2011.

The City of Detroit announced in late 2011 that four neighborhood library branches would be closing permanently as a result of budget cuts, just two years before it declared bankruptcy. Two of them were historic and architecturally significant, so I decided to go hang out there a bit and get some photos while they still had the lights on. One was the Gabriel Richard Branch Library (which I wrote about in my previous post), and the other was the John Monteith Branch Library on the east side at 14100 Kercheval:

I figured it might be morbidly funny to go in there and try to pick out which patrons are actually scrappers casing the joint while pretending to read Dick & Jane.

Like the Gabriel Richard Branch, the Monteith Branch was scheduled to be abandoned in December, 2011, but much to my surprise there was a happier ending in store for this building—it reopened a month later, in January 2012. Apparently the community came together to oppose the closure, and the library reopened, albeit only on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The Monteith Branch Library was dedicated in May of 1926 and was designed by the local architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. The building is of granite, and features many stone carvings and stained glass windows. I am not sure which exact architect, stone carver, or stained glass company executed the work on this building. There is little to be found online regarding the construction of this building, and surprisingly even my colleague Benjamin Gravel did not have more info.

This carved stone element depicts a scholar hard at work studying a book with his glasses:

Reverend Monteith was a contemporary of Fr. Richard—his Presbyterian counterpart, in effect. Both came to Michigan as religious missionaries and educators, and both went down in Detroit history as great men of the early years.

Although Detroit was still mostly a French-Catholic town under American governance in the early 1800s, many Protestants were beginning to flood into the region, and they begged Fr. Richard to minister to them, even though he was a Catholic. Since there was no Protestant clergy available Fr. Richard agreed, but he soon grew tired of all the extra work this entailed, so he wrote to the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey to see if they would send a new graduate out to minister to the Protestants in Michigan. Reverend John Monteith arrived in Detroit shortly thereafter to answer the call. 

Along with Fr. Richard, Judge Woodward, and William Woodbridge, Monteith helped found the Catholepistemiad of Michigania in 1817, which became the University of Michigan. They devised an educational plan for the Michigan Territory modeled on the University of France. According to U of M's own website, John Monteith was named its first president, and their first building was constructed in Detroit on Bates Street near Congress in 1818. Monteith also supervised the building of the First Protestant Church in Detroit, in 1820.

Like his Catholic counterpart Fr. Gabriel Richard Rev. John Monteith was a lover of books, and once declared at a town meeting that Detroit needed a public library, at a time when most of the existing books available in the city were printed in French. According to John Monteith, First President of the University of Michigan, by Roscoe Osmond Bonisteel, Monteith was influential in organizing the City Library Society of Detroit, which was incorporated in 1817 by the same act that began the Catholepistemiad. Monteith wrote its constitution and was elected librarian.

Monteith raised $450 through the sale of shares in the City Library Society and then rode across Canada on horseback to New York, where he purchased about 300 books at auction, as well as $146 worth of Bibles from the American Bible Society, forming the nucleus of the first Detroit library on May 5, 1817. What a badass nerd.

Monteith also stopped in Germantown, Pennsylvania on his way back and visited Eli Whitney's shop, where he learned of the principles of mechanized mass production, and interchangeable parts. As fate would have it the first bookstore in Detroit would also open later that summer, in July 1817, under the proprietorship of John P. Sheldon and Ebenezer Reed.

Maybe the U of M party scene was too much of a sausagefest for Monteith's liking, because he left Michigan in the early 1820s to marry an Ohio woman and to teach in Germantown, where he also became an outspoken abolitionist. Monteith did return to Michigan later—aboard the newfangled steamer Walk-in-the-Water, no less—and subsequently became a Presbyterian minister in Blissfield, near the Ohio border in 1845. He died in 1868.

According to the Michigan Library Bulletin of May-June 1926, the John Monteith Regional Branch Library was the seventeenth branch of the Detroit Public Library to be housed in a building of its own, and had space for up to 50,000 volumes. The entire second floor was for boys and girls while the main floor was for adults.

The original light fixtures can be seen here:

Image from Michigan Library Bulletin, via Google Books
In the course of my online research for this building, I came across an impassioned message board post on detroityes.com by member "ronaldj." He noted that the second floor Children's Room with its Pewabic tile adorned fireplace was recently refurbished by the Junior League of Detroit to include new furniture, and leaded glass doors commemorating their partnership with the library. The room "hosts a variety of children's programs and is available to the community as a meeting space." Unfortunately the room was off limits during my visit.

The ends of the decorative wooden trusses are supported by stone corbels:

Ronaldj pointed out that the corbels are carved into motifs representing Michigan's three main historic industries: fur trading, logging, and automobiles.

Despite the lack of people in most of these photos, there were actually plenty of patrons during both of my visits; I merely waited for people to get out of my way before I shot.

Ronaldj wrote that the Monteith was the largest of Detroit's branch libraries, and was the first to be designed according to a regional plan. The idea of the regional plan was to get ahead of the development wave of Detroit's rapidly expanding borders in the 1920s; a larger library on the outskirts could serve a larger area. Monteith's service area was about five miles in diameter, extending from the riverfront to Mack Avenue and from Connor to Alter Road, including much of what had been the Village of Fairview, prior to Detroit's annexation of the area.

Ronaldj also wrote a letter to the library commissioners opposing the closure of the branch on behalf of the Village of Fairview Historical Society, "a registered 501c3 organization dedicated to preserving our physical heritage and history of our eastside." He said,
The Village of Fairview existed from 1903 to 1907. It encompassed the area of Bewick to Cadieux, the Detroit River to Mack. In 1907, the city of Detroit annexed 1/2 of Fairview under suspicious circumstances. Specifically, Bewick to Alter with the remainder becoming the Village of Grosse Pointe Park, later to become a city. Residents hostile to this annexation continued to list in church and other registers that they lived in Fairview as late as 1936. Consequently we hold Monteith Library, built 1926, as part of our Fairview saga.

He goes on,
Monteith Library was the hub of the neighborhood for the depression years providing education, elegance, peace, and tranquility during that terrible time. Today mirrors the tragedy of those times. Monteith is a beacon of light and an important pulse in this community. Many who find haven there never take out a book or video. To take a body count while considering its fate would be a great injustice. It is structurally, educationally, and emotionally very significant to our community.

The stained glass medallions in the large bay window trace the history of the book, and the printing press.

Here is Gutenberg and his printing press:

Notice the medallion on the left depicts the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

And no, it's not quite the same thing as the Necronomicon seen in the Evil Dead movies produced by famous Detroit-area filmmaker Sam Raimi...

I think this next one may commemorate the first book printed in Michigan, on Fr. Richard's printing press in 1809:

One has a few broken panes...

Like Fr. Richard's personal library the book collection of Rev. Monteith still exists, and is housed in the Michigan Historical Collections at the University of Michigan. I hope that our society will not lose sight of the crucial role that books, public libraries, and physical architecture play in the upholding and advancement of civilization—even in the digital era. Rather than be listed in the Book of the Dead, this one got a second chance.

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

John Monteith, First President of the University of Michigan, by Roscoe Osmond Bonisteel, p. 15
Michigan Library Bulletin, Volume 17, No. 3, p. 91, 98
Michigan Library Bulletin, Volumes 19-20, p. 168
Libraries, Volume 31 (1926), by Mary Eileen Ahern, Library Bureau of Chicago, p. 495
"Let's Practice What They Preached," Detroit Free Press, February 14, 1954, p. 2B
Intellectual Life on the Michigan Frontier: The Libraries of Gabriel Richard and John Monteith, edited by Leonard A. Coombs, Francis X. Blouin, p. 211-215
Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls, 125 Years of Architecture and Engineering, 1853-1978, by Thomas J. Holleman & James P. Gallagher, p. 130-133

We Look To Better Things

December 2011.

The City of Detroit announced in late 2011 that four neighborhood library branches would be closing permanently as a result of budget cuts, just two years before it declared bankruptcy. Two of them were historic and architecturally significant, so I decided to go hang out there a bit and get some photos before they were destroyed. One was the Gabriel Richard Branch Library, and the other was the Monteith Branch Library.

This is the Gabriel Richard Branch, at 9876 Grand River Avenue. It made a great place to get some work done on my writing projects. As a lifelong bibliophile, I can scarcely form into words how angry and sad it made me that these libraries were closing, but by 2011 I was reaching middle age and was pretty much resigned to the realities occurring in this region; it had been a long time since anything had shocked me. I was just content for the moment to sit and enjoy them while they were still around. This library will be 100 years old if it manages to stick around until 2023. Hopefully the current trend toward improvement in Detroit will continue long enough to reach places like this, way outside the Midtown bubble.

It opened in February of 1923 and was designed by one of my favorite Detroit architects, Marcus R. Burrowes, and his partner Frank Eurich, Jr. They designed three other libraries for the Detroit Public Library (DPL) system as well—the Parkman Branch, the Redford Branch, the Duffield Branch—and they also had a hand in the design of the McGregor Library in Highland Park. You may recall I wrote about exploring Marcus Burrowes' vacant former house in an older post.

The public library system in Detroit dates back to 1865, but it was pretty limited until 1910 when it received a grant of $750,000 from the Carnegie Foundation to fund the proliferation of libraries. Half of the grant was earmarked to build the Main Branch Library on Woodward downtown, while the other half was to be used for constructing eight branch libraries: the Bowen, Conely, Duffield, Ginsburg, Butzel, Lothrop, Osius, and Utley branches. Only the first four of those remain in use as libraries today; the Butzel, Lothrop, Osius branches have been demolished, and the Utley remains in use as a family center.

The speech given at the opening ceremony of this library on April 23, 1923 told the story of its namesake, Father Gabriel Richard, one of the greatest forefathers that Detroit or Michigan ever had. Some say he was the "second founder" of Detroit. He was not some great rich white landowner like most of America's celebrated historic figures, but a humble servant of the people. As a matter of fact, historian Clarence Burton wrote that the first suggestion for establishing a public library in Detroit was at the behest of Fr. Gabriel Richard in 1808, when he was serving as a priest at Sainte Anne's Church.

A member of the Sulpician Order sent from France, Fr. Richard narrowly escaped le guillotine during the French Revolution, probably on account of the long lines, and came to United States in 1792. He arrived in Detroit in 1798 to replace the aging Fr. Levadoux as the pastor of Ste. Anne's Church (just before the church and the city were to celebrate their 100th birthday). Despite being a Catholic, Fr. Richard ministered to all Detroiters, including protestants and native tribesmen.

Fr. Richard was a writer, orator, composer of music, a mathematician, and a teacher of teachers; teachers who then went forth into the region to spread education. He brought the first printing press to the Northwest Territory in 1809, and founded the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies, Essai du Michigan, or The Impartial Observer. Then he began printing textbooks for educating the children of the frontier. It was Fr. Richard who first proposed that a free public school system be established in Michigan. He established a school at the Spring Hill farm, where he taught Native American and white children together, "to break down racial barriers." It stood very near to where the army later built Fort Wayne on the Detroit River.

After the Fire of 1805 that destroyed the city, he was the one who coined Detroit's famous motto as he rallied the people for the rebuilding process: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus / We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”

Even though he escaped the guillotine back home in France, Fr. Richard was imprisoned in Canada when Detroit was captured by the British in the War of 1812. After the war, along with Rev. John Monteith and Judge Woodward he founded the University of Michigan in 1817, which they called the Catholepistemiad.

Reverend Monteith (namesake of the other library that was closing, ironically) was a contemporary of Fr. Richard—his Presbyterian counterpart, in effect. Both came to Michigan as religious missionaries and educators, and both went down in Detroit history as great men of the early years. Guess what, my next post will be about the Monteith Branch Library, and will focus on him.

Anyway, in 1823 Fr. Richard was elected to be the third delegate sent to U.S. Congress from the Michigan Territory. He authored legislation in Washington D.C. to provide for improvements to the territory such as building the military plank road that became Grand River Avenue—the same road that this library is situated upon today. He was also responsible for promoting the construction of the Chicago Road (Michigan Avenue / US-12), and in fact it was his legislation that served as the genesis of Michigan's highway system.

There are many things that have been named after Father Richard, such as the Hubbard-Richard neighborhood where Ste. Anne's is located, at least four schools in the Metro-Detroit region, a church on the University of Michigan Dearborn campus (located on Monteith Boulevard), a mural in the old Greyhound bus terminal, and Gabriel Richard Park near the Belle Isle Bridge, where there is also a statue of him.

By the way, in case you've been saying it wrong all these years, his last name is pronounced "Ree-SHARD," the French way of course.

This marble tablet was placed by the Knights of Columbus, and commemorates his accomplishments:

Fr. Richard died in 1832 while he was tending to the victims of the cholera epidemic that overran the city, and digging graves for them. Big surprise, he managed to catch the disease himself. His funeral mass was said by Father Baraga, another missionary priest known for his work in the Upper Peninsula. He lies interred in his sarcophagus at Ste. Anne's to this day, which you can go see in the chapel behind the altar. It's kinda crazy to see.

Anyway, when he died his personal book collection became part of, I believe, Detroit's first library; although the DPL system did not officially come about until 1865, the City Library Society of Detroit was incorporated in 1817 by the same act that began the Catholepistemiad. Today Fr. Richard's personal collection has been divided up amongst the Cardinal Szoka Library of the Sacred Heart Seminary out in the suburb of Plymouth, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Archdiocese of Detroit, and the Detroit Public Library's Burton Collection.

When I heard that the DPL was thinking about closing this library, I began hanging out there to do my reading and studying work, even though it was not in my immediate area. Normally the branch libraries I use are the Bowen, Duffield, and Conely, since they are closest to the places I have lived or worked (when I need to do serious research I go downtown).

So for that one winter I made an effort to spend as much time at the Richard Branch as possible before it closed, knowing that it would probably one day be scrapped and demolished like the Mark Twain and Lothrop Branches. I always sat under the huge bay of leaded glass windows. About 2pm every day, the sun spilled in and made the spot a very nice place to sit and soak in much-needed wintertime warmth.

Though I realized quickly that this large bank of windows was designed before computers, or computer screens—or any screens for that matter—and certainly before the advent of the matte-finished anti-glare screen. I hate the glossy screen on my current computer. If I wanted to look at a reflection of myself while I am typing, I would have mounted a rearview mirror on my laptop lid.

Anyway, when this building was built, it was for book reading only, hence the big sunny windows...there is nothing better than reading a good book in a nice warm sunbeam. (Unless maybe it's hiding under the covers and sneaking in some reading after your bedtime).

After dark, when the cold wind picked up, I could hear the myriad little rectangular plates of glass quaintly clicking and rattling in their places with each stiff breeze, and the creaking of the wooden roof as it flexed like the hull of an old sailing ship. This building was showing its age, but still in outstanding shape overall. It's got a very nice new roof on it too. If I were rich I would not hesitate to buy it from the city.

There was an article at americanlibrariesmagazine.org looking at whether the recent phenomenon of the "little free libraries" that have been popping up next to bus stops all over Detroit and other cities has been having an effect on peoples' usage of public libraries. It also said that when the Gabriel Richard Library closed in 2011, some local 4th graders installed a colorfully painted bookcase in front of the defunct building to serve as a surrogate library. Isn't that just the saddest damned thing you ever heard of?

Minutes from the Detroit Library Commission Proceedings for November of 2018 indicate that they are currently looking to market the Gabriel Richard Branch for sale through a real estate broker.

Detroit Historical Monthly, Volume 1, No. 4 (June 1923)
Detroit Library Commission Proceedings, Regular Meeting November 20, 2018, p. 8
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 1, edited by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 834
Marcus Burrowes (1874-1953): English Revival Architect, by Jean M. Fox, p. 15-16
Library Buildings: Their Planning and Equipment (1929), by Philip John Turner, p. 9