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 was forced into "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 improving old buildings in Detroit will continue long enough to reach places like this, way outside the Midtown™ bubble...but the with the way trickle-down Dugganomics seem to be working, it's not looking good for the libraries or neighborhoods.

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 the 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 just to keep it open.

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

Who Own da Chiefs?

December 2013.

Around Christmas every year my Canadian buddy Navi always comes back to town, so Chisel and I usually go on some sort of mission with him somewhere. There was not much on the menu in Detroit at the time, so we decided to head out to Port Huron to see about the ruins of a half-built hockey rink, the abandoned Marysville Powerplant, and take a drive around Harsens Island. 

This time things are going to be a bit reversed, with me copying off Navi to write my post about a certain spot, instead of vice-versa. Normally my turn-around time on writing about our explores is much quicker than his. Clearly, this is an exhibit of priorities (re: abandoned minor league hockey rinks in suburban locations).

Unfortunately we didn't think to bring our ice skates, despite the fact that we were going to drive an hour to go see an abandoned ice rink... The snow currently covered the surface, but underneath it obscured a frozen pond where the rink was to be. This was especially dumb considering that it was us who came up with the idea of an "Urbex Hockey League" back in 2006. This was practically the five-year anniversary in fact, and the frigid temps proved it.

Navi says that Port Huron still uses its antiquated, half-century-old McMorran Arena downtown, which I guess makes it a rarity in this era of tearing down "outdated" arenas and dumping tons of taxpayer money onto private billionaire developers to build a new one every 10 years or so. It's a racket. The owner of the Port Huron Border Cats hockey team, Mr. Mostafa Afr, was the same guy who tried to build this failed project here. 

Mr. Afr bought the team and started construction on Kimball Arena in 1999 to replace the old McMorran Arena. McMorran was built in 1960 and was designed by renowned Michigan architect Alden B. Dow, in the heart of downtown Port Huron.

Sure, as Navi pointed out, it probably has poorly distributed heat, hard chairs and a dull Midcentury-era lack of sparkle compared to the glassy new suburban-style megaplexes that every other no-name Midwestern city is building, but god dammit isn't hard chairs and inadequate heating what going to see hockey is all about?

If you wanted all that modern comfort you would just stay at home in front of your TV like a good, docile American, right? The only problem is that even if you are doing your patriotic duty of remaining on your couch and watching commercials, rich developers can't make money off of you, which is another of the basic tenets of 'Murcanism...what a dilemma!

So there has to be a compromise somewhere, meaning that Mr. Afr was going to bring the hockey out of that musty old downtown arena with its minuscule 20-acre parking lot and right into your suburban lap, with its own freeway exit, every intention of paving-over critical wetlands, and $9 Coors Lites. Don't worry, there will still be plenty of advertising for you to look at (and hear).

Maybe in a couple years we will tear it down and build an even newer arena where you can just drive your car right inside to watch the game instead of sitting in seats and having to be close to other humans—peak 'Murcanism! Then we can just fire the whole hockey team and hook you up to a bunch of hoses and wires that will blast junk food into all your orifices and pervade all your senses with hyper-advertising.

"Owns, OWWWWNS!"

But the project fell apart in the summer of 2000—most likely because the taxpayers didn't do their part by heaping enough tribute money before the altar of development. Shame on you, Port Huron, you have angered the gods of Capitalism! Now you must suffer the barbaric penalty—thirteen years of attractive nuisance!

Originally intended to be the centerpiece of a $200 million entertainment complex, according to Navi the Kimball Arena was planned to include five recreational hockey rinks, a golf course, and at least two restaurants, but instead it sat half-built from 2000 to 2014 making it a teenage hangout for bonfires, vandalism, and the reckless use of motorized vehicles, resulting in a litany of police headaches.

But like Navi I agree that every town needs some sort of unregulated place for kids to go buck wild, drink Boone's Farm, burn shit, and spray-paint pot leaves on stuff. How else will your kids grow up to be like me—disenchanted, sarcastic nay-sayers with unhealthy infatuations for abandoned buildings, and terminal asbestosis? Answer me that, Port Huron...answer me that.

He elucidates,
Even when you have something simple like a shack in the woods or an old bunker, it will grow in legend and find itself remembered with nostalgia in later years. I find it funny that the next group of Port Huroners will hear stories of the half-completed arena where their older brother/sister, uncle or cousin used to skateboard and party, while in modern day they drive by an inconspicuous marshy field out in Kimball Township, next to some suburban strip mall.
Indeed, such is how I ended up here; when I was a kid the suburban screw-off spot was the legendary "Northville Tunnels," an abandoned mental institution that lived large in Metro-Detroit teenage lore for two generations.

In an interview with The Times Herald during demolition of the arena ruins, Kimball Township Supervisor Rob Usakowski even said that people had been coming up to him and asking why he was demolishing "their" place. LOL!

Navi also pointed out that despite the Kimball Arena falling into oblivion, its spirit yet lives on in the form of another hockey rink back in his hometown of Windsor, across the river from Detroit. The WFCU Center was built in 2006 off of the same plans that were intended for the Kimball Arena, and some of the unused construction materials that were supposed to be used to build it were instead used to build the rink in Windsor.

I however suspect international espionage to be the culprit here; clearly we need Trump to build a wall along the Michigan-Canadian border to keep those beady-eyed frostbacks from stealing any more of our arena blueprints! Navi probably aided these terrorists in their plot, which makes me an accessory, so I should probably turn him in to Homeland Security...

Speaking of reckless use of motorized vehicles...

Hey Beavith, you wanna like, uhhh, go to that one plathe with all the dirt and like, drive around in thircles and thniff glue? Yeah yeah, uhuhhhhuhuhh, uhuhuhuhhuh, hhuhhuhuhhhuh...cool.

Navi continued to grouse about the scourge of modern, corporate hockey rinks, opining that not only do they sport the blandest, cheapest construction, but they also contribute to sprawl because the new "city" builds a four-ice-pad cookie-cutter rink design, causing four awesome old rinks situated right in neighbourhoods to become obsolete overnight.

He lamented that people don't appreciate the character of the older rinks, even if they are a bit less commodious or glamorous, sneering, "nowadays the new rinks are all the same, something like the bastard lovechild of an operating theatre and a suburban mall."

LOL, I never knew Navi was so dark...apparently even the politest of Canadians have a sardonic streak in them. Hockey's serious business over there, eh?

There was a good overview of the arena structure from the second level:

This place was admittedly kind of abstract and cool to wander around in for a bit.

I definitely would have attended a bonfire here.

The Stonehenge of Port Huron...

Afterward, we attempted to go take a drive around Harsens Island, since I had heard of an old abandoned Boy Scout camp there. When we attempted to get on the ferryboat however the ticket-taker waved us off, saying that the ice was getting too heavy and that the boat would not be returning to the mainland after this trip.

I did eventually get to explore on Harsens Island...stay tuned for that post sometime in the future.

So then we drove by the "Mighty Marysville" powerplant, one of the oldest operating coal-fired powerplants in the U.S. when it shut down in 2012. Our buddy Sloop had already clapped his hungry eyes on Marysville Power by then, since he's fished these waters for years.

Marysville was absolutely gargantuan, and to think we might have the chance to explore it soon was tantalizing (but for the hour-long drive from Detroit, making recon impractical).

It sort of resembles the Battersea Powerplant that everybody knows from the Pink Floyd album cover. It actually stands on the spot where a sawmill stood back in the year 1690...both the sawmill and this powerplant utilized the Bunce Creek, which empties into the St. Clair River on this spot.

The powerplant was built in 1914 by Detroit Edison and expanded through the 1920s and 1940s. It was decommissioned in 2012, but it wasn't until late 2013 that plans for demolition were announced, making it a race against the clock to get inside this behemoth.

I have been in some gigantic abandoned powerplants, but this one promised to be the biggest. It was on par with the iconic Ford Rouge powerplant back home.

By early 2015, demolition had already begun, but the largest portion was scheduled to be imploded. Fortunately that was delayed, allowing me one last window of opportunity.

Since all the land-based approaches to the plant were either protected or too easily monitored by the security guards and surveillance cameras, I waited until the infamously cold winter of 2014-2015 froze the surface of the river, and I attempted a water-borne approach.

Knowing that the St. Clair River is just as big and strong as the Detroit River I was pretty nervous about the idea, since the strong currents rarely allow ice to even form, let alone stay in one place long enough for it to be safe enough to walk on.  

Let us suffice it to say that it is never "safe" to walk on, but with all the icebergs from Lake Huron pressed together and solidified like concrete, I figured I had a fair chance of survival despite all the other hazards.

These December 2013 photos show a moving river that had not yet frozen, but I took this opportunity to preview my course.

I tried it one zero-degree night in February 2015, waiting until the wee hours to approach, hopping over the railing into the river. I had my snowshoes with me, to traverse the deep snow in several spots along the shore.

It was a lot slower going than I had predicted. Clambering through all this crap left me wondering if I would have enough energy left to explore the powerplant once I got there...

I had stayed near the shore where the heavier ice-pack was, too afraid to go out into the middle of the river where it was probably much, much weaker. I was feeling the same heightened nervous sense, and adrenaline-stomach that I had going during my much more daring Turtle Island mission.

It probably took me three hours to traverse the entire distance from where I parked to where I could finally climb up on land behind the powerplant.

Once I was within striking distance of the plant's perimeter I realized that a surveillance camera was watching this area as well, and I would have to cross right through this broad, well-lit, open ground to enter the structure—leaving deep footprints in the snow the whole way...

This wasn't how I wanted the mission to end, but I knew that chances for avoiding detection were essentially nil, and that I would have little chance of waiting-out the authorities if I made it inside. Part of the reason for the heightened security was due to the fact that certain other local explorers had been careless enough to leave their footprints in the snow here lately, all of which were subsequently found by the security guards. As a result the guards now made more frequent, more vigilant patrols. After I sat here for awhile monitoring the scene, I saw one of their cars moving around behind the plant. Clearly this was a bust, and I had a long trek back to the car—followed by a long drive back to Detroit. "Mighty Marysville" was imploded a few months later, in November of 2015.