Celebrating The History of Detroit Through Design

5 min read

As the City of Detroit continues down the path of redevelopment, there is a growing concern that history may be lost amongst the blooms of new growth. As Detroit moves forward, the architecture of its past must be preserved so that residents of today and generations to come will understand the historical significance of sites undergoing redevelopment. This preservation will be beneficial for residents and give meaning to the new growth, which will tie the past into the future.

Major cultural landmarks such as schools, arenas, factories as well as entire neighborhoods are being redeveloped. This dramatic change is positive; yet there is a desire to honor the past and a strong sense of nostalgia from local residents. A few recent projects completed by PEA celebrate Detroit history while offering a completely new land use.

Former Redford High School

Design treatments at the former Redford High School represents a fine example of celebrating the historic use of a site. Redford High School was opened in 1921 and served Detroit until 2007 when it was closed due to financial hardship in the school district. This high school was once considered “The jewel of the district,” by Charles Pratt of the Detroit Free Press. Many alumni and local residents were dismayed by the closure. In 2012, the building was demolished to make place for a new Meijer store. Despite the great need in the community for new retail and grocery services that Meijer provided, there was still a sense of loss in the community when the school building was razed.

To celebrate the history of the site, the landscape architects on the Meijer project researched the available relicts from the former school building and were able to incorporate numerous artifacts into the site design to acknowledge the historic use of the property:

  • The sign that stood over the high school’s main entrance for 91 years was incorporated into wall within a plaza serving as a pocket park for the surrounding residential community.
  • Chevron panels that were familiar details on the old school to local residents were incorporated into ornamental piers surrounding the property and are now highly visible elements of the new Meijer site.
  • A prominent new plaza along Grand River Avenue has a commemorative sign that once stood in the former school lobby. The sign now marks the historic use of the site, while the plaza provides a public space and a much-needed new bus stop.

Shortly after the project was completed, project designers witnessed Redford High School alumni taking self-photos backdropped by the old school sign. This memorable, school remnant gives the new development a sense of historic importance valued by local residents.

For More Information

Jeff Smith, PLA
Director of Landscape Architecture

Other creative site development projects in Detroit, highlighting historic events include:

Fort Street Bridge Park Project

The Fort Street Bridge in southwest Detroit, where 5 people lost their lives during the 1932 Hunger March, has long been a symbol of the community’s past struggles to gain better working conditions. Bridge updates include:

  • In 2014, the bridge was removed and replaced with a modern structure, yet a design for a new plaza at the foot of the bridge not only incorporates relics from the bridge itself, including steel bracing and gears, but it offers interpretive signage that will honor the history of the former bridge and tell the story of the Hunger March for generations to come.

Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD)

A conceptual design for a new plaza on the WCCCD Downtown campus provides the most interesting acknowledgement of an historic land use. The current plaza, slated for renovation, sits at the location of the former Fort Street Union Depot, which presents an exciting opportunity to incorporate the past into the present:

  • The Fort Street Union Depot train station was a Detroit landmark that provided rail service from 1893 to 1971. After failed attempts to preserve the building as a national historic landmark, the Romanesque architectural gem was lost to history in 1974. WCCCD built a new campus on the site in the mid 1970’s. Today, if you ask students and faculty on the campus about the history of the site, most will have no memory of the rail station or little knowledge that it ever existed; yet the old rail bridges that cross the Lodge Freeway remain, buried beneath the brick pavers and lawn in a student plaza.
  • Proposed plans for a new plaza provide a contemporary interpretation of the old rail platforms that provided a departure point for millions of travelers for nearly 80 years.
  • A contemporary steel canopy structure will provide an architectural interpretation of a rail platform, and interpretive sign panels will inform students and visitors about the significance of both the function of the rail station and bold architectural landmark that once stood on the site.

In moving forward, Detroit cannot afford to preserve all of its past architectural relics. However, acknowledging the historic significance of a site when a dramatic land-use change takes place, will allow Detroiters to capture the importance and spirit of their history for generations to come – instilling the unique and compelling sense of place held by previous generations.

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