Detroit's Cultural Center is a marvelous example of highly successful city planning, albeit an area that languished for decades before the recent building boom that is now making this location one of the city's most appealing employment and residential areas.
Early industrial cities were excessively dirty. Soft coal powered the factories and the numerous trains that shifted freight cars across the landscape. Coal also was used to heat homes in winter, ensuring that the city was coated with soot and smog all year. Horses were the locomotives for personal travel and for the local delivery of all goods. Each animal produced about 20 pounds of output each day dropping much of it on the city's streets. Before the 1890s, what little public transportation there was consisted of slow, horse-drawn carriages pulled along rails laid in the center of streets. Since this transportation was slow and inefficient, laborers, clerks and their supervisors lived close to the dirty plants and rail lines. Nineteenth-century executives in Detroit sought to live in cleaner and more pleasant areas. The refurbished homes in Brush Park and those in the West Canfield and East Ferry Street Historic District convey how the elite sought to separate themselves from the filth of the early industrial city.
The Chicago's Worlds Fair of 1893 marked a turning point in how Americans thought about and planned cities. An influential City Beautiful movement developed and gradually spread across the nation, thanks in large part to the magnificent buildings that Daniel Burnham created for that exposition. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, there was an urban parks movement exemplified by the beautiful green spaces Frederick Law Olmsted designed: Belle Isle in Detroit, Mount Royal in Montreal, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and his crowning achievements: Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in Manhattan. The City Beautiful movement sought to accomplishment much more than adding large bucolic parks to the urban scene. It proposed that cities could be beautiful places if zoning were used to separate distinct land uses and if city governments and philanthropists invested in making the city architecturally appealing. This involved attending to the style of buildings and the control of who built what where.
In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Mayor Breitmeyer brought the City Beautiful movement to Detroit by establishing a City Plan and Improvement Committee. Frank Day of Philadelphia and Edward Bennett of Chicago were leaders of this committee, but Daniel Burnham was consulted and played some role in redesigning Detroit. In 1913, they announced their plans for the city with a major emphasis upon both the creation of a cultural center and the adoption of zoning regulations. The plan was adopted, but the city's government waited 28 years before enacting zoning laws. Much more progress was made on the Cultural Center. This was to be a central location with a spacious design that would include the city's Art Institute, the major library, the chief concert hall, and a school for design. Quite quickly, land was purchased on both sides of Woodward just north of Warren to serve as the Cultural Center. A competition was held to select an architect for the Detroit Public Library and won by the distinguished architect, Cass Gilbert. The magnificent Renaissance Revival structure shown above opened in 1921. At this time there was something of a competition among major cities to build impressive libraries that would highlight our cultural history. Those constructed at this time are still among our nation's most beautiful libraries: the one you see above, the one on Fifth Avenue in New York, the Chicago Public Library, the one in Philadelphia rising above the Schuylkill and the Library of Congress.
Paul Philippe Cret of Lyon was chosen to design the Detroit Institute of Arts, a marvelous Renaissance style building that opened in 1927. It is the sixth largest art gallery in the United States. There were no further additions to the Cultural Center until Mary Rackham donated money for the University of Michigan's Horace H. Rackham Memorial Education Building, opened in 1941 but now unused.
An elegant concert hall might have arisen in the Cultural Center but, in 1917, Ossip Gabrilovich agreed to accept the directorship of the Detroit Symphony only if a concert venue fitting his talents and accomplishments were quickly constructed. The Symphony's trustees found a church several blocks to the south on Woodward, razed it and used the foundation for Orchestra Hall which was designed by C. Howard Crane and constructed in less than 19 months.
After World War II, Detroit's Cultural Center began to serve the purposes its planners had intended. In the late 1940s, the Detroit Historical Museum opened nearby. That Museum has announced plans for a major addition. Then the Detroit Science Center opened and was subsequently remodeled and expanded in the 1990s. Detroit's Society of Arts and Crafts spawned a program course that became the Center for Creative Studies after World War II. Their buildings were erected adjoining the Detroit Institute of Art. That organization expanded and, by the 1990s, became the College of Creative Studies. The extremely attractive Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History opened in 1998.
Economic developments in two important fields went hand-in-hand with the recent flourishing of the Cultural Center. The nearby Detroit Medical Center expanded with many new buildings including the John B. Dingell Veterans Administration Hospital and the Karamanos Center. To the west of the Cultural Center, Wayne State University has grown rapidly with a pleasant mixing of historic and new buildings. It has increasingly become an institution emphasizing research and the training of graduate and professional students. Both of those institutions attract many young students, interns, research investigators and employees who work long but often irregular hours. The amenities of the Cultural Center have combined with these new employment opportunities to draw residents to this rapidly improving area of central Detroit. A modest amount of new housing is being built in this area, especially along East Ferry Street, while older apartment buildings such as the Park Sheldon are being converted into lofts and condominiums.
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed November 21, 1983
Use in 2004: Officially the historic district includes just three buildings: the Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Institute of Art serve their intended purposes. The University of Michigan's Rackham Building is not used.
Photographs: Ren Farley; 2003 and 2004
Return to Federal Register of Historic Districts
Return to Michigan Registered Historic Districts