The Detroit Historical Museum

5401 Woodward Avenue at West Kirby in Detroit’s Cultural Center

This is a picture for vexillologists.

Detroit lawyer and historian, Clarence M. Burton, collected papers and documents pertinent to the city’s long history. In 1914, he donated his assembly of documents to the Detroit Public Library and then began to foster ideas for a major historical museum focused upon this city. In 1921, he joined with 19 other local individuals interested in the city’s history to form the Detroit Historical Society. The organization developed slowly, but in 1927 they rented office space in what was then known as the Barlum Tower on Cadillac Square and is now known as the Cadillac Towers, a building that in the early 21st century was largely if not entirely rented by the City of Detroit. A small Detroit historical museum was opened on the 23rd floor of the Barlum Towers in 1928.

The Depression years of the 1930s were terrible ones for fundraising in the Motor City, but the Detroit Historical Society stayed alive. In 1942, George Stark, a journalist for the Detroit News, became president of the Detroit Historical Society. By 1945 he and his collaborators had raised one-quarter million dollars for the society. Shortly thereafter, the Detroit Historical Society agreed to turn over their collection of documents and their funds to the City of Detroit if the city would build and maintain an historical museum. A referendum was placed on the ballot in 1945 and the city’s residents ratified the building of such a museum.

The city began to construct the impressive museum that you see at Woodward and West Kirby in the city’s Cultural Center. It was dedicated on July 24, 1951—the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac and his crew of about 200 at what is now the foot of Woodward.

The most widely-known and appreciated exhibit in the Detroit Historical Museum is in the basement—a carefully and faithfully reconstructed portrayal of the streets of Detroit in the late Nineteenth Century. In 1949, the Department of Defense began the twenty-year process of transfering the federal property of Historic Fort Wayne over to the city of Detroit. The Detroit Historical Museum has more or less supervised Historic Fort Wayne, awaiting—for more than five decades—a decision about what will become of this fantastic and beautiful site along the Detroit River. The Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle opened in 1949 and became affiliated with the Detroit Historical Museum in the early 1960s.

In 2003, Detroit Historical Museum officials announced that they would initiate a fund raising campaign to raise $70 million for the construction of an 100,000-square-foot building adjoining the current museum. The opening of this impressive new structure was targeted for 2005. There has been little recent news of this major addition, and it does not appear on the current website of the Detroit Historical Museum, even in the fund raising section. This museum was closed from May through November of 2012 for a $20.1 million dollar renovation. I believe that this was the first major remodling of the museum accomplished since it first opened.

I have waited a long time for a day with strong gusty winds so that I could snap a picture showing the three flags that fly at the corner of Woodward and Kirby. These are the flags of the three nations that have governed Detroit. You recognize the stars and bars and the Union Jack. The golden flueu-de-lis in the third flag hint at its origin but it is not a flag that you would find flying in France today—or at any date in the last several hundred years. It is the flag of the French kings and government at that time when Cadillac arrived in Detroit in July, 1701. Presumably, this is the only place in the world where this unusual flag is hoisted every day.

The architect, William E. Kapp, was educated in his field at the University of Pennsylvania. For some time, in Detroit, he worked with the Smith, Hinchman and Grylls firms but may have also worked with the Harley, Ellington and Day firm. He designed a number of impresive buildings that still grace the city's landscape including the Wilson Theater, the University Club and the Players Club - both on East Jefferson; the Dosin Marine Museum that is now administered by the Detroit Historical Museum and the Art Deco Temple Isreal near Palmer Park.

Architect: William E, Kapp
Date of completion: 1951

City of Detroit Local Historic District; Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
Use in 2013: Historical Museum
Photo: Ran Farley; March 11, 2009

Description updated: February 2013


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