Old Main of Wayne State University

4841 Cass Avenue at West Warren

Looking at this ponderous structure for a few moments may lead you to two observations.  First, this is one of the largest and most impressive exhibits of Romanesque Revival architecture in the metropolitan area.  There are many, many towers, turrets and dormers with their graceful arched windows.  Note, also, the prominent roof.  Yet the building was erected with a rather warmly colored yellow or tan bricks. This architectural style was quite popular in the late Nineteenth Century and you can find a few houses nearby designed with a similar architectural  approach.  But Romanesque styling was seldom, if ever, used by architects after the time of World War I.  Architectural tastes certainly change substantially and rapidly. 

Second, the building was put up in the mid-1890s to serve as the city’s major secondary school. It was originally named Central High School but that title was transferred to the very large campus on Tuxedo at Elmhurst.  The United States was in advance of most European nations in establishing a more or less universal system of locally funded grammar schools.   The belief in the value of formal education was very strong in this nation and so,  by late in the Nineteenth Century, city school boards were expanding their activities to greatly increase the proportion of student who went to class following grammar school.   Once again, the United States was in advance of European nations in providing secondary schools for many youth.  However, it was not until after World War II that high school graduation became the norm.  Even in this early Twentieth First century no more than about 80 percent of teenagers complete secondary school.  But the prosperity of Detroit rate payers in the late Nineteenth Century and the faith that many had in education, led to the construction of this striking building.  Clearly, the city’s school board expected that many Detroit children would opt for a high school education.

David MacKenzie, whose residence is just around the corner on Cass, was principal of this high school.  In the early Twentieth Century, science and medicine were slowly being added to the curriculum of universities, but colleges at that time emphasized the learning of the classical languages, mathematics, and reading the great works of  philosophers, historians and play writers.  MacKenzie—who, along with Father Gabriel Richard—was one of Detroit’s most productive educational entrepreneurs recognized that there were many student graduating from his high school who would benefit from advanced training but, perhaps, not from the  curriculum of the major universities.  There was, at this time, the slow development of junior colleges. 

Mackenzie began to offer post-secondary courses in the building you see pictured above as early as 1913.  By 1919, he established a separate unit called the Detroit Junior College here.  Four years later, that institution became a four-year school known as the College of the City of Detroit.  Quickly, it became the third largest college in the state behind Michigan State and the University of Michigan.  By the early 1930s, the city’s Board of Education was superintending a medical school—the Detroit Medical College founded in 1868; a school for training teachers—Detroit Normal Training School founded in 1881; and college-level programs in pharmacy and engineering as well as the College of the City of Detroit.  This was not unusual.  By the 1920s, school boards in many of the larger cities were operating their own normal schools or liberal arts colleges.  The Detroit School Board merged  their six post-secondary programs to form Wayne University in 1934.  The university expanded after that but was a city-run institution until the Constitution of the State of Michigan was amended in 1959 to make Wayne University a state governed, rather than a city governed, institution.

This building has been remodeled several times but its original appearance has been maintained.  Its office space is now used by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Architects: William Malcomson and William Higginbotham
Date of Opening: 1896
Architectural style: Romanesque Revival
Use in 2011: This building is the home of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Book describing the history of Wayne State University:  A History of Wayne State University in Photographs by Evelyn Aschenbrenner, Charles K. Hyde and Bill McGraw (Detroit: Wayne State University, Press: 2008).
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Site:  This building is within the Wayne State University
   Buildings Historic District, P25,280
National Register of Historic Sites: I do not know if this building is specifically listed.
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: January, 2011


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