West Vernor – Lawndale Historic District

Both sides of West Vernor between Cabot and Ferris in southwest Detroit

This is the smallest of the three historic districts that line West Vernor Highway in southwest Detroit.  It includes 30 acres and ten buildings.  This district is located very close to Woodmere Cemetery and near the Detroit Dearborn border.  It bears the name Lawndale because that is the major street that intersects West Vernor in this area.

Many of the buildings in this area have three stories.  The ground floor is devoted to commercial activities with the upper stories devoted to residential use.  Most of them were built, I believe, between 1900 and 1929.  Two buildings deserve mention.  At the southwest corner of Lawndale and West Vernor is a large three-story structure.  The first floor houses the newly installed James Campbell Branch of the Detroit Public Library.  In the early 1990s, Detroit voters approved a substantial bond issue to fund the refurbishing of old public schools and the construction of new ones including Cass Tech and the School for the Performing Arts.  Funds from that bond issue also supported the renovation of buildings for use by the Detroit Public Library.   From 1922 to 1996, the James Campbell Branch operated from a facility on nearby West End Avenue.  In 2006, the branch was relocated into the impressively refurbished building at Lawndale and West Vernor pictured above.

Almost directly opposite the new location of the James Campbell Branch is St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church.  These may be the most recently constructed buildings in this historic district.  St. Gabriel’s—named in honor of the archangel—was built in the 1950s.  It is difficult to understand why the Catholic dioceses continued to build large and impressive churches in the city when demographic trends and federal housing policies were leading to an out-migration of the white population to the suburbs.  Nevertheless, a very attractive church with the typical accompanying buildings—school, rectory and convent—was constructed along West Vernor Highway.  I do not know of the exact date of the construction of this complex nor the architect. Many Catholic parishes in the city were closed after 1970 because of the exodus of Catholics.  However, six parishes in southwest Detroit grew because of the influx of immigrants from Mexico.  St. Gabriel’s is an active Spanish parish.  Their website primarily presents information in Spanish but at least one Sunday Mass is said in English.   The traditional parish school is now an elementary charter school.  The Cesar Chavez Academy, affiliated with Grand Valley State University, operates a high school, a middle school and an elementary school for the largely Spanish-speaking population of this Detroit neighborhood.  Their elementary school is located in the former St. Gabriel’s facility.

City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Listed 2002
Use in 2009:  Commercial district
Website for St. Gabriel Parish: http://www.archangel-gabriel.org/
Website for Detroit Public Library Campbell Branch: http://www.detroit.lib.mi.us/Campbell/index.htm
Photograph: Ren Farley; November 15, 2009
Description prepared: December, 2009

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