Willis-Selden Historic District

Both sides of Alexandrine, Selden and Willis between Woodward and Third

Lewis Cass, born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1782, migrated with his father, a lawyer,  to Marietta, Ohio toward the end of the Eighteenth Century.  He apprenticed to study law, and while still a very young man, was elected to serve in the Ohio legislature.  He led Ohio militia forces in the War of 1812, serving in the Lake Erie Theater under future president General William Henry Harrison and rose to the rank of Brigadier General.  In 1813, even before the Treaty of Ghent was signed to end the war with England, President James Madison appointed Lewis Cass to be governor of the territory of Michigan.  Cass played an important role in ridding the state of Indians so that whites could settle here and farm the land.  Later, he worked with Judge Augustus Woodward and Father Gabriel Richard to establish the ground work for what would become a Michigan state government.  From the perspective of the Twenty-first Century, the removal of Indians from the Midwest seems harsh but Lewis Cass had a reputation for minimizing the use of military force.  Indians had to be removed or confined to reservations in order for European Americans to settle Michigan.
Lewis Cass departed from Detroit in 1831 when President Jackson reorganized his cabinet and appointed him to serve as Secretary of War.  Holding that portfolio for five years, Lewis Cass  carried out the Black Hawk War in Illinois and the very long Seminole War in Florida.  Similar to many other well-known and prosperous men, Lewis Cass speculated in land.  At some point, he purchased the area that now borders Cass Avenue, hence the name for the Cass Farms Multiple Property Survey, a registered National Historic District.  The Willis-Selden Historic District is a component of what was once known as the Cass Farms areas.  I do not know when Lewis Cass sold his holdings in this area.  It may have been in the early 1850s, between his service as United States Ambassador to France and his serving as Secretary of State in the ill-fated James Buchanan administration.

Barnabas Campau owned Belle Isle at the middle of the Nineteenth Century.  His wife was Alexandrine.  After he died, she married a Detroit real estate developer by the name of Willis.  They built the first private house on that island in 1871, about five years before the city purchased the island to convert it into the gracious park that we know today.  The island, incidentally, is named for the daughter of Lewis Cass but I do not know how that name was chosen.

I believe that Mr. Willis began to develop the area now known as the Willis-Selden Historic District.  His name and his wife’s name adorn two of the three north-south streets in this neighborhood.  In the late Nineteenth Century, some elegant homes were built in this area followed, during the early years of the Twentieth Century, by a number of low-rise apartment homes.  The development of electric street cars in the 1890s made this an attractive residential area for those who worked in shops, stores and offices in downtown Detroit. With the coming of the automobile era, both commercial establishments and buildings linked to the vehicle industry were erected in this interesting location.  It is worth a walk if you are in the Cass Corridor of Detroit.  In the early Twentieth Century, there were few zoning regulation so there is quite a mixture of different structures in this district.  There are Victorian homes and even appealing Art Deco structures such as the Springfield Metallic Casket Company building.  A few, but only a few, buildings were added since the start of the Depression.  I think that there are a total of 102 buildings in the historic district.

In the difficult 15- to 20-year span following the 1967 riot, this area fell into decline. Cass Corridor became known as a place where a variety of drugs and commercial sex might be purchased.   However, with increases in employment at Wayne State, the Henry Ford Medical Complex and the Detroit Medical Center; the area has undergoing a modest to substantial  revival.  Several buildings have been refurbished for residential use and a few commercial establishments, including Avalon Bakery, now thrive in this district.   If you are looking for an area of Detroit where many improvements are evident, this is an historic district to wonder around.

A few of the building in the Willis-Selden district are described on this website including the following:

Cass Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church – 3901 Cass at Selden. Built 1891; Architects
     George Mason and Zacharias Rice
Coronado Apartments – 3751 to 3773 Second at Selden; Built 1894; Architect George D. Nutt
Detroit- Columbia Central Office Building – 52 Selden; Built 1927; Architects Smith, Hinchman and Grylls.
Detroit Edison Willis Avenue Plant – 50 West Willis; Built 1904.
Springfield Metallic Casket Company Building – 627 West Alexandrine; Built 1930
Stuber-Stone Building – 4221-4229 Cass at Willis; Built 1916; Architect: David M. Simons
Willys Overland Building/Willys Overland Lofts -  West Willis between Cass and Second; Built 1912.

City of Detroit Designated Historic District:  Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed, P26553
National Register of Historic Places:  Listed December 1, 1997
Use in 2011: Historic district with many attractive and busy buildings
Description prepared: January, 2011

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Several properties within the Willis-Selden Historic District are described on this website, primarily because they were separately listed on the State of Michigan or National Historic Register.  These include:
Cass Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church, 3901 Cass at Selden
Coronado Apartments, 3751-3773 Second at Selden
Detroit-Columbia Central Office Building, 52 Selden
Detroit Edison Willis Avenue Plant, 50 West Willis
Stuber Stone Building, 4221-4229 Cass at Willis
Willys-Overland Lofts,   West Willis




Michigan: P 26553
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed: December 1, 1997
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Michigan: P 26553
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed: December 1, 1997

Return to Historic Sites

Return to Homepage