July 5, 2010 at 1:00 am

Historic tags sought for dozens of Detroit schools

Local group hopes honorary label could save some buildings

Saving historic Detroit Public Schools
Saving historic Detroit Public Schools: Ninety DPS buildings are nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, but the designation may do little to save them from demolition.

Detroit -- Nearly 90 Detroit Public Schools buildings are nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation that can lead to tax credits for redevelopers but may do little to prevent the demolition of some of the vacant structures.

The effort to preserve the schools was led by Detroit's Historic Designation Advisory Board, whose planners spent $33,000 and more than a year surveying all the city's schools built before 1960 and cataloging their histories.

Among them:

  • The Lewis Cass Technical High School, built in 1922 and among Michigan's first publicly funded vocational schools.

  • The vacant Miller School, built in 1921 and which later served as the city's African-American high school because of discriminatory practices of the time.

  • The M. M. Rose School, built in 1897 and one of the oldest standing schools in Detroit.

    The state Historic Review Board approved 88 of the schools for the national register and will submit the nomination to the federal government as soon as this week. Federal officials are expected to finalize the designation this summer.

    The designation comes as nearly 150 Detroit Public Schools have closed since 2003, the result of thousands of students leaving the district each year. Some of the nominated schools are ones that are to close this year, such as Cooley High, built in 1927, and Hanstein Elementary, built in 1918.

    Janese Chapman, a city planner who is part of the effort, hopes the designation will spark greater appreciation of the buildings and their potential uses. Instead of demolishing the community anchors, Chapman hopes the conversation will turn to: "How can we repurpose them?"

    "You can't save them all," she acknowledges. "I live in Detroit. I live in the real world."

    Hurdle to demolition

    Historic designations generally don't prohibit the destruction of structures, but some local designations can make it more difficult for a private property owner to do so. Fewer than 10 percent of the Detroit public schools considered for national recognition are also designated as historic with the city of Detroit, Chapman said. These structures could face hurdles for demolition if sold to a private property owner, she said.

    Some of the schools are slated for demolition as soon as this year as part of the Proposal S school construction bond program. Among them are the Munger/Chadsey High, Finney High, the old Cass Tech, Mumford High and Harding Elementary. The historic designation would not protect schools from being razed.

    "At this point, this would not affect demolition decisions," said district spokesman Steve Wasko, noting the school district wasn't part of the process initially and learned of the effort through a City Council notice.

    "Many of the facilities were heavily vandalized and in many cases would be a stretch to be called historically significant," he added. "We proposed a more realistic list of buildings that were more likely candidates for reuse or sale, and also representative of the history of DPS."

    The district, facing a $363 million deficit, has been marketing, selling and leasing its property. In the past year, it sold 11 school properties for more than $4 million, a sharp change from the previous 12 months, when no district property was sold or leased. The public school district wouldn't be eligible for tax credits, but redevelopers could be once a school is sold.

    Designation on the National Register of Historic places can qualify developers of the property for the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program that encourages private sector rehabilitation of historical buildings.

    The National Park Service must sign off on rehab projects seeking a 20 percent tax credit. Generally, the project must not damage, destroy or cover features that help define the building's historical character.

    One of the recent schools sold was the former Burton School in the Cass Corridor, which is now up for a historic designation.

    Sites transformed

    Joel Landy, a Detroiter who has redeveloped several schools, bought Burton in 2009 and converted it into a movie theater, art studio and offices. If it earns historic designation, the 20 percent investment tax credit would be available for future work, such as conversion to residential lofts, he said.

    Two former schools Landy redeveloped were on the register. The tax credit was instrumental in converting the former Leland School to 32 residential lofts and the former Jefferson Intermediate to a charter school academy.

    "I couldn't have done any of the projects without the tax credit," Landy said. "It was a major factor."

    He hopes all the schools win approval, which would future redevelopment efforts. Instead of tearing down buildings in which taxpayers have invested for decades, the schools could be transformed into uses such as art studios or assisted living facilities in the heart of neighborhoods, he said.

    Some of the schools are significant not only for their architecture and age, but also as symbols of social and educational trends of the times.

    Balch School, now known as Golightly Education Center, was the first city elementary school built to use the platoon teaching system and attracted people from around the world to observe the model.

    In the platoon system, students spent half the day in their homerooms for regular subjects and then moved to other rooms for specialized classes, so that every room was used all the time.

    Vernor Elementary School, a post-World War II school, was the first to use glass block windows and served as the model for district schools for the next five years. Greenfield Union School was built for Greenfield Township for $40,000 and was annexed to the city of Detroit in 1916, indicative of the city's continued expansion during the early decades of the 20th century.

    Paper trail tells story

    The historic designation paperwork for Cass Technical High described the controversy of the times. Its roots date back to Lewis Cass Union School that started in 1860, south of the present building and where the Fisher Freeway is now.

    In 1907, the school started a technical high school curriculum on the third floor to help students prepare for the growing manufacturing industry by training them to become machinists, electricians, mechanics and more.

    But the effort was resisted by trade unions concerned there would be a surplus of skilled workers. The school board also didn't think there was a demand for the programs.

    But by 1909, the program served 1,000 students and needed more space. Publicly funded vocational schools were uncommon until the Vocational Act of 1917 provided federal funding for such instruction. When construction began in 1918, Cass Tech was one of the first publicly funded vocational schools in Michigan. It also may have been the largest.

    The seven-story collegiate gothic-style building has been vacant since 2006 when the new Cass Tech was built across the street.

    Rare request

    It's rare for the federal government to receive a large group of schools submitted for historic designation at one time. The magnitude of the request is a reflection of a survey of the schools, conducted by Detroit city planners and historians and funded in part by a federal grant.

    "It's wonderful the city went ahead and did this," said Robert Christensen, national register coordinator at the state historic preservation office.

    Once the federal government receives the application, the national review team will make the final determination within 45 days.

    Typically, 95 percent of the time the national team approves the states' recommendations, said Paul Lusignan, historian with the National Register of Historic Places.

    "The states have been doing this long enough and we depend on their perspective," he said.

  • Cooley High School, built in 1927, was closed by Detroit Public Schools this year, but a local group is trying to get it an other city school buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Even if approved, some sites are too far gone and will be demolished, DPS says. / John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
    M.M. Rose Schools
    Henry Ford
    Lewis Cass Technical High School
    Greenfield Union School
    Vernor School
    Hanstein Elementary
    Balch School
    Miller Junior High