History of Detroit’s Palmer Park subject of new book

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Palmer Park may not eclipse Belle Isle as the city’s premier park, but it’s finally getting its due.

A new book, “A History of Detroit’s Palmer Park,” by Gregory C. Piazza (The History Press, $21.99), is an informative, sometimes sentimental look at the park, located west of Woodward between Six and Seven Mile roads.

Piazza delves into the life of the man after whom the park is named, Thomas Palmer, who, with his wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Merrill Palmer, left to the city in the 1890s a chunk of land to be earmarked as a public park. Palmer was a state senator and a U.S. senator who was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage.

As her own legacy, Lizzie bequeathed funds to establish the Merrill-Palmer Institute (today the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute). The Palmers also were involved in the formation of the Detroit Museum of Art, the predecessor to the Detroit Institute of Arts. In addition, they helped bankroll the Michigan Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Campus Martius.

Not only is this slender volume a history of the verdant oasis called Palmer Park, it’s also an illuminating architectural lesson on the cluster of the most stylistically diverse apartment buildings in town, ranging in type from Tudor, Colonial and Georgian to Art Deco, Art Moderne, Moorish Revival and International.

There are vintage photos strewn throughout, but there are also attractive contemporary shots of the apartments by photographer Allan Machielse.

Piazza has done his research, and if his tone seems affectionate, there’s good reason. The author lived in the apartment district from 1974-91. Piazza also spearheaded the drive to get the area listed as a National Historic Places District.

The writing is cogent, if not particularly graceful. There are too many choppy, short declarative sentences. Also, a more attentive editor would have caught such errors as the “Charles Wright Black History Museum.” The proper name is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

From 1924 until the 1960s, area apartments sprang up, many of them facing the bucolic park, just north of Six Mile (aka McNichols). There also were some stunning houses of worship in the neighborhood: Temple Israel, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Unity Temple and the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist.

The apartments were once one of the choicest strips of real estate in the city, and many in Detroit’s Jewish community called them home. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the area evolved into a vibrant gay enclave.

For the first two decades of my life, I lived a block and a half from the park, just east of Woodward. And my parents’ first apartment was on Covington, in the apartment district.

The proximity meant countless hours spent at Palmer Park. When I was a young boy, my father would take my sisters and me for walks in the winding trails in the park’s woods. As is the case today, the Detroit Mounted Police patrolled the park.

Feeding the ducks in the pond was another activity, and we fed the creatures Cheez-Its. It wasn’t the greatest diet, but the ducks didn’t seem to mind.

In winter, the ice skates came out. The pond’s ice was never as smooth as the nearby indoor rink at the old Michigan State Fair Grounds, but Palmer Park didn’t cost a dime.

Another attraction was the somewhat musty-smelling log cabin, the Palmers’ 19th-century summer retreat, which back then was open to visitors.

Eventually, the area deteriorated. The park became unkempt and unsafe. Apartment buildings were abandoned and vandalized and became a playground for scrappers. Art Deco chandeliers, sculptures and other architectural details were stolen from some edifices.

But the tide has turned. The plucky, hard-working community group People for Palmer Park has spruced up the park and hosts tours of the park and apartment district.

On a chilly October Saturday morning a few years ago, I went on the walking tour, and some gracious apartment dwellers even invited our group into their dwellings.

There was still a lot of work to be done, but several of the buildings were being rehabbed — a vital sign in a neighborhood many believed was moribund.

Also, the log cabin fell into disrepair and closed years ago. But the PFPP are working to restore it, and visitors are welcome to tour it once annually on Log Cabin Day. This year, the free event runs from 1-5 p.m. Sunday. (Go to peopleforpalmerpark.org for more information.)

Last month, the organization revived the Palmer Park Art Fair after a 30-year absence. Clearly, the area is on the upswing.

In his book, Piazza describes a gently wistful evening when he was still living in the area. While sitting on his balcony, he heard the dulcet playing of a flute, and a piano from another apartment joined in.

“The story may seem romantic, but I think it typifies the aura, the kind of life, that was Palmer Park in that era,” Piazza writes.

However dim and distant, the music seems to be returning.

George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Book review

‘A History of Detroit’s Palmer Park’

The History Press, $21.99

Gregory C. Piazza


Log Cabin Day

1-5 p.m. on Sunday.

Palmer Park

Visit peopleforpalmerpark.org for more information