Wayne State plans to move 19th century David Mackenzie house

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
The David Mackenzie house on Cass Avenue, built in 1895, was the home of Wayne jState University's founder.

Detroit — Inside a Queen Anne-style home on Cass, Wayne State University founder David Mackenzie would entertain guests in his oak-paneled library, wowing them with his fluency in several languages and his ability to read and write Sanskrit.

More than 90 years after Mackenzie’s death, his 1895 home still stands, but in a matter of weeks, it’ll have a new address as university officials begin the arduous process of moving the house. 

The move in February will make room for a major expansion and renovation to the neighboring Hilberry Theatre, said Matt Lockwood, Wayne State’s director of communications. The $65 million project will convert the Hilberry into a complex for theater, music, dance and arts-related events.

“This house move is the first move, and the Gateway Project is the whole reason for the move,” said Harry Wyatt, Wayne State’s associate vice president for facilities planning and management. 

To move the house around the block to Second and Forest, Wayne State has hired International Chimney for the move, the same New York-based firm that helped move the Gem Theatre in 1997.

A vintage photo shows the stained glass windows originally in place in the David Mackenzie house, built in 1895.

Wyatt said they chose the new location, currently a parking lot, for two reasons. 

“We were looking for a way to shift the house away from the construction site without crossing the city street,” Wyatt said. “That would’ve made the move more expensive. And we wanted to keep it within the historic context. This is not far away from the main part of the historic part of Wayne State.”

A series of steel beams and oak timber cribbing will be used to install hydraulic jacks under the house, said International Chimney project manager Tyler Finkle.

Another set of beams will be added and, eventually, the house will be hoisted on hydraulic-powered dollies that are like tractor-trailer tires, Finkle said.

“So there are various different layers of beams — steel beams, cross steel, main beams and rocker beams,” he said. “... It rolls very slowly. Everyone is always so interested in these moves but it’s a very slow process — and a careful process.”

The Mackenzie house is one of the oldest and most iconic buildings on Wayne State’s campus. It’s part of a National Historic District, established in the 1970s, that also includes Wayne State’s first building, the first Detroit Central High School. 

Designed by Malcomson & Higginbotham, it was built in 1895 by W.H. Hollands and Sons. Originally the home of Frank Blackman, a banker, Mackenzie purchased it in 1906. 

The former principal of Detroit Central High School is credited with founding Wayne State after he noticed dozens of his graduates couldn’t afford to attend college. So he, along with school faculty, proposed creating a junior college as a part of the high school, according to a report from the Detroit City Council historic designation advisory board.

The front view of the David Mackenzie house on Cass Ave.

In 1923, state lawmakers voted to give the college full “collegiate rank,” and it became the College of the City of Detroit. It was the start of what’s now Wayne State.

The red brick house where Mackenzie lived for about 20 years until his death in 1926 spans two and a half stories. It features a large porch, overhanging gables and a three-quarter round turret on the southeast corner. 

Preservation Detroit, whose offices had been in the Mackenzie House since the group was founded in the 1970s, has deep ties to the house. The group was founded in 1975 when Wayne students banded together to save historic buildings on campus, including the Mackenzie House.

“When the Mackenzie House was slated for demolition to make way for a sewer line, students not only saved the building but raised $220,000 ($750,000 in today’s dollars) to rehab it,” the group said in a statement posted to its Facebook page last summer.

The front view of the David Mackenzie house on Cass Ave.

For now, Eric Kehoe, Preservation Detroit’s president of its board of directors, is relieved the house’s move is in good hands with International Chimney.

“Anytime you’re moving a full masonry building, it’s good to have an expert like that,” he said.

And while university officials are still deciding how it’ll be used once it’s moved — Wyatt says it could be used as part of Wayne’s theater program to go along with the Gateway Project — Kehoe just hopes it will continue to be used as David Mackenzie once did, for community building.

“We love the house, and we have such a strong history there,” Kehoe said. “We just hope it stays a community space.”


Twitter: @mfeighan