Historic David Mackenzie house begins move on Wayne State campus

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
Workers prepare to move the David Mackenzie House to its new location on Wayne State University's campus.

After nearly 125 years on Cass Avenue, Wayne State University’s historic David Mackenzie house began its move to a new location.

Crews worked for hours Monday morning ensuring that the house at 4735 Cass was ready for the move. Around 10 a.m. the house, sitting on steel beams atop 12 sets of wheels, began to creep inch by inch toward its new location across the lot at Second and Forest.

“You only get one chance to do this,” said Ryan Miller, project manager for Wayne State University.

The Queen Anne-style home was built in 1895 and was the home to David Mackenzie, Wayne State’s founder.

The university has entrusted the move to New York-based International Chimney, the same firm that helped move the Gem Theatre in 1997.

Is there some nervousness involved in the move?

“Sure,” Miller said. “Anytime you’re moving a structure of historical designation. But these are professional movers. They do this all over the country. If there’s anyone to do it, it’s these guys.”

The house move was prompted by the university’s plan to expand and renovate the neighboring Hilberry Theatre into a complex for theater, dance, music and arts-related events. The new $65 million Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex will include the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center.

“We had to preserve it,” Fran Ahern, senior director for design and construction services for the university, said about the Mackenzie house. “It’s very important to the university. We also needed to renovate and expand our theater program.”

The house was most recently used as offices for Preservation Detroit. It was the group's home since it was founded in the 1970s to save historic buildings on campus, including the Mackenzie House. A future use for the building has not yet been determined, according to university officials. 

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

The house is being moved on four layers of beams sitting on hydraulic-powered dollies, said Tyler Finkle, historic preservation division project manager for International Chimney.

A power pack pumps hydraulic fluid through lines into 16 to 18 jacks to lift the structure. The jacks are placed in specific locations accounting for heavier parts of the building, such as the turret, he said.

“What that means is regardless of the load, the building and the jack will lift at the same rate,” he said. “The heavy area lifts the same as the light area. If that didn’t happen, you’d have cracks in between.”

The movement is gradual, Finkle said. Once the building is at Cass Avenue and Forest, it will be turned at a 90-degree angle so its entrance faces Forest.

The initial move will take about three days to complete. DTE Energy is expected to drop lines as early as Tuesday that the house can move to the corner of Second and Forest. The house will sit for three weeks while its new basement is completed. The house will then be placed over the basement.

Windows on the first floor were boarded up, and the steps were removed for the move.

“They’ve taken all precautions that everything remains intact,” Ahern said.

The house is part of a National Historic District established in the 1970s. The district also includes the university's Old Main building, the first Detroit Central High School. 

Students, staff and residents stopped to watch the move on Wednesday. Among them was Charles Roberts who has lived in the area for nearly nine years.

“I think it’s kind of interesting,” said Roberts, 31. “The last time I saw something like this they were moving the Gem Theatre.”

Roberts said he’s glad the university is moving the house, opposed to tearing it down. 

“It’s still very pretty on the inside,” he said. 


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN