Medical group to regain Dunbar hospital ownership

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

The historic Dunbar Memorial Hospital sold for $196,000 at the Wayne County tax auction Wednesday — but a late reversal by the city of Detroit will enable the Detroit Medical Society to regain ownership of the city's first African-American hospital.

The former hospital is on the federal and state registers of historic places.

"This is just what the doctor ordered," said Rhonda Lofton, executive director for the medical society.

The group, which purchased the once-stately home in 1978 to restore as a museum, discovered last week that Wayne County had foreclosed on the property months ago and listed it for auction.

But a Detroit News column ignited interest in the property in all quarters: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department canceled its lien and an outstanding $1,700 water bill that had ballooned to $3,800 with late fees. And without the lien, Wayne County is required to reverse the foreclosure and sale.

"This has engendered such interest that a number of people have come forward to express their interest in doing something to restore the property," said David Szymanski, Wayne County chief deputy treasurer. He said he hoped to contact the would-be buyer before any money exchanged hands, and to work with all interested parties to forge a plan for the building's revival.

Originally built as a residence for Charles W. Warren, a jeweler and investor, in 1892, the former hospital is listed on the state and federal historic registers. It's one of Detroit's most obscure, but potentially most significant, historic places, a symbol of African-American self-determination at a time when segregation barred black doctors from most hospitals.

"It was designed as an institution of uplift; it was intended as a symbol of community. This was uniquely Detroit," says Michael Aloisio, a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Ontario who studied the hospital for his master's thesis.

In 1919, a group of African-American doctors purchased the home at 480 Frederick to use as a hospital. It operated until 1928, staffed by virtually every African-American doctor in Detroit.

After buying the site in 1978, the Detroit Medical Society obtained historic designations and nonprofit status as a museum. Over the years, members say they've invested more than $400,000 in the building, including a new slate roof, new flooring, windows and other improvements.

But time and the cost of renovation proved overwhelming. The renovation stalled after pipes burst in 2010. The water was shut down. And the medical society moved its offices out of the building, leaving it vacant, and without mail service. Lofton said she never received water bills or foreclosure notices at the society's post office box, which she checked regularly.

"The thought that we would lose it, after all that we've put into it, was very upsetting for everybody," said Lofton. "This has really galvanized all of us to action."