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Reminiscing with alumni about gorgeous former Detroit high schools

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We spoke with alumni of three closed or demolished schools to hear what it was like to go there and what their loss means

A long brick and limestone building with multiple windows and floors. The first two stories are boarded up.
Old Cass Technical High School on Second Avenue.
Wikimedia Commons

Due to budget cuts, student population shifts, and building deterioration, around 200 public schools have closed in Detroit since 2000.

The loss of these schools can be felt in many ways: increased transit times for students commuting to schools farther away, absence of a neighborhood anchor, presence of a large abandoned building near homes. Also, many of these schools were architectural gems designed by some of the city’s most renowned firms and designers.

To get a sense of what it was like to go to some of these closed or demolished schools, we spoke with alumni who attended three of them. Here’s what they had to say.

Old Cass Technical High School, Opened in 1922

In addition to being one of Detroit’s highest performing schools, Cass Tech was also a historical landmark with an illustrious list of famous alumni like Alice Coltrane, Diana Ross, David Alan Grier, and Big Sean to name a few.

First opening as Cass Union School, it moved to its Second Avenue location in 1922. It was designed by Malcolmson & Higginbotham with additional architectural support from Albert Kahn. The brick and limestone Gothic building was large: eight stories fitting 4,400 students and 50 classrooms. It would have cost around $60.8 million to build today.

A black and white photograph of a long, rectangular six-story building. Most of it is made of bricks and repeating windows, with the top made of stone. Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Check out more photos at historicdetroit.org.

Monique Bryant, Class of 1986

I attended because I had a first cousin who also graduated from Cass. Although my parents didn’t attend, they understood about it being a college prep and pushed me to go. At that time, we were the only school with a gymnastics program so I got very involved with that. I also played tennis.

Though I took two to three buses to get to school every day, my experience was great. I got along with everyone.

Back then, the Cass Corridor had a lot of homeless people—you would step over them just get to school. But they wouldn’t bother us. I was never fearful going to school because all of them respected Cass Tech as place of higher learning and knew that us kids came from miles away in the dark to go to school each day.

Cass Tech could hold about 5,000 students—that’s about 1,500 kids in every grade. A lot of people felt it was overwhelming with that many people. You would ride the bus to school arm to arm sitting on each other back, then wait in all these lines to get in the school. The hallway would be packed, the lunchroom would be packed, but you loved it. It was like a college in high school.

Harry C. Todd, Class of 1981

The area was like, “Did our parents really love us?” There were drug dealers, hookers—it was skid row. Luckily it was not only a place of tranquility and learning, but a safe zone. It was an area that was like an island unto itself.

I was amazed at the school. It was huge: eight stories with an elevator that been around for decades. But over the years, the building just got older and older. Even so, we loved it. It played a pivotal role in our trajectory.

In 2000, the Detroit Public School District announced plans for construction of the current modern Cass Tech building, which was built in 2004. The old structure caught fire in 2007, and was eventually demolished in November 2011.

Todd

Of course, nostalgia makes you think “mine was better,” but the children of today need a beautiful school with windows and air conditioners that have all the modern features that a school in Birmingham or Grosse Pointe has. Our kids deserve the same or better.

Doretha Clark Evans, Class of 1980

I had an opportunity to see the new building in 2015. Architecturally, I thought it was beautiful. Although I hated to see it demolished, the building isn’t what makes us great. Some have a story, but we have a legacy. The Triangle Society is committed to maintaining that legacy by providing financial support to Clubs, organizations, athletic and academic programs at Cass.

Thomas M. Cooley High School, Opened in 1928

Cooley High School was built for a growing Detroit population in Detroit’s northwest side. It also occupied an opulent building designed by renowned local firm Donaldson & Meier in the Mediterranean Revival-style. A 1,000-seat auditorium was added in 1930. The school also had an indoor pool and facilities for fencing, table tennis, indoor track and field, and ice skating and hockey.

Check out more photos here.

David Webb, Class of 1976

When you went through the second set of double doors, the school opened into many different hallways. I remember the auditorium with graduation ceremonies, plays, and music functions. There were all these different areas—gym, showers, other facilities. And when you would go outside to the back, there was the baseball field, basketball courts. It was huge—it took almost a whole square block.

What I’ll always take with me is basketball, the camaraderie and cheering. The school brought us a sense of community, because everyone’s got problems but school was the outlet. Even if your parents were dogging you, you had your friends at school that you could hang out with and would always look out for each other.

At the end of the 2009-2010 school year, Cooley High School closed due to budget deficits and decreased enrollment. In 2017, the building suffered severe damage from a fire in its auditorium. The building is still standing but deteriorated from fires, scraping, and vandalism.

I have gone back recently and man. The building is there but it’s dilapidated, it’s burned down. It’s just sad to see. In 2017, when I came back, a piece of me died inside. All these neighborhoods were occupied, now all of houses in the neighborhoods are gone. Nothing but burnt down homes and empty lots. It’s like a ghost town, right in the middle of what used to be life.

Redford High School, Opened in 1921

First built to serve Redford Township, the city later annexed this region and integrated it with the Detroit Public Schools system. The original building was designed Burrowes & Eurich, but there were multiple additions over the subsequent decades. The interior had elaborate tilework, an ornate library, pool, gymnasium, auditorium, and more across its six buildings.

Redford High, before it was demolished. Photo taken by Raygirl

Posted by In loving memory ..Detroit Redford High School on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Check out photos of the building at Detroiturbex.com.

Phillip Allen, Class of 1977

They were beginning to integrate Redford when I started there. It was mostly white when us blacks started to come in—they began to leave soon after. We lived about four miles from the school and took the Grand River bus.

I remember us hanging out at the police station across the street from school. They had a lawn area and we use to gather around over there. The police never bothered us.

I enjoyed school, being able to go there with my siblings. I have memories of running down the halls and writing my name on the walls. Jumping out the windows to get out of the classrooms, since it wasn’t that far down. Us going down to the basement and security come after us.

At its peak, Redford High School had over 4,000 students. When it was announced that the school would close following the 2006-2007 school year, there were a little over 1,000. It was ultimately demolished in 2012. Today there’s a Meijer grocery store on the site.

A lot of memories come back when I go past it. Wow my high school is gone, they tore it down.