Abandoned school in Detroit

Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit Michigan
Date added: February 15, 2023 Categories: Michigan School Gothic Revival
East and south elevations, with present school building in background at right. (2009)

Lewis Cass Technical High School is an early example of a dedicated, publicly-funded vocational school building in Michigan. Serving a major urban population, it is also likely to have been among the state's largest vocational schools in terms of student body and building size.

Lewis Cass Technical High School has its roots in an earlier institution, Lewis Cass Union School, which was established in 1860. Cass Union School was named after former Governor of the Territory of Michigan and United States Senator, Lewis Cass (1782-1866), who donated the land upon which the school building was erected. It was located on the block bounded by Second, High, Grand River, and Columbia, immediately south of the present building, where the Fisher Freeway is now located.

A separate, technical high school curriculum was established in January 1907 on the third floor of the Cass Union building, with 110 students and nine teachers. It was designed to prepare students for careers in Detroit's growing manufacturing industry, training them to become "draughtsmen, machinists, electricians, auto-mechanics, patternmakers, bookkeepers, salesmen, typists, stenographers, and cost accountants." It was the first such program in the city, and its establishment was somewhat controversial. A previous attempt to establish a technical high school in Detroit had been opposed by trade unions, concerned that the proposed curriculum would create a surplus of skilled workers. The Board of Education, on the other hand, was not convinced that adequate demand existed for such programs."

By 1909, however, this program served 1,000 students. In that year, it was moved into a new building that was built on High Street, and named Lewis Cass Technical High School. The school's technical curriculum allowed it to remain at the forefront of the city's growing manufacturing industry, and as the school continued to grow it soon demanded a much larger building.

Publicly-funded vocational school buildings were uncommon in Michigan in the early years of the twentieth century. While vocational programs within existing schools were beginning to grow in popularity, a large share of vocational instruction in the state was funded by private industries seeking to expand their pool of available workers. During World War I, however, public demand for vocational education increased. The Vocational Act of 1917, also known as the Smith-Hughes Act, provided federal funding for vocational instruction and led to an expansion of such programs throughout the country.

In 1918 the Detroit Board of Education began construction of a new building on the 2400 block of Second Avenue, one block north of the existing structure. With a budget of over four million dollars, the project was completed in 1922. The new Cass Technical High School building was seven stories tall and contained sixty classrooms and a 3,000 seat auditorium. The school offered a variety of curricula: "Mechanic Arts, Electrical, Auto Mechanics, Science, Pharmacy, Printing, Industrial Arts, Music, Pre-Nursing, Textiles and General Merchandising, and Home Economics.' From its inception, Cass Technical High School also offered a variety of vocational classes for adults. For some time, the previous building remained in use as well, housing the city's High School of Commerce, which focused on preparing students for careers in clerical and retail work. The two buildings were connected by a second-story causeway spanning High Street.

In the 1940s or 1950s an annex was constructed adjacent to the main building, providing additional space for music and R.O.T.C. classes, and a playfield was acquired to allow for athletics. An addition by Albert Kahn & Associates was erected in 1985, extending the building's footprint to the west to cover most of the remainder of the block. The entire building was vacated in 2006 when the students of Cass Technical High School were moved to a new building located one block to the north.

Building Description

Lewis Cass Technical High School was constructed in 1922 on the northwest end of Detroit's downtown. It faces east onto Second Avenue, at the junction of the Fisher Freeway and Grand River Avenue, and is bounded on the north by Henry Street. It is a large, rectangular, seven-story structure in the Collegiate Gothic style. Befitting its urban setting, a setback of only several feet exists between the building facade and the public right of way. The present building, when constructed, was connected by an enclosed second-story passageway to an existing Cass Technical High School building dating from 1909. The original building, located on the other side of what was then High Street to the south, was demolished around 1964 to allow construction of the below-grade Fisher Freeway. An addition to Cass Technical High School was completed in 1985. Presently, the building appears to be in a state of moderate disrepair, having been vacant since 2006.

Constructed in 1922, Cass Technical High School is a large, rectangular, symmetrically arranged, seven-story structure in the Collegiate Gothic style. It is clad in stone and Flemish bond brickwork in a pale brown-gray. Dominating its fifteen-bay facade are the monumental, projecting fourth and twelfth bays that each feature a pair of buttresses flanking a compound, segmental-arched recessed entryway on the ground floor, a segmental-arched window opening on the seventh floor, and parapets that project above the roofline and culminate in triangular peaks. Above each of the building's front doors, a stone panel reads "Cass Technical High School A.D. 1917" in Blackletter relief. The bays are separated vertically by flat brick piers. The corners of the front facade are anchored by three-sided, tower-like piers. The base of the building is faced with blocks of granite, about five feet high. Set into this granite on the building's southeast corner is a cornerstone that reads "[-A-D- 1917] Malcomson & Higginbotham Architects."

The building's north and south elevations are divided into ten bays, with wide brick piers separating the endmost bays. In the central bay, a doorway is recessed within a segmental arch. A ribbon-like stone panel above the doorway reads "VICTORY MEMORIAL WORLD WAR 1917 1919" in raised lettering.

Horizontally, the building is divided into a two-story base, four-story middle, and single-story attic by molded limestone string courses. The window openings are rectangular, with the exception of segmental-arched window openings on the second floor, sixth floor, and paired on the seventh floor. At the sixth floor, grey brick gives way to lighter-colored limestone. An addition completed in 1985 by Albert Kahn & Associates includes a gymnasium, performance hall, and cafeteria.

The interior layout conforms to an E-shaped plan with office spaces along the east facade of the building on either side of its two formal entryways. Additional classrooms and science labs flank the north and south facades. A fifteen-foot wide corridor divides the office and classroom spaces from the recreational core which includes the auditorium, gymnasium, locker rooms, and lap pool (plunge room). The corridors retain much of their original finish, such as marble wainscot, wood door and window trim, window transoms, and decorative wood guardrails.

The auditorium has ornamental metal light fixtures suspended from a plaster barrel vault ceiling and an upper-level balcony flanking three sides. Glazed tile trim adorns the stage wall. Tiled floors and wainscoting run the full length of the lap pool with clerestory windows allowing natural light into the space.

Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit Michigan East (front) elevation (2009)
East (front) elevation (2009)

Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit Michigan East and south elevations, with present school building in background at right. (2009)
East and south elevations, with present school building in background at right. (2009)

Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit Michigan South elevation, with 1985 addition. (2009)
South elevation, with 1985 addition. (2009)

Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit Michigan Auditorium (2010)
Auditorium (2010)

Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit Michigan Interior view of entry doors (2010)
Interior view of entry doors (2010)

Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit Michigan Pool in Original Building (2010)
Pool in Original Building (2010)