Historic Detroit

Michigan State Capitol

Lansing hasn’t always been the seat of state government. It was the pre-motor Motor City that served as Michigan’s first capital, and what is now Capitol Park was its home.

The building that would serve as the first Michigan Capitol opened in 1828, when Michigan was still a territory, as the Michigan Territorial Courthouse. After Michigan joined the union in 1837, the simple-but-proud, Greek Revival-inspired building was converted into the Capitol. The building was 60 feet by 90 feet with a 140-foot center tower. It was designed by Obed Wait and cost $24,500 to build, about $511,000 today, when adjusted for inflation.

The Great Lakes State’s first 10 years would be shaped from within this building’s walls. Michigan’s state constitution of 1835 decreed that “the seat of government for this state shall be at Detroit, or at such other place or places as may be prescribed by law until the year 1847, when it shall be permanently located by the legislature.” The Legislature chose Lansing, partly because it was more centrally located, and partly because there were fears about having the capital so close to the border with those hostile Canadians (keep in mind, the War of 1812 hadn’t faded from many Detroiters’ minds by this point). Ann Arbor, Jackson and Grand Rapids were other contenders, but Lansing’s spot smack dab in the middle of the Mitten helped it ultimately win out.

On March 17, 1847, the state government moved to Lansing, settling into a two-story structure built in 1847 and designed by Israel Gillett. It stood at what is now Washington and Capitol avenues and Allegan and Washtenaw streets in Lansing, and served as the state Capitol until 1879.

After the Legislature had packed its bags, the old Capitol in Detroit was turned into the city’s first - and only - high school, Capitol Union, in September 1863. On March 25, 1865, the Detroit Public Library opened in a room on the second floor in the southwest corner of the building amid the final days of the Civil War. The library, like the city itself, kept growing, however, and would get its own digs downtown in 1877.

But the layout of the old courthouse and Capitol proved unsuitable for a school. And even after the library moved out, the old two-story structure was too cramped for the growing city. In 1860, Detroit was a city of 45,619 people. By 1880, it would be home to 116,340.

In 1875, the old building got a total makeover and was sheathed inside a new stony skin. A two-story addition was tacked onto the top. The rear of the building was extended along Griswold Street to Grand River. The new skin left the original structure completely unrecognizable, a radical form of architectural plastic surgery.

But on a wintry Jan. 27, 1893, the school and former Capitol burned to the ground.

The alarm came in at 3:52 a.m. Firefighters “were saluted by a dense cloud of smoke. … Simultaneously, a bright flame shot up, and seemed almost instantly to possess the building,” the Free Press reported the following morning. “The fire made steady headway, crash succeeding crash, as one part of the building and then another gave way. Great tongues of flame shot out in every direction, illuminating the heavens with meteoric brilliancy.”

The wooden structure housed inside a masonry and stone exterior was something like a wood-burning stove. Everything inside was burned to a crisp, leaving only the scorched shell standing. Water used to battle the blaze froze in the frigid temperatures, forming icicles on the windowpanes and along the cooked cornice. Gawkers gathered all day to take in the “picturesque appearance of the ice-covered ruins.” Besides the books and school records lost in the fire, Michigan lost a key piece of its history, says Jack Dempsey, author of the book “Capitol Park: Historic Heart of Detroit” (History Press, 2014).

“We lost our original seat of democracy and our first governor’s mansion,” he said, “and we lost track of how this is where Michigan really got its birth.”

The fire marshal wasn’t sure how the blaze started, but said it was almost certainly the work of a “firebug,” the Free Press said. “The monomaniac who has periodically broken in the high school and carried valuables away is believed by some to have had something to do with the present catastrophe.” Had the burglar dropped a lantern? Or maybe there was an even more sinister motive. Many people felt the building-inside-a-building construction made the school a fire trap and poorly ventilated. “A very general feeling is prevalent that the fire was a good thing,” the Free Press noted.

No matter the cause, the kids were thrilled to get an extra vacation off school.

Capitol High’s 1,100 students and 36 teachers took temporary refuge in the old Biddle House hotel downtown until Detroit built a replacement school. That building, Central High, survives today as Old Main, part of Wayne State University’s campus.