Historic Detroit

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Academy of the Sacred Heart

The southwest corner of East Jefferson Avenue and St. Antoine Street went from prayers to Packards.

The origins of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in the city trace back to 1851, when, in responding to a request from the prominent Detroit family of Antoine Beaubien, the French order of the Sacred Heart came from New York to Detroit. The order opened a school on East Jefferson that June with 10 day students and three orphans. Between 1851 and 1861, the school would move three times, all along East Jefferson. Among their haunts was the former home of Zachariah Chandler on the southwest corner of Jefferson and St. Antoine. Incidentally, the home, built by Beaubien and leased to Chandler, was the site of one of the more humorous pieces of 19th century Detroit trivia. U.S. Grant, then a lieutenant stationed in Detroit at the time, was incensed by the fact that Chandler didn't shovel his sidewalks and filed a legal complaint.

In 1861, the religious order built a new school on the academy property, which stretched 236 feet west along Jefferson, 200 feet south down St. Antoine to East Woodbridge, and 236 feet west along East Woodbridge. The Sisters also continued to occupy Chandler's former home after erection of the new school.

Ads in the Detroit Free Press from 1852, that the academy was "in one of the most healthy and central parts of the city. Its plan of education embraces every branch becoming young Ladies. The religion of the house is Catholic, but difference of creed is no obstacle to the admission of pupils provided they conform to the general regulations of the school." The school year began the first Monday of September and ran until the last Thursday of July. "Each pupil will furnish her own bed and bedding and be provided with six changes of linen, 12 pairs hose, 12 pocket handkerchiefs, six table napkins, six towels, three pairs sheets, two pairs blankets, six night gowns, six night caps, one counterpane, one white and one black bobbinet veil, one silver cup, two silver spoons, one silver fork, one knife, dressing box, work box, etc. etc.," the ad in the Free Press continued.

Another ad from 1858 said, "This institution combines, in its plan of education, together with the benefits of Christian instruction, every advantage that can be derived from a punctual and conscientious care bestowed upon the pupils in every branch of science suitable to their sex. The strictest attention is given to form as well the manners as the principals of the young ladies, and to train them up to habits of order, neatness and industry."

In 1850, Detroit had a population of 21,000. By 1860, it had more than doubled, to 45,619. It stands to reason that the number of Catholics - and the need for more people of the cloth - had increased dramatically, as well. It was decided to enlarge the academy's campus.

In 1862, this new school, designed by architect James W. Wall of New York City, opened. "This splendid edifice ... is destined to be one of the finest buildings in the city," the Detroit Free Press wrote June 1, 1861, of the building's construction. The building stood about 70 feet tall and was three stories. The first story was divided into large rooms, for both reception and other uses. Its roof was covered in slate and adorned with dormers. The basement, which ran the length of the building, was home to a kitchen, dining room. The staircase, which stretched from the basement to the attic, had white oak carriages and heavy-turned balusters, also of white oak. Each floor had bathrooms and water closets. Out back was a piazza 50 feet by 8 feet in length. The masonry work for the building - built of red-pressed brick - was done by well-known Detroiter Alex Chapoton.

In all, there were three buildings on the academy property -- the main academy building and two smaller buildings, including the original structure. The academy operated both a day school and a boarding school for girls. In 1885, the boarding school was moved to a new Academy of the Sacred Heart facility off Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Farms, but the day school continued to operate. The Grosse Pointe Farms academy operated until 1969.

The Sisters move out

In 1916, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart decided to move the academy from its landmark East Jefferson location to a new location on Lawrence Avenue near Twelfth Street, where they erected a new concrete, fireproof building. The Sisters operated out of the Lawrence Avenue location until 1958, when they moved out to Bloomfield Hills. The academy remains the oldest continuing school among the members of the Independent Schools of Michigan.

In December 1916, the Packard Motor Car Co. announced that it had purchased the academy property for an undisclosed price and would take possession on June 1, 1917. Then, in January 1917, Packard revealed plans for a new Albert Kahn-designed, 10-story building sales and service building that it planned to build on the academy property. As a "gift to the City of Detroit," Packard indicated that the building would also include a large auditorium for grand opera performances and public use. For whatever reason, perhaps World War I, this building was never built.

In October 1918, Packard turned the four-story former Academy building over to the Red Cross. It was known as the Packard Hospital of Detroit Chapter, American Red Cross.

In August 1919, Packard announced that work had begun on building a new Kahn-designed Packard Service Branch building. The four-story L-shaped building was being erected on property adjacent to the Academy property, bordered by East Woodbridge, St. Antoine and Franklin streets. Meanwhile, the three Academy of Sacred Heart buildings remained standing and were used occasionally by various charitable organizations with Packard's permission. The new service branch building opened in June 1920. Although the building was designed to service Packard vehicles, the staff had to share space with the sales department, limiting the space available to service vehicles.

In February 1920, Packard finally had the three academy buildings demolished by the Union Wrecking Co. Three months later, it announced plans for an impressive-looking, Kahn-designed Packard-Detroit Branch Sales Building to be built at Jefferson Avenue and St. Antoine. However, the new branch sales building was not built until 1923-24, meaning that the sales and service departments were forced to share the service building on Woodbridge for about four years. The new Packard Sales Building finally opened its doors on April 28, 1924. It was indeed an attractive building, although it bore little resemblance to the impressive rendering envisioned.

The Packard Sales Building was referred to as the "Downtown Retail Store" in 1950 ads. Then, in 1952 it was called the "Packard Salon" and then "Packard's Detroit Salon." Ads in 1955 featured a "Detroit & Suburban Packard-Clipper Dealers' Warehouse Sale" at 574 E. Jefferson. The last Detroit-made Packard was produced in 1956, so it is assumed that the Sales Building was closed that same year. The Sales Building was demolished in 1963 when East Jefferson was widened from Randolph to the Chrysler Freeway. The L-shaped Packard Service Building on Woodbridge was also demolished, though it was still standing in 1974.

The two 21-story towers that were added onto the east side of the Renaissance Center in 1981 now stand about where the Academy of Sacred Heart and then the Packard Motor Car Sales and Service Buildings once stood.

Dan Austin of HistoricDetroit.org contributed to the research of this building.