Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Athletic Pavilion

Before the Motor City was known for pumping out cars, its streets were packed with a different type of wheels.

Bicycles were all the rage at the end of the 19th century, providing a fast, economical way to get around instead of horse-and-buggies and the upkeep they require.

This love fest can be summed up no better than this ode to the bicycle printed in the Aug. 5, 1899, edition of the Detroit Free Press:

"Like many other great successes in this uncertain world, the bicycle was of humble origin. It sprang from the wheelbarrow, and no one blames it. This is the reason that you can fall so far and be so long about it when you are mixed up with one of these machines, no matter what price or what model. The velocipede, which the best authorities testify was a connecting link, was uglier than anything else except a three-humped camel trying to escape his keeper. ... The bicycle became a thing of beauty and joy forever. ... They have thrown off their chains and have the highest degree of freedom attainable by things inanimate. They neither eat nor drink, but are always merry. ... They do not shy at firecrackers, a cow in the road or a locomotive whistle. ... In time, it is predicted, they will have wings, and humanity itself aspires to nothing more desirable."

So, with that degree of hyperbole-drenched infatuation in mind, the League of American Wheelmen's Michigan Division - an organization formed to revel in all things bicycle - helped get the City of Detroit to set aside $10,000 in 1898 to build a bicycle pavilion on Belle Isle. This Victorian-style building was the result, designed by architect Edward A. Schilling, and opened Aug. 4, 1899, to a throng estimated at 6,000 to 8,000 people. The celebration stretched into the night, with a band concert held at the pavilion.

Its initial purpose was to provide Detroiters a place to escape stormy weather, grab some refreshments, store their bikes in while enjoying other activities on Belle Isle, rent bicycles for two-wheeled adventures around the island, and even a repair shop. Its lower level had room for up to 500 bicycles; the top floor served as an open-air gallery that offered pleasure-seekers stunning views of the park below and all around them.

To put it another way, the Free Press wrote Aug. 5, 1899, "There could be no more fitting time to apostrophize the bicycle. The pavilion dedicated to it last evening at the island is a monument to one of the most marked and widely appreciated innovations of our modern civilization."

However, given the building’s location next to the athletic field, just a few years later, it was turned into the Athletic Pavilion. Detroit's love for all things athletics outgrowing the need for an entire building devoted to just bicycling.

The date of construction of the athletic fields various components is not known, but they are depicted on a 1976-77 Belle Isle plan. The current locations of the tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and oval track are shown on a 1914 plan, although the baseball diamonds were individually placed in the center of the fields, rather than grouped as they are today. The 36-acre athletic field complex has facilities for softball, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, rugby, tennis and track. Handball/racquetball courts are located across Vista Way next to the Nashua Trail. The field was originally used as a large parade venue.

Though the Athletic Pavilion has been altered from its original design (including the loss of its original leaded-glass windows), the building is the fourth-oldest building on the island - and a reminder of what this grand old park looked like when it was still "new."

Lori Feret contributed to this report.

Last updated 04/08/2022