Historic Detroit

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

Burgess Elementary School

Today, the ironically named Detroit Open School is closed.

But generations of Detroiters have walked through its halls.

Burgess Elementary was built by the Redford Union School District in 1924, shortly before the Five Points neighborhood was annexed by the City of Detroit.

A 1955 addition would more than triple the school’s size and give it a major facelift, but at first, the Burgess School was just a one-story, four-room schoolhouse with a kindergarten and three classrooms with a red-brick exterior and wood-frame construction. The original, 1924 section is located in what is now the building’s southwestern wing. The 1955 facade was sheathed in tan brick and glass block, and the 1924 section was given a facelift to match as part of the makeover.

The school was named in honor of Hiram Perrin Burgess, a late Redford Township supervisor who had died four decades earlier.

Following the annexation of the village of Redford and the Five Points, Brightmoor and Rosedale Park communities in 1926, Burgess School was taken over by the Detroit Board of Education (forerunner of the Detroit Public Schools, or DPS). With the city of Detroit surging toward 2 million residents, Detroit residents approved in 1949 a special millage that gave the Detroit Board of Education $50 million to renovate existing schools and build new ones given a projected increase in enrollment of 40,000 students over the next decade or so. During this incredible period of school construction, Detroit would see 119 additions or new schools built to serve the incoming Baby Boom generation.

Among the schools to benefit was Burgess, which saw a large, 14-room addition tacked on in 1954-55. This $758,282 upgrade boosted Burgess to a capacity of 525 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The addition added a multi-purpose room, kitchen, auditorium, industrial arts and homemaking rooms, library, office and more classrooms. The original building’s heating plant/boiler room was also modernized. This addition more than tripled Burgess’ size and gave it the typical double-loaded U-shaped layout common in many Detroit schools, though it remained one-story. Coupled with the exterior resheathing, Burgess looked like a completely different building.

Just two years later, with those Baby Boomers filling desks more and more, Burgess’ enrollment soar to 700 in 1957 – making the recently enlarged school already too small by 175 kids. This led to the district organizing the school day into a 14-section platoon schedule. In the mid-1960s, a 1937-era detached outbuilding was demolished. Given the overcrowding issue, it is assumed this was done because of the building’s condition.

In 1972, the Detroit Public Schools opened its first alternative education program. In 1978, that program was moved into Burgess, where it served 230 students and had six full-time and one part-time teachers. The program would go on to occupy the entire building, and the school would be renamed the Detroit Open School.

Detroit’s dramatic loss of population and the leaching of students by charter and private schools was coupled with the increasing costs of maintaining aging buildings. The school district was forced to make tough decisions. Though the Detroit Open School was considered an academic success, it was closed by DPS in 2009, one of 195 public schools closed in the city between 2000 and 2015.

In 2014, DPS transferred Detroit Open to the City of Detroit, one of 57 vacant DPS properties given to the City in exchange for wiping millions of dollars in DPS debt from unpaid electrical bills.

In 2021, the City released a report that offered potential developers insight into the structural integrity and floor plans of more than 60 vacant schools - 39 owned by the City and two dozen still owned by the school district. The effort was not only to take inventory of the dozens of vacant schools littering the city, but also to incentivize redevelopment of the structures by reducing the upfront costs through the assessments provided. The report found that, despite being closed for more than a decade, Burgess/Detroit Open remained in good shape – ranking 13th out of the 64 schools in terms of building condition.

Given the school’s relatively small size and simple layout, plus the strong and desirable neighborhood, the report suggested that it would be an ideal project to convert into residential. Also lending itself to such a conversion is its partly enclosed green courtyard at the back of the building.

Last updated 09/03/2023