Historic Detroit

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

Burt Elementary School

Generations of kids growing up in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood attended this school.

The school is named after Thomas Burt, whose family leased, and later donated, the land for the school's original location at Burt Road and Grand River Avenue. What was then Redford Township had a school at that location in three successive buildings starting back in 1855. Burt Road is also named after this family.

Redford Union Schools began construction on this building in 1925. Located on Pilgrim Avenue, west of Grand River Avenue, the school originally had room for 580 students and included 10 classrooms, an auditorium, gymnasium and kindergarten. It had a two-story, double-loaded U-shaped footprint. The facade is Gothic revival-style with brown brick, decorative stonework, wood-framed windows, and a large 2-story bay window in the center.

The Detroit Board of Education acquired the building in 1926, just before it even opened, when a large swath of Redford Township voted to be annexed by the city of Detroit. But the brand-new school wasn't quite the gift that the board thought it was.

For starters, after construction was completed, the Detroit Board of Education and City building inspection officials found that the school had not been well-built. For instance, its chimney was said to have been built “upside down,” and the ceiling in the building’s playroom had already started to collapse. The school board decided to close the new building, because of these safety issues, in May 1926.

Then, following repairs that allowed it to reopen, more than 700 students enrolled - already over capacity. Because of this overcrowding, students at Burt had to attend school on a half-day basis. The school board had to increase its 1930 construction budget by nearly $3 million to handle the surge in students, including $100,000 for an addition at Burt School. However, only $43,341 was approved for Burt, and the school board had to kick in Public Works Authority (PWA) funds in 1938 to erect a new portable building at the school -- more than a decade after overcrowding first became an issue at Burt.

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. Burt, finally, was tapped in the 1953-54 school year to receive the addition it had needed for more than decade.

In 1959, new northeast and northwest wings designed by Schreve, Walker & Associates were tacked onto the building at a cost of $271,152. The modern-style addition included a new gym and auditorium. That brought Burt School's total square footage to 46,200 and increased enrollment capacity by another 350 students. Burt School was reorganized to include a junior high/middle school in addition to its elementary.

The school mascot was the Bobcats.

The school was closed by DPS in 2010, citing decades of declining enrollment caused by Brightmoor's struggles with abandonment and population loss. In 2014, Burt School was among 57 closed Detroit Public Schools (DPS) properties given to the City of Detroit in exchange for forgiving millions of dollars in DPS' unpaid electrical bills.

The City released a report in 2021 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 dotting the city, but also to incentivize redevelopment of the structures by reducing the upfront costs through the assessments provided. The report pegged Burt School's redevelopment cost, depending on use, at an estimated $12.1 million, and cited heavy damage by scrappers over the previous decade of abandonment.