Historic Detroit

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Carstens Elementary School

Among east side schools, few are talked about as fondly as Carstens Elementary School.

Hattie M. Carstens was a beloved activist who served a variety of social causes in Detroit until her death in 1915. This school, designed by the firm Malcomson & Higginbotham, opened on Coplin Street and East Vernor Highway a year later and named in her honor.

The three-story school has an F-shaped floor plan, the result of additions in 1919 and 1921. This made it fairly large for an elementary school, with 29 standard classrooms in addition to a library, kindergarten and four large specialty rooms. The building is also rather unusual among Detroit schools for its raised, fenestrated basement level, which is sunken half a level below. The front façade faces southwest onto Coplin Avenue, and the school sits in the middle of an entire 5-acre city block, just north of Vernor Highway.

The school is considered an outstanding example of the Arts and Crafts style that was popular in the early 1900s. This can best be seen in Carstens' decorative brick detail and tile and terra cotta that is focused around the central entrance and between floors. Malcomson & Higginbotham designed a handful of other schools in this style during this time period - Nichols School (1910), Breitmeyer School (1915) and Harms School (1917). Nichols and Harms are still in use; Breitmeyer was demolished in 2010. But the 1920s saw a shift in the design of educational buildings in the city, with a firm shift toward the Collegiate Gothic found at the great educational institutions of England. This makes schools of this style rare in Detroit.

An addition in 1919 added six homerooms, a gymnasium and an auditorium, and another addition two years later tacked on another nine classrooms.

The Herbert M. Rich School, named after a secretary of the Detroit Tuberculosis Society, was built in 1927 on the grounds of Carstens. That building was demolished at some point; it was a four-room bungalow-type structure with a dormitory.

In 1957, Carstens was converted into a unit for girls enrolled in the special education program, and opened the following year. Several basement classrooms were added in the late 1950s or early '60s.

The school continued serving the east side for the next half century. However, the Fox Creek neighborhood saw considerable decline and disinvestment during that time. Nevertheless, Carstens remained a high-performing school. staff went above and beyond to help their students. As DetroitUrbex.com wrote, "After several students were hospitalized with severe lead poisoning, Carstens began an outreach program educating families in the neighborhood about the dangers of lead paint in older houses. When teachers found out that many students were going hungry during weekends, they made extra meals for them to take home. A New York Times article noted 'to have more money for instruction, teachers sit with students at lunch, saving the school from having to hire lunchroom aides. Teachers hold jacket and shoe drives for children who have no winter coats and come to school in slippers. At Thanksgiving every child goes home with a frozen turkey donated by a local businessman. Twice a year a bus carrying a portable dentist’s office arrives, and a clinic is set up at the school so children can get their teeth checked.'”

However, as Detroit's population continued to decline, so did Carstens' enrollment, with the school losing more than half of its population between 1998 and 2007. In March of 2010, the district proposed closing Carstens Elementary, citing the loss of students and the $3 million in repairs the aging building needed. Parents fought to keep Carstens open and helped win it a temporary reprieve - but that stay of closure lasted only a year.

In 2011, Carstens was closed and merged with nearby Remus Robinson Middle School, making Carstens one of a staggering 195 public schools closed in the city between 2000 and 2015. Three years later, Carstens 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. Sadly, the building has not faired well since closure, with major roof failure causing significant water damage throughout.

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. Given the roof failures and decade of decline, the City estimated that a renovation of Carstens would cost around $16.2 million, depending on use.

Carstens is located in Detroit's Fox Creek neighborhood, one that has seen more than its share of challenges and demolitions. The school is surrounded by vacant fields - and is home to one of the largest concentrations of vacant land and City-owned properties. Given the costs and challenges of redeveloping a school that's been vacant for more than a decade, this makes finding a savior for Carstens, no matter how beautiful the building is, sadly unlikely.

Last updated 20/03/2023