Historic Detroit

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

Herman School

Herman School was built to serve the kids of the Herman Gardens public-housing projects - the second-largest such project in the country and the subject of the biggest corruption scandal in the city's history.

But in the end, not even a church of demon-banishing parishioners could ward off the evil intentions of scrappers.

As Detroit entered the 1940s, there was incredible demand for lower-income housing as more families migrated to the Motor City to work in the auto plants and, during World War II, to help produce vehicles, engines and ammo in those factories as they shifted their production. The city also found itself in an unbelievable housing crunch during this period, with some estimates that Detroit needed more than 50,000 housing units - or shelter for 200,000 people.

The federal government had already embarked on funding housing projects across the country. Chicago got the Cabrini Homes (later expanded to Cabrini-Green). The Techwood Homes went up in Atlanta. The Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles got the Imperial Courts. In Long Island, N.Y., arose the Queensbridge Houses. In Detroit, that effort saw the Brewster-Douglass projects rise on the east side a few years earlier. The answer for those living on the west side was the Herman Gardens, a sprawling complex stretching from Tireman to Joy roads on the east side of the Southfield Freeway.

Dr. Herman and Herman Gardens

The federal government approved in 1938 the building of what would be called Herman Gardens. At the time of its announcement, it was the nation's largest housing project with homes for 2,150 families and cost about $8.4 million (about $182.4 million in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation). The City of Detroit acquired and condemned 160 acres between Tireman Avenue and Joy Road, just east of Southfield Road for the project. The commission for designing the project was awarded to Detroit-based George D. Mason Associates.

The 235 two- and three-story buildings were to have rents ranging from $22.95 to $29.75, including utilities. Families had to earn below $1,014 to $1,485 a year to qualify to live there.

The Detroit Housing Commission voted in 1938 to name the project after Dr. Samuel James Herman, a champion of housing and better living conditions for low-income Americans. Herman was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1890. In 1901, he graduated from the University of Maryland Medical School and began practicing in Detroit in 1903. In 1906, Herman gave up his medical practice to join his brothers in a new business venture, the Diamond Power Specialty Co.

In 1922, Herman lost his sight, and he turned to sociology, studying at the University of Southern California. He initially began specializing in criminology, which then led to him digging into housing problems for the poor, some of whom turned to lives of crime out of desperation. Herman returned to Detroit in 1927, and would lead the way in creating Detroit's first housing survey and co-founding the Michigan Housing Association (MHA). The MHA's mission was to provide research to solve Detroit's housing problems for low-income families. Among the organization's first plans were to set up "garden communities," where families could own a small home and a garden. These "gardens" were where the name Herman Gardens came from. Because of poor health, Herman retired from the MHA and returned to Los Angeles, where he died Feb. 20, 1942. The headline on his obituary in The New York Times two days later, called him the "blind, low-cost housing pioneer." Incidentally, the first residents moved into Herman Gardens the same year he died, on Nov. 2, 1942.

Beyond a series of legal challenges over the project, one of the biggest scandals involving graft and corruption in the city's history would delay the project by more than six months, cost taxpayers more than $700,000 in increased expenses and send three sitting Common Council members to prison.

What follows will eventually be placed into a separate entry on Herman Gardens, but until then, we're including it here in the Herman School section because the scandal and its fallout is so unbelievable, it needs to be told somewhere on this site.

Steel or steal?

Such a massive undertaking took years of planning and weathered lawsuits over whether the property owners were underpaid for their condemned land and whether the governmental effort was illegal because the low-cost housing project benefited a class of people - in this case the poor - and not the public as a whole.

Then the project was embroiled in a scandal that dominated the front pages of the city's newspapers on a daily basis for months. The Housing Commission had recommended that the Maurice Bein Co. of Bridgeport, Conn., be given the contract for using light-steel framing in construction at a cost of $8.32 million. But on Sept. 3, 1940, the Common Council decided to interject itself into the project and overruled the Housing Commission by a 5-4 vote, ordering that reinforced concrete framing be used instead of steel. The commission was instructed to accept the bid of A. Smith & Co. and the Lipman Construction Co. of Chicago, which bid $8.33 million for the project, instead.

In December 1940, allegations of bribery surfaced when Common Council President John W. Smith (a former two-time Detroit mayor) said that he had been offered a $25,000 bribe to vote in favor of the concrete bid instead of Bein's bid using steel. (Smith ended up voting against going with Smith-Lipman and concrete.) Bein had charged in a suit that bribery and corruption were involved in him losing the contract. That led to a grand jury investigation. Builder William Lipman of the Lipman Construction Co. was arrested for investigation of perjury on Dec. 19, 1940, and released on bond, but went on the run. Construction superintendent Henry H. Sherry was jailed for contempt of court at the same time. Lipman finally turned himself into Chicago police on Jan. 11, 1941.

A second councilman, Robert G. Ewald, was then accused of taking $5,000 from Smith-Lipman.

But, in a twist, a grand jury indictment alleged that Bein himself also offered a bribe, of $25,000 to Ewald, even though Ewald voted for the Smith-Lipman contract. Bein was arrested Jan. 15, 1941, in Highland Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Meanwhile, first-term Councilmember John F. Hamilton confessed to taking $15,000 in bribes from the concrete interests, and on March 18, 1941, resigned from office. But his resignation was rejected in order for the Common Council to mount ouster proceedings against him instead.

"It would seem to me," Councilman John C. Lodge said during council session, "that this Council has a very high duty to perform in purging itself. And it is up to this Council to purge itself by removing him - not accepting his resignation. ... What this man has done to himself and his family is terrible. Also what he has done to his colleagues and to the whole City government ... is something that is not to be excused by acceptance of a resignation."

Hamilton said he accepted the bribe because, well, "I needed the money."

While Hamilton confessed, Ewald would maintain his innocence throughout a nearly yearlong saga, claiming that the $5,000 was a campaign donation, not a bribe, and that he was always going to vote for the concrete contract. ("I was a concrete man, and wouldn't have voted for steel for anything," he later said.)

Then another bombshell dropped on March 26, 1941, when a third councilman, Harry I. Dingeman, also was charged with accepting a $5,000 bribe for allegedly swinging his vote in favor of Smith and Lipman. He pleaded guilty.

Ewald fought the charges and maintained his innocence.

In the end, all three councilmen were convicted. Hamilton got three to 10 years in prison; Ewald got three to 10; and Dingeman received three to five.

Because of the fraud, all contracts on Herman Gardens were deemed null and void, and work was stopped, and Council set out again to debate anew the topic of concrete versus steel construction.

Amid all the craziness in Detroit, back in Chicago, Abe Smith, president of A. Smith & Co., committed suicide by leaping 14 stories from his office on May 20, 1941.

On June 26, 1941, New York-based Cauldwell-Wingate Co. was awarded a $8.21 million contract by the Common Council to finish Herman Gardens, and work resumed July 16. They were given 14 months to finish the work, but rationing issues caused by World War II led to trouble getting copper pipes, and the first families did not move into the projects until Nov. 2, 1942.

Back to the school

With 2,150 units of housing, there needed to be a school nearby to serve all those kids. To get by, the children of the housing project attended school in temporary facilities while this school - designed by architect N. Chester Sorensen - was built on the southeastern part of the projects' grounds. Initially, it was a single-story school, but it soon became clear that more space was needed. A second story was added, bringing total enrollment from 800 to 1,600 students. Because of its location on the Herman Gardens development and where its students lived, the school was also named after Herman. The S. James Herman School opened in September 1944.

Not long after, overcrowding led to an addition being tacked on in 1948 - then again in 1955. This gave the Herman School its rather unusual-for-a-Detroit school floor plan. By the late 1950s, enrollment at the Herman School had exceeded 2,500 students, requiring more schools to be built nearby. By the time it finished growing, the Herman School was about 177,000 square feet with about 130 classrooms.

In a nod to Herman Gardens practically being a small city upon itself, the Archdiocese not only opened a new church across Tireman from the projects (St. Christopher), it opened a new Catholic school, too. The St. Christopher School, today known as Detroit Premier Academy, looks directly across Tireman at the Herman School.

Much like other U.S. public housing projects -- such as Cabrini-Green in Chicago or Pruitt–Igoe in St. Louis, Herman Gardens became synonymous with high crime, high poverty and a highly negative reputation. On Jan. 15, 1993, the Detroit Free Press wrote that "many of its 182 buildings have stood boarded, vandalized and vacant for a dozen years. A renovation 10 years ago has done little to boost its occupancy rate - now at about 56 percent." There were more than 1,700 people living at Herman Gardens at the time of that report, and nearly half of them were children. Most of them went to Herman School.

But starting in the 1980s, Herman Gardens was being demolished bit by bit, removing the pieces of the complex that had decayed and rotted away, a vain attempt to improve the quality of life for residents and to remove the vacant buildings frequented by drug users and prostitutes. The last of the projects came down in 1998. The loss of such a high concentration of residents and kids led the enrollment at Herman School to drop. The Herman Gardens site was redeveloped as the Garden View Estates, likely a move to help get rid of the dangerous reputation of the projects and start anew.

From a pioneer of low-income housing to a pioneer of the stars

The next chapter in the life of this school building - and of many other Detroit schools, for that matter - is a confusing game of musical chairs and changing school names.

In 2005, the Herman School and the Mae C. Jemison Academy - which had about 250 students enrolled - were merged in an attempt by the school district to save money by cutting costs and addressing declining enrollment through consolidation. The Herman building on Tireman took on the Jemison name -- after all, Herman Gardens was a name of the past.

The Jemison Academy had opened in 1992 in the former St. Monica Catholic School at 14595 Heyden St., just south of Fenkell. It was a "school of choice" -- a school that takes kids from anywhere, not just the surrounding neighborhood -- with a special, curated curriculum. Jemison's curriculum featured a heavy focus on Black history, literature and culture. The academy was named in honor of Mae C. Jemison, the first Black female astronaut, who also became the first Black woman in space when she took to the stars aboard the shuttle Endeavour on Sept. 12, 1992. She was not from Detroit, but was certainly an inspirational figure for the Black-centered curriculum. (She was born in Alabama and raised in Chicago.)

In 1996, the Jemison Academy moved to 6230 Plainview/6201 Auburn, the former William E. Leslie Elementary School that most recently had been home of the Malcolm X Academy, which itself had moved to 6311 W. Chicago Blvd. The Jemison Academy's building on Heyden became a new arts-oriented elementary and middle school called the oddly named Area C School of Fine and Performing Arts. Today, the Heyden Street school is home to the Citadel of Praise Head Start. (We know, it's super confusing - just imagine how the kids felt.)

After DPS moved Jemison into the Herman School on Tireman, the merged school taught kindergarten through eighth grade.

Six years after the merger, in 2011, Jemison School had 612 students on the Tireman campus. In a letter seeking a federal education grant, principal David Harris said 599 of those were Black, 434 were economically disadvantaged and 144 were identified as students with disabilities. But, the students were motivated. Harris noted that the school struggled with attendance of its teachers and parents at parent-teacher conferences more than it did with pupils. Student attendance was at 84.4 percent, relatively high for DPS schools. The school also had shown improvements in reading and math Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores, with 73.4 percent meeting or exceeding performance levels in reading and 53.4 percent in math, low but still showing improvement. The MEAP was a standardized test taken by all public-school students in Michigan from the 1969-70 to the 2013-14 school years.

But there were still challenges - some of them in regards to the condition of the building.

"Students don't always feel safe in the school," Harris wrote in his grant application. "Staff members sometimes feel misled by information that they receive from Detroit Public Schools administration. ... The library is not staffed or used effectively (and) many of the school clocks do not work and none are synchronized (and) many windows in the school are in poor condition and do not work properly (and the) school has experienced break-ins as a result of broken windows."

On Feb. 8, 2012, Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Roy Roberts announced the closing of 16 schools and the transformation of four others to charter schools. DPS had lost about 100,000 students in 10 years, and the 2012-13 enrollment was expected to be about a third of what it was in 2002. Jemison Academy was among those schools that found itself on the chopping block, with both the program and the building being shut down. Jemison students were to be reassigned to James Gardner Elementary, at 6528 Mansfield St., or the Erma L. Henderson Academy at 16101 W. Chicago Blvd.

"We're working our way through a phenomenon," Robert said at a press conference announcing the closings. "No school system has gone through what we've gone through."

God and the devils

On Feb. 8, 2013, Grand Valley State University's Board of Trustees authorized the Pathways Global Leadership Academy to operate as a charter school at the former Herman/Jemison building. But its stay would be short-lived, as on March 21, 2014, Pathways received permission from GVSU's charter schools office to relocate to 566 Custer St.

The vacant Herman/Jemison building was then soon bought for about $280,000 by Total Life Change Ministries, a church founded by Apostle Michael Beasley, a former-prison-guard-turned-truck-driver who had a successful deliverance ministry in the suburbs. Beasley had grown up in the neighborhood. He said God came to him in a dream and told him to buy a school and move his flock to Detroit. After looking for a new home for his church, he found Herman/Jemison.

His goal was to not only save souls and expel demons - more on that later - but to provide community services such as a 24-hour Christian bookstore and coffee shop, as well as vocational training for at-risk youth. But many of his parishioners did not follow him from the suburbs to Detroit. Indeed, only about a dozen stuck with him.

Total Life Change ascribed to the belief that social ills - whether that be drug addiction or being a criminal - are to be blamed on the individual being possessed by evil spirits. Based on a Bible verse that says Jesus Christ gave his disciples the power to heal the possessed of their unclean spirits, deliverance ministries say that these "hosts" can have their demons driven out of them, and that the sick can be cured. This belief in the supernatural has roots that can be traced back to denominations like Pentecostalism, and shares religious practices such as speaking in tongues and being filled by the Holy Spirit.

On Aug. 2, 2018, Detroit Free Press columnist John Carlisle profiled Beasley and Total Life Change Ministries and how the church was under constant attack by thieves. In the piece, Carlisle wrote: "Over and over, someone keeps breaking into the building, methodically stealing the copper pipes and copper wiring, leaving the church without water or power. Time and again, the congregation has sealed every crack and crevice they could find. But the scrappers keep forcing their way inside. During one stretch this summer alone, they got into the building seven times in two weeks. Once, faced with barricaded windows and doors, the thieves just sledgehammered their way through a wall to get in."

Elder Jakenya Robinson told Carlisle: “It makes me sad that we’ve been doing what we can to help the community, and it kind of feels like it’s not appreciated. It makes me angry that someone would have the audacity to even come in here like that.”

By 2019, the congregation gave up on casting out the thieves and threw the church to them and their demons to finish devouring. Somehow that is not clear, the Detroit Public School Community District wound up back in control of the property. As the scrappers continued to rip apart the former school, there were several fires in 2020 and 2021 that left this gorgeous building charred -- and perhaps dooming it to damnation by demolition.