Historic Detroit

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Holcomb Elementary School

When workers stuck their shovels in the ground in 1925, it was for what was to be the crown jewel of the Redford Township school district. When it opened a year later, the Samuel D. Holcomb School was serving the kids of Detroit.

That's because where Redford Union Schools had chosen to build it in an area of the township that residents would vote to allow to be annexed by the City of Detroit. On April 29, 1926, 14 schools and 4,523 students of Redford District No. 1 became part of the Detroit public school system. Redford was home to what was said to be the largest consolidated rural school district in the country, with 20 schools. After annexation, Redford was left with six. Today, Holcomb School is located in the Holcomb Community neighborhood on Detroit's far northwest side, near Old Redford.

The school was named for Dr. Samuel Drayton Holcomb, who was born in North Pelham, Ontario in 1857. He was one of the first doctors to practice in what was then part of Redford Township, and practiced medicine for nearly 40 years. He was such a prominent member of the community, nine years after his death in 1917, the Redford Union Schools decided to name its large new school in his honor. The firm Verner, Wilhelm & Molby served as its architect.

The Samuel D. Holcomb School opened for the 1926-27 school year as a single-story, 13-room school building serving an area bounded by Grand River Avenue and McNichols, Berg, Seven Mile and Evergreen Roads. The school featured a library and kindergarten, as well as a temporary structure located on the school property also offered vocational and "domestic arts" courses for residents.

As the city's northwest side continued to grow quickly, just two years later, an addition designed by Raymond Carey was built, tacking on six more classrooms, a lunchroom and a gym to the mix. This brought the school's capacity for the 1929-30 school year to more than 1,000 students. This was quickly followed by a temporary classroom building, which served to alleviate crowding while the country weathered the Great Depression and World War II. In 1946, a third addition was finally built, bringing with it five more classrooms, a shop, an auditorium and additional restrooms for all those kids. This final wing cost $442,335 to build.

The school was in a pleasant setting, one a 1938 Detroit Board of Education report described as having “flowers, garden paths, and a miniature pool ... the advantages of the country woodside brought to [a] city school doorstep"

In 1949, the Boston Tile Co. oversaw the installation of a Pewabic tile drinking fountain in Holcomb School, matching that of the city's Frederick Schulze School (Schulze has since been torn down).

Detroit's population loss and neighborhood decline has been well-documented. It goes without saying that, as family's moved out of the city, they took their children with them. With Michigan school districts funded based on how many students they have, Detroit Public Schools found itself with a major problem. Aging, half-full schools were causing massive budget problems. In 1999, Holcomb had almost 600 pupils; 10 years later, it had less than half that, 250. This led DPS to close Holcomb in 2010 and reassign its dwindling student body to other schools. Holcomb was but one of 195 public schools closed in the city between 2000 and 2015.

With school out seemingly forever, scrappers descended on the building and stripped it within a few years of its closure.

What had once been a neighborhood oasis became a major eyesore and source of blight.

In 2015, Holcomb 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.

Talks of converting Holcomb into senior affordable housing began soon thereafter, with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's office announcing in July 2018 that the school would be turned into a 32-unit senior cooperative housing community. The plan also called for the nearly 4 acres of vacant land surrounding the school to be turned into a new park and open space for the neighborhood, including recreational space, a walking and biking trail and other amenities. A development team comprised of DDC Group & Anchor Team was to lead the $6 million project.

“The redevelopment plan for the old Holcomb Elementary School is exactly the type of development that we encourage as our neighborhoods grow,” Donald Rencher, then the director of the City's Housing & Revitalization Department, said at the time. “This school has been an eyesore to everyone living in this neighborhood for nearly a decade. Now it will see new life, provide affordable housing for our senior citizens, and build new public spaces for the entire community.”

However, the venture didn't get off the ground.

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 Holcomb School's redevelopment cost, depending on use, at an estimated $10 million.

The report noted that the building is located amid residential blocks filled with one-story single-family homes. Though the immediate surrounding area does have vacancy, the neighborhoods around it are far more stable with higher density, such as the Old Redford historic business district at Lahser Road and Grand River Avenue. In addition, the report noted that the area around Holcomb's "permit activity is above average, with approximately 180 new construction and alterations permits recorded from 2016-18," indicating that the neighborhood is on the rebound - and redevelopment of Holcomb School could be a prime investment opportunity.