Historic Detroit

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

Old Main

Old Main was built as a high school, graduated to a college and later became the heart of a university.

After Capitol High School in Capitol Park burned down in January 1893, Detroit needed a new high school. Between 1893 and '94, the Detroit Board of Education began building Central High on Brush and Alexandrine. However, that site was close to two hospitals. In a letter to the Detroit Board of Education in May 1894, Mayor Hazen S. Pingree objected that the students would be too close to "contagious diseases." Pingree vetoed the board’s request for funds for the project that May.

This caused a delay. The board then moved the building materials to a new site, at Cass and Warren. This is why Old Main’s cornerstone is dated 1894, although it wasn’t laid until May 13, 1895. Pingree and Dr. John E. Clark, president of the Board of Education, attended the ceremony and gave addresses. The ceremony began at 10:30 a.m.

The architectural firm Malcomson & Higginbotham, which did a number of other Detroit schools, designed Old Main in the Romanesque Revival style. The three-story, yellow-bricked building occupies nearly an entire city block, and is topped by four-faced clock tower. The firm was so proud of Old Main's design, it hung a drawing of the building in its office.

Central High opened in 1896 and quickly gained a reputation for being Detroit’s best high school. It was guided by Principal David Mackenzie, who earned a reputation as being not only a scholar, but a man committed to his students’ education and future. In 1908, as he expanded the curriculum, a wing was added for a gym and laboratory space. Mackenzie’s interest in his students’ future led to an important collaboration with the head of Detroit’s medical college. In its early years, Wayne State was just classes held in a high school and was simply an extension of the private Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery.

The origins of Wayne State University

Early in 1913, while reorganizing the private medical college, Dr. Burt R. Shurly asked Mackenzie to establish a one-year premedical course at Central High. Mackenzie gladly supported the idea, and Detroit Board of Education officials worked to set up a junior college. That fall, 25 graduates of Central High and other area high schools enrolled in the course. Several name changes and reorganizations later, these classes would grow into what we know today as Wayne State University.

That one-year course was accredited by the state in 1915. This meant that the classes had a stable credit status with other universities — something that any student who has transferred class credits can appreciate. In 1917, the college was authorized by the state Legislature, which extended the course to two years. That fall, Mackenzie issued the first list of classes for his school, which was called the Detroit Junior College.

There’s more to a school than official proceedings, of course. By the junior college’s second semester, students started to organize after-school activities. The student council formed in 1917 and adopted the school colors: old gold and Kelly green. Green and gold are still Wayne State’s colors today.

The college was only a two-year program, so it didn’t give out diplomas. In 1918, several supporters of the school took on the cause of upgrading the junior college to a four-year institution. The move would be crucial to the school’s status because that would mean the school could issue degrees.

Growing pains

The school’s official status was only a minor detail for Detroit students who were determined to go to college. Enrollment continued to grow, and this soon meant intolerable overcrowding at Central High. By late 1921, the inevitable happened: The growing college and the high school began to struggle with space. The school, which had a capacity of 1,800 students, housed 3,000. Enrollment estimates showed the crowded classrooms were going to get only worse.

“It is almost impossible to move about in the corridors of the college without stumbling over the little children (dear things),” a student writer complained in a Collegian articled headlined “The Children.” The ROTC men also weren’t happy with the high school students, and even skipped drill despite the war. However, the Board of Education was interested in the idea of creating a community college, and the high school’s days were numbered. A municipal college would supply the city with more trained professionals, and the medical college needed the liberal arts classes to grant medical degrees.

Students continued to crowd into the building’s classrooms while board members tried to elevate the two-year program into a college. Upgrading the school was a slow process, though, and the legislation for a college wasn’t approved for several years. After two rejections by the Board of Education, supporters of the college began sending the board petitions to change the school’s status. Their efforts paid in off in 1923, when the board prepared a college bill and lobbied for the school. That year, the Legislature passed the Smith-Burns Bill, which gave the school the authority to grant degrees.

In 1925, the City College held its first commencement for 62 students in Central’s auditorium. The graduation ceremony represented not just students getting their diplomas, but seven years of hard work to make the school into a college. The next year, 93 diplomas were given out. Addressing the Class of 1926, commencement speaker and American philosopher Alfred Henry Lloyd told graduates: "Don’t shut your doors and windows. Open them, and let the smoke and noise and grime come into your halls of learning. Keep alive your contacts in the living community in which you are located. You occupy a unique position. Don’t keep yourself cloistered behind walls in the academic tradition, but become a part of this great industrial center of Michigan.” Lloyd, dean of the graduate school at the University of Michigan, likely had no idea his words would hold true for Wayne State— which now has a decades-long tradition of being an integral part of the city of Detroit.

Mackenzie worked to improve the college’s resources, and a chemistry and physics laboratory was added, along with biology laboratories and an expanded library.

A home of their own

This work brought to a head the question of whether the building would remain a high school or a college. Moving both City College and the high school from Central High was suggested before, but rumors spread that the high school would be moved. The removal of the high school was not without protest from Central High alumni.

Anonymous Central High alumni posted fliers reading, "Central for Centralites! College or High School? Oh, Thou, My Alma Mater!" in the building’s hallways in 1923. The alumni group even circulated a taxpayer's petition to keep the high school put. However, the alumni association was gradually persuaded that the high school should move, as the crowded conditions in the school didn’t benefit the students.

Central High moved to Tuxedo and Linwood, just north of Chicago Boulevard, in 1926. Today, it’s known as Central Collegiate Academy and is still in the same location. And the old building on Cass and Warren was renamed the Main Building.

The changing neighborhood was part of the reason that Central High alumni agreed to let the high school relocate from Old Main. Hotels like the Belcrest, Wardell (today known as the Park Shelton), Chatsworth and Webster Hall helped change the neighborhood into a more commercial area. More houses were rented, not bought, and more restaurants and shops were moving into the area. With more apartments and small businesses, the area was becoming less of a neighborhood of small families.

By the end of the 1920s, the Main Building would house a number of different colleges. Though the school was officially named the College of the City of Detroit, students usually referred to it as City College. It was similar to community colleges today. City College provided higher education, while schools like the Detroit City Law School and the Detroit Teachers College aimed to provide increased respect in their professions. In 1926, the pharmacy school was moved from Cass Technical High School to the Main Building, and the Detroit Teacher’s College moved there in 1930. Aside from old homes in the neighborhood that the university rented, Old Main housed the entire university.

A university is born

After economic pressure, in 1933, the Board of Education combined its six individual colleges — liberal arts, education, pharmacy, engineering, medicine and a graduate school — into one university to avoid the city’s financial cuts. The name Wayne University was officially adopted on Jan. 23, 1934. That name is still chiseled over the building’s arched doorways. Even as the newly minted university continued to grow, Old Main remained a center of student life. Athletic teams practiced in the space behind Old Main’s powerhouse. This area was roughly one-third the size of a football field. In 1937, an addition to add classroom space closed off the grass courtyard along Warren. The light in Old Main’s clock tower was periodically turned off during the early 1940s, to conform with brownout requirements. Students often ate lunch on the building’s steps in the 1940s and '50s, before nearby Mackenzie Hall was converted into a student center. In 1950, the Main Building was rechristened simply Old Main.

With increased funding after the war ended, the university began constructing its own buildings. In the 1950s, the individual colleges were moved out of Old Main. Engineering, pharmacy, nursing and education students got their own spaces. When Wayne became a state-supported university in 1956, funds and thus construction increased, furthering this outward trend. With the purchase of the old Bliss Motors Building on Cass and Antoinette in 1960, Old Main again housed only classrooms, as administrative offices - such as the cashier, records and the registrar - were moved out.

In 1958, Old Main received a state historical marker, and it became an official historical site. This started a new era for the building. Old Main was once the center of the university, but as Wayne grew in size and branched out, attention was drawn away from the old building to the growing campus. Since it was no longer the physical center of the university, it became more symbolic.

Two headlines from Detroit newspapers capture these sentiments perfectly. “At Wayne, Only Old Main Remains the Same” reads a 1964 Detroit News article about the number of new building projects on campus. A similar article, “Monuments to the Past: Wayne State’s Old Main,” was published in the Detroit Free Press in 1965.

Despite that it was now more a symbol of Wayne, the stately old building’s future seemed secure. The tower got a new aluminum roof in 1952, and an elevator was added in 1961. The director of grounds in 1952, Alfred C. Lamb, thought the building had at least 200 years of life left.

History at risk

Even its history couldn’t protect Old Main from being targeted for the wrecking ball. A memo from WSU administrator David Layne to WSU President George Gullen in September 1973 talked about “the administration’s commitment to demolish all of Old Main when replacement facilities were available.”

In response to Wayne State’s plan to demolish the David Mackenzie house, a student group called Preservation Wayne organized in 1975 and successfully halted the demolition of the house, as well as a number of other buildings on campus. The board’s reason for wanting to knock down Mackenzie’s old abode? To build a sewer line to the university’s new apartment building, the Forest Apartments. The success of this campaign helped to get the Board of Governors to take the demolition of Old Main off the table. Both Old Main and the Mackenzie House outlasted the Forest Apartments, which was torn down in 2007.

New look at Old Main

Restoration of Old Main began in the fall of 1994 for two reasons. One was to commemorate the centennial of Old Main’s construction. Also, routine maintenance was put off during the lean times of the 1980s, and this took its toll on the aging structure. Ghafari Associates Inc. handled the restoration; its owner, former U.S. ambassador to Slovenia Yousif Ghafari, is a WSU alumnus. This restoration had some good points: The 100-year-old electrical and mechanical systems were updated; new windows and air-conditioning were installed; and a new wing, the Elaine Jacob Gallery, was added to the back of the building at Hancock and Second. This addition houses a planetarium, recital space and art galleries. However, the work on the interior was fairly heavy-handed, and the inside of Old Main lost some of its charm. The project was completed in 1997.

Interestingly, during the restoration, Old Main was power-washed, finally revealing the original color of the bricks, which hadn’t been cleaned in years. But the move also cost the building the ivy that covered its exterior.

Today, Old Main houses the Museum of Anthropology, the university’s planetarium and dance studios, as well as general classroom space. For a campus that has demolished old structures in order to expand, Old Main is an important tie to the past - and has been where generations of Detroiters began their future careers.

Evelyn Aschenbrenner is author of "A History of Wayne State University in Photographs" (2009, Wayne State University Press).

Last updated 10/03/2023