Historic Detroit

Cass Tech High School (old)

In a city filled with factories pumping out automobiles, Cass Tech High School was a factory of learning, where students were taught to use their hands, as well as their heads.

More than 50,000 students graduated from it, and hundreds of thousands of others walked its halls. Among the distinguished students who wandered the old Cass Tech’s halls: singer Diana Ross, comedians Lily Tomlin and David Alan Greer, auto executive John DeLorean, former Miss USAs Carol Gist and Kenya Moore, violinist Regina Carter, jazz musicians Donald Byrd and Earl Kluge, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos. Aviator Charles Lindbergh’s mother, Evangeline Lindbergh, taught chemistry at Cass from 1922 until 1942.

A site rich with education history

The Collegiate Gothic building along the Fisher Freeway and Grand River Avenue traces its roots back to February 1907. That’s when it was founded on the third floor of the old Cass Union School, a three-story brick building built in 1860 on farm land donated by Gen. Lewis Cass on Grand River Avenue. The plot of land, today near downtown, was then a field filled with grazing cows on the outskirts of town. Gen. Cass was governor of the Michigan territory from 1813-1831; President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war; secretary of state for President James Buchanan; the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1848; and a minster to France. When Cass opened in 1907, Detroit had only three other high schools.

High school proved to be too much for many young Detroiters; records of the early 1900s show that only 35% of high-schoolers graduated, and only ten percent went to college. Benjamin F. Comfort, the principal of Cass Union, suggested that fewer students might drop out if they were given industrial training that they could put to use in the city’s growing number of factories. Detroit schools Superintendent Wales C. Martindale went to Europe in 1908 and studied technical schools there. Impressed, he decided to establish one in Detroit and chose Cass for the experiment and put Comfort in charge as Cass Tech’s first principal. The school opened with nine teachers, including Comfort.

The fledgling school started off with modest offerings — some commercial and shop courses. The idea was so revolutionary, many taxpayers opposed the idea as a frivolous waste of tax dollars. But the idea was a hit with the kids and enrollment jumped from 110 in 1907 to seven hundred by 1909. A new wing was added to the Cass Union School in 1909 to meet the demand, but the old building was destroyed in a fire just a few months later, on Nov. 16, 1909. The new addition, however, survived, and classes continued there and in a church at Woodward and Sibley avenues. Cass Tech graduated its first class in 1910, though it was only six or seven students. The next year, the council approved $225,000 (more than $5 million today, when adjusted for inflation) to build a new building on the site of Cass Union. The triangular-shaped building was named Cass Technical High School and formally opened Oct. 23, 1912.

The school worked closely with businesses in the city, as employers often paid their students for time at Cass, gave teachers feedback and toured the facilities. As Detroit schools Superintendent C.E. Chadsey said in a district brochure, Cass Tech was for “the man who wants to be a better workman and the man who wants a better workman. … Surely there is no good reason why Detroit can not have the largest per cent of skilled workmen in every industry of any manufacturing center.”

But even with the new quarters, Cass Tech’s surging enrollment rendered the building too small by the time it opened. The waiting list for enrollment was limited to two hundred, but hundreds more applied, so the school started offering evening classes. Even then, it was said that it was nearly impossible to move through the halls during class changes. There were only 20 classrooms to serve 1,500 students a day, and there weren’t enough lockers.

By 1915, Detroit was building two-thirds of the country’s automobiles, and Detroit’s population skyrocketed from 465,766 in 1910 to just shy of 1 million 10 years later. The combination of the city’s booming industry and booming population was enough to convince the city that a new building was necessay. It took the Board of Education eleven campaigns to finally get the necessary cash and construction didn’t begin until 1916. But by the time the money was there, about $2 million ($28.7 million today), there was a war waging and the government had started clamping down on wartime spending, so construction was delayed yet again.

When old Cass Tech was new

The Detroit firm Malcolmson & Higginbotham were selected as the design architects and legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn’s firm was picked as the construction architects. “It is by far the largest, most modern and most fully equipped of any high school not only in Detroit but in Michigan as well and it ranks among the largest in the country,” with room for nearly 4,400 students and 50 classrooms, the Detroit News wrote in September 1922.

The eight-story building finally opened Sept. 11, 1922, and cost about $3.93 million to build. That’s about $50.9 million today. Mayor James Couzens was outraged, lampooning the project for being poorly planned and over budget, and the city’s fire marshal deemed it a fire hazard. But educators praised the building as being as beautiful as it was successful. The High School of Commerce took over the old Cass Tech building, focusing on business education and serving as a finishing school for female students in such areas as secretarial skills, typing, penmanship, shorthand and bookkeeping.

The construction of Cass Tech was a first in Detroit; not only had a technical school been built, “but the city began to shift from a classical concept of education to a practical one designed to prepare students for the job market. At last, Detroit had become of age,” the high school’s newspaper, the Technician, wrote in 1972. It was essentially a college-prep high school where the top scholar was more honored than the star quarterback of the football team.

“I went to the University of Michigan my freshman year, and I talked to people who had gone to Cass Tech, and they would talk about having qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis and organic chemistry in high school,” said Mike Poterala, who taught college-prep math at Cass Tech from 1965 to 1996. “And I thought, ‘What is this stuff?’ I had quote ‘chemistry.’ I’ve heard a lot of stories about Cass students who went away to college and found college easier than what they had in high school.”

The new Cass was connected to the High School of Commerce by the Victory Memorial Arch, a second-floor Gothic-style bridge that crossed High Street (later known as Vernor Highway). It opened Jan. 31, 1922, and was dedicated to the city’s high-schoolers that died in World War I. Carved on a center panel in relief were the words, “Victory Memorial, Great World War, 1917-19.” It was built to save time for the teachers and pupils changing classes between buildings and to protect from the inclement weather. The concept was designed by Mr. Ray, a Cass Tech English teacher and made of Indiana limestone. Its cost was $400,000 (about $5.2 million today).

The new school’s capacity was boasted as thirty-six hundred students, and when coupled with Commerce High, there was room for four thousand eight-hundred and twenty pupils. The schools shared Cass Tech’s cafeteria.

Like a factory

The school’s exterior is covered in brick and limestone, its vestibules are lined with marble, and bas reliefs with industrial motifs flank the entrances. Light courts allowed for natural light to pour into the building. The halls’ floors are terrazzo, but some of the classrooms and the gyms have hardwood floors. The halls originally had barreled ceilings, though they were later covered with drop ceilings.

The first floor was home to a gymnasium with an indoor track along a mezzanine, the teacher’s lounge (complete with fireplace) and a three-thousand-seat auditorium that was said to be near acoustically perfect and was complete with a balcony. Even the Detroit Symphony Orchestra rehearsed and recorded there. When the building first opened, the ground level also had pharmacy and physics laboratories; the second had a machine shop and chemistry and bacteriology labs; the third held the library; the fourth was home to cooking and mechanical drawing classrooms and millinery shop rooms; the fifth had sewing labs and other shops; the sixth was the home of the music and textile programs; and the seventh had a foundry, baking and kitchen classrooms and the school’s original lunchroom, which could feed up to 1,000 students at a time.

From its humble beginnings with classes in pattern making, drafting and machine shop, Cass would grow to offer everything from art to bacteriology to chemical biology to metallurgy to nuclear physics. As technology changed, so did the school’s curricula. When airplanes seemed the limit, Cass added aeronautics. When man aimed to land on the moon, it started offering astronautics. Unlike other schools in the city, where enrollment was dictated by geography, Cass Tech’s student body was determined by achievement. Students citywide took an achievement test and only the best and brightest were admitted to Cass. Because it pulled students from all over the sprawling metropolis, some Cass students had to ride buses 90 minutes to get there, the News noted in March 1962. It became “an institution,” the paper wrote, that was “virtually unparalleled in American secondary education” and was offering twenty-three technical curricula at the time.”

“Cass Tech was a different world,” said Marshall Weingarden, a 1961 science and arts alumnus. “It was cosmopolitan. It brought together people from all over the city. … It was truly a melting pot.”

By 1942, Cass was not only the biggest school in the city, but the largest in the state with more than 4,500 students.

The old old Cass Tech falls

The old High School of Commerce, home to the old Cass Tech, was reduced to rubble in August 1964 to make room for the Fisher Freeway. The memorial arch went with it. The building was sold to the Michigan State Highway Department for about $1.1 million (about $7.72 million).

Augusta W. Ochs, the school’s principal at the time, told the Free Press in May 1964 that “I did everything I could to preserve the school, even suggesting they run the freeway underneath us. The building is still solid. … But down it comes.” Some of the school’s fourteen thousand graduates and many of its 450-plus former staff members returned to the school on May 22, 1964, to bid the old building adieu. Its last graduating class also would be its largest, 353 students, and graduated on June 17, 1964.

Moving out

In the 1970s, while the city school district was operating the accelerated schol, there were said to be reservations about such a program in a system where thousands of students were falling behind grade levels. By that time, more than forty-five hundred kids attended Cass, and calls were being made that it was too small and falling apart from neglect. “Its supporters—alumni, students, parents, teachers—fear that the physical disrepair is only the prelude, that there is a tacit, underground agreement in the central school administration that when the building becomes totally uninhabitable the school itself and the concept it embodies will simply cease to exist,” the Free Press wrote in an editorial in May 1970.

In 1985, a modern-looking addition, designed by Albert Kahn & Associates, was finished on the school’s west side. The addition added another gymnasium with seats for 750 fans and six basketball hoops, a lunchroom and a larger swimming pool. However, the swimming pool was mistakenly built using the English, not the metric system, making the school’s “Olympic-size pool” about 12 feet too short. But even with the addition, the original building was falling into disrepair. In 1992, the city’s building department deemed the balcony of the auditorium unsafe and had it closed. The old Cass Tech’s pool was closed after the addition was built and left to rot. Only one of its elevators was working in 2000. The roof leaked. The plumbing often acted up. Many complained that radiators left many rooms too hot and others too cold.

In March 2000, the school district announced it was planning to build a new Cass Tech and vacating the old by using money from a $1.5 billion bond program. “Replacing such an icon would be a bold statement by the school district about its intentions of using the bond money to start anew rather than to patch crumbling buildings,” the Free Press wrote at the time. “Cass would be emotionally difficult to demolish. Generations of Detroit’s best and brightest youth have passed stiff entrance examinations to earn the privilege of walking those halls.”

Ground was broken in 2002 for a new Cass Tech directly north of the old building. A ribbon cutting, black-tie gala was held May 21, 2005. When the school moved into its new home, almost most everything was left behind, from desks to school supplies to televisions mounted on the walls. Someone stepping into the abandoned Cass Tech walks into a school frozen in time for more than five years. It loomed empty and foreboding over Interstate 75, within eyesight of such Detroit landmarks as the Fox Theatre and Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers.

The alumni step up

The Cass Tech Alumni Association (CTAA) PROACT committee has been working to convert the 831,000-square-foot Cass Tech into a multi-use center with art galleries, studios, teaching spaces, retail, a performance space in the auditorium and residential lofts taking advantage of the pools and three gyms. It rolled out its plan April 23, 2007.

But Detroit Public Schools had not adequately secured Cass Tech from vandals and scrappers. Nearly all of its windows have either been stolen or broken, and it has been stripped of its copper. A fire broke out in the building’s midsection on July 30, 2007, likely started by either vagrants or thieves trying to steal its metal fixings. While the exterior of the building wasn’t damaged, its interior suffered damage and didn’t help the push to spare the building from the wrecking ball.

On Dec. 7, 2009, the school was listed among fourteen vacant buildings slated for demolition under a $33 million plan unveiled by Detroit Public Schools and funded by bond programs approved by voters.

“Vacant schools across Detroit have been blights on the community and safety hazards for far too long,” Robert Bobb, who was appointed by Michigan’s governor as the emergency financial manager for the financially and corruption-challenged school district, said in a statement. “Thanks to the taxpayers of Detroit … we can now move forward with substantially changing the landscape of the city and remove these long-standing eyesores.”

The school district also argued that the building poses a safety hazard for students at the new Cass Tech and others walking along it. Though there has been interest, DPS spokesman Steve Wasko told the Detroit News that no one has put forth a concrete proposal. “A good idea is not the only thing to transform a building,” Wasko said.

“We are extremely disappointed at the actions of DPS. The Historic Cass Tech Preservation Society (“HCTPS”) has invested years of effort into preserving the historic Cass Technical High School facility … and we have received zero cooperation from DPS,” Weingarden wrote in an open letter to the district. “It is hard to believe that sound financial management means investing $5 million to $6 million in demolition when the building can be preserved and repurposed and DPS might realize some value for the property. … It is a shame when a civilization destroys important parts of its heritage. Historic Cass Tech was a beacon of education and a symbol of the lifeblood of Detroit, creating a great outpouring of professionals, craftspersons, artists, engineers and civic leaders. When you destroy the lighthouse, ships sink. Sic transit gloria mundi.” The Latin meaning: “Thus passes the glory of the world.”

Another piece of history lost

Demolition equipment showed up as Cass Tech in mid-December 2010 and promptly tore a hole in the 1980s addition. There are several developers who have expressed at least interest in the building, but they are running out of time. The school district has agreed to spend more than $3 million to tear the building down, but it has been reported it will listen to offers up until the spring of 2011. On March 23, 2011, demolition crews started tearing down the 1980s addition along Grand River Avenue. The last of the building came down in early August 2011.