Historic Detroit

Wayne County Morgue

For nearly 70 years, Wayne County’s dead were housed in an Egyptian mausoleum on the edge of Greektown.

In the 1920s, Americans were fascinated by all things Egyptian, thanks in large part to Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in November 1922. King Tut enraptured the imagination of Americans, which naturally led to an influence on architecture. Detroit was no exception.

While movie palaces were the most popular examples (the Fox Theatre has some Egyptian elements), the use of Egyptian themes was especially pronounced in all things dealing with death. The Dodge Brothers mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery has two sphinxes guarding the entrance. The old mortuary chapel that is now part of the Art Center Music School has unmistakable Egyptian flavor. And then there was the old Wayne County Morgue at Brush and East Lafayette, styled after an Egyptian mausoleum.

The morgue opened in 1926 and cost $300,000 to build (about $3.48 million today when adjusted for inflation). Its official name was the Wayne County Coroner’s Court and Mortuary; back in the time before high-tech gadgets and CSIs, a coroner’s jury ruled on the likely cause of death. The building was designed by the architectural firm A.H. Gould & Son. It was constructed by the Carl Bertson & Co.

“The first floor houses the offices and crypt,” an old newspaper quoted in 2000 in The Detroit News said. “The latter is finished in white tile and has space for 186 bodies and a viewing room. The second and top floor have two court rooms.”

Tales of the crypt

?In the old days, back before Detroit became a massive metropolis, the city’s morgue was in the basement of Old City Hall. When the building was built in 1871, census data show the city’s population was about 80,000 souls, so the morgue had only 20 vaults for bodies. By the 1920s, however, Detroit’s automotive industry had brought hundreds of thousands of workers to the city, and the population was more than 993,000. More people meant more dead people.

County coroners James E. Burgess and Jacomb W. Rothacher went to the Board of County Auditors and demanded a new morgue – and they were dead serious. If the board did not move swiftly, the coroners said they would send bodies directly to the auditors’ office, the Detroit News reported in 2000.?The first floor also had offices and meeting rooms for staff members. The coroner’s juries met on the top two floors. The new morgue’s first-floor crypt had space for 186 bodies, more than nine times as many vaults than in Old City Hall. That was a good thing because two years later, more than 3,000 corpses had passed through the building. The Great Depression that started in 1929 and lasted through the 1930s fueled a major increase in suicides.

Jim Schaefer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Detroit Free Press, went into the morgue several times. It wasn’t the smell he found most jarring, but Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Werner Spitz’ collection of “implements of death. “You’d go up this grand staircase, I think it was marble,” Schaefer told HistoricDetroit.org. “Then all around there were these glass cases with these implements of death that Spitz had collected from suicides or whatever. It was creepy as hell.”

The morgue dies

A 70-year-old morgue was too outdated and small to keep up with the 21st Century, and in early 1995, the staff of the Wayne County Medical Examiner moved into a new $14.5 million office near the Detroit Medical Center. The old facility wouldn’t stay abandoned for long: The county quickly put it out of its misery.

Demolition preparations began in late fall 1995, and by that December, the morgue was laid to rest.

More on this building of Detroit coming soon.