Don’t be confused by the spelling: McFarlane School sits in the Barton-McFarland neighborhood - an E, not a D. It sits on Joy Road, the neighborhood boundary with Aviation Sub, in District 7 on Detroit’s west side.
The William A. McFarlane Elementary School opened in what was then Greenfield Township in 1925. The building is named after a man who donated part of his farm to the township in order to build this school on it.
The original building is the northernmost part of today’s school. It initially had just nine rooms, a gym/cafeteria and a spacious kindergarten with a large east-facing bay window. The school’s capacity at the time of its opening was 420 students, with 300 enrolled for the 1925-26 school year. That same year, however, the City of Detroit annexed Greenfield Township, and the new school became part of the Detroit school system.
But following Robert Oakman’s development of a former airfield into Aviation Sub, the population of the area soon led to overcrowding at the McFarlane and a need for a new addition. This new wing with eight classrooms was built on the southwest side of the original building in 1931 at a cost of $87,301, boosting McFarlane’s student capacity to more than 600 students.
Then the Baby Boom following World War II saw the need for another addition, built in 1951-52 and bringing McFarlane’s capacity to 955 students. This one was connected to the 1931 addition on the south side of the building. The addition included an auditorium, library, homemaking room, industrial arts room, offices/clinic and five more classrooms. A Detroit Board of Education publication declared that the new addition emphasized “simplicity of line and attractiveness in a growing community.” Just a year after this second addition was completed, the student body had already swelled to 1,007. But starting with the 1961-62 school year, McFarlane’s student population had fallen to 840.
Detroit’s white population had started to decline in the mid-1950s for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is a problem that has plagued Detroit and its suburbs for hundreds of years: racism. This would be brought to the forefront in the city’s school system when, in 1962, the Detroit Board of Education announced that in order to ease overcrowding at some of its schools, it would start bussing students from predominantly Black schools to less-crowded predominately white ones.
At McFarlane, almost all of the students were white. Because of the capacity at McFarlane, the school district said it would cancel seventh grade at the over-capacity – and predominantly Black – Sherrill Elementary School, near Joy Road and Livernois. It then would send all of the students - Black or white - living north of Tireman Road to the mostly white McFarlane, and McFarlane would then be converted into a middle school/junior high. The plan was opposed by a number of white parents, but the school district, to its credit, proceeded with the plan. By 1969 – just seven years after the school board’s announcement of integration – McFarlane’s student body had gone from 840 predominately white students to just 489 white students and 820 African-American ones. That means that up to 351 white students’ families pulled their kids out in that seven-year span (though not necessarily all of those would be because of racism). Nevertheless, the integration helped stop McFarlane’s overall decline in enrollment. In fact, yet another addition was tacked onto the building in 1999 – the southeastern part of the school – which added four more classrooms and two new bathrooms. This brought McFarlane to a total final of 58,050 square feet. The U-shaped school sits amid about 3 acres of green space in a strong neighborhood in terms of density.
Despite the strength of the Aviation and Barton-McFarland neighborhoods, the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) closed the school in 2010. One of the reasons cited was because of the new Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School that was announced that same year. That new school opened in 2012 not far from McFarlane, at Chicago and Wyoming on the former athletic field of the since-demolished Mackenzie High School (razed in 2012).
In 2014, McFarlane was among 57 closed Detroit Public Schools properties given to the City of Detroit in exchange for forgiving millions of dollars in DPS' unpaid electricity and water bills.
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 DPS. 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 McFarlane’s redevelopment cost, depending on use, at an estimated $13.3 million, and determined that it would be best repurposed as multifamily housing given the demand in the neighborhood. However, having found no takers as of April 2023, the building appears headed for the City’s demolition pipeline.