The historic schools in this study were built over a period of more than a century—the oldest school, Chandler was built in 1905; Burbank includes a large addition finished in 1992. Most of the school buildings were built within the period between 1920 and 1960. American architecture and technology changed a great deal during this time, and so did ideas about education. As a result, the schools in this study are very diverse—each school reflects the historical era when it was built; and some schools are mash-ups of multiple eras, each one adding on to the last!
1900 - 1930: Rapid Growth
The early 20th century was a period of explosive growth and wealth in Detroit, as the auto industry took off. The city map itself was growing too, as Detroit swallowed up neighboring villages and townships like Redford and Greenfield. Much of the school construction shown at right occurred in areas that were annexed by the city between 1906 and 1926.
Schools built during this period had eclectic architectural styles, including Craftsman, Tudor, and Gothic-inspired buildings. This period also marked a shift towards more modern construction styles. Schools built before 1920 often have wood and brick structures, while schools built after 1920 introduced reinforced concrete structures.
1930 - 1945: Great Depression & WWII
Detroit saw a small wave of school construction around 1930, but building and population growth cooled as the Depression continued. However, Detroit's population swelled again as wartime industry picked up, leading to another wave of school expansion.
Modern architectural styles appeared during this period. Instead of the more ornate and traditional styles used through the 1920s, schools of the 1930s and 1940s favored streamlined and futuristic styles like Moderne and Art Deco styles. These schools tend to be simple and durable, with concrete construction throughout.
1945 - 1966: Postwar Peak
Detroit reached its population peak of over 1.8 million in 1950, and Detroit Public Schools reached its peak of nearly 300,000 students in 1966. There were two major school building pushes during this period. This study includes many schools that were expanded during the 1950s; in addition to the three new schools that were built (Healy, Kosciusko, and Weatherby), many 1920s-era buildings received large 1950s-style additions. Only one school in this study, Jamieson, was built during the 1960s.
School design in this era favored simple and modern architecture, inspired by the International Style. A common feature of 1950s schools is the ribbon window—continuous bands of glass block and small steel frames that stretch from one end of the school to the other, creating a sleek, horizontal feel. 1960s schools like Jamieson kept the horizontal lines of the 1950s buildings, but introduced new building techniques like all-steel frames instead of concrete and lightweight storefront window systems instead of glass block.
1966 - Present: Shrinking City and Beyond
The public school has system lost over 250,000 students since its 1966 peak. Only a handful of the schools in this study have been updated in the last 60 years (though there are many schools that are still open which have been updated or newly built since then).
The post-1960s school additions included in this study typically have steel structures, concrete walls, and few windows. While they don't have much hischarm or flair as the older school buildings, they can include very large and flexible spaces that are rare in older buildings.