By 1950 or so, Detroit officials realized that many city residents might move to the suburbs. There were much empty space in northern and northwest Detroit at the end of World War—land that had been laid out for building before the Depression. It was filled just after World War II with small homes. The area to the north of East Jefferson between downtown and Mount Elliott was occupied, primarily, with low-rise buildings erected late in the Nineteenth Century when German and then eastern European immigrants came to Detroit in great numbers. With the arrival of many blacks from the South during World War I, the racial composition of the area began to change. For a decade or more after the Great War, it was racially mixed, but by the 1940s, this was an overwhelmingly black area of Detroit.
At the end of World War II, there were many unsafe and dilipated slums near downtowns of the nation’s older cities—housing that had long outlived its usefulness. Leaders in many localities sought to tear down that housing. Such housing concentrated the poor and racial minorities near the downtowns that cities sought to promote as lively centers for business and shopping. The Truman Administration, and many in Congress, realized that many Americans were ill housed and sought to develop federal policies that would change that. Such policies, of course, provided many jobs for contractors, builders, construction crews and the fiscal institutions that finance housing. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 provided monies so that cities could tear down slums. Supporters of that law assumed the land were be used for parking lots, highways, and open spaces for light industries. In many cities, slums with African American residents surrounded urban universities and urban hospitals. Their leaders were not happy with the low quality of housing in their areas or with the low-income people and racial minorities who lived in such areas. Thus, in city after city, there was a major effort to raze the congested and fire-prone late nineteenth century housing that surrounded many downtowns. In many areas, including Detroit, the first areas targeted for urban renewal were neighborhoods where blacks had been confined since World War I by Jim Crow real estate practices. Quite quickly, urban renewal became known as Negro removal.
The story of urban renewal in the Mies van de Rohe Historic District is somewhat different. In 1956, a well known and highly successful Chicago developer, Herbert Greenwald, proposed building an impressive array of housing on the near east side of Detroit, housing that would keep the middle class in the city. Eventually, old stock of housing was torn down by the city, including the black business district that lined Hastings Street from East Jefferson to East Warren. Some of the expelled residents were able to move into high rise public housing built for blacks such as the Brewster Homes or low-rise public housing such as Fairview and Parkview. Greenwald thought in very big terms and assembled an impressive team. He had been friends with Mies van der Rohe for some time and promoted buildings on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive that that architect designed. You see those buildings as you drive or bicycle along Lake Shore drive. Greenwald also worked with Ludwig Hilberseimer, an imaginative German city planner who was a friend of van de Rohe’s and an important figure in the Bauhaus movement. The fourth member of the team was Alfred Caldwell, a noted landscape architect from Chicago who designed several impressive parks there. Low rise and high rise housing was to be built in this renewed area just north of downtown Detroit. Greenwald’s plan called for housing that would be attractive people from a variety of income levels and would be open to both blacks and whites. The city of Detroit was actively involved and officials agreed to create a large park in the area and build a new school for the children who would live in neighborhood. At the time, this was seen by urban planners around the nation as an exciting innovation, unlike anything being attempted in other American cities.
Greenwald and his collaborators faced a great challenge in securing private capital to invest in such an unusual development so building took place slowly. Finding few private investors, I believe that the United Auto Workers Union became the principal investor in the project. Unfortunately, Greenwald died in an airplane crash and that, I believe, greatly curtailed the project since he was the imaginative leader and the dynamic chief entrepreneur. Eventually, the city created a substantial park, a public school was built and 21 low rise multiple unit residential structures were completed, designed by Mies van de Rohe.
The building that you see pictured above was meant to be one of two similar buildings but funding was never obtained for the second one. Although designed by Gunnar Birkerts, its style is Miesian with an aluminum and glass exterior. There is a great deal of light in each of the 286 because of the extensive use of glass as walls. All of the units offer views of either the city’s skyline or the impressive Detroit River. At first glance, it appears to be a huge rectangular box but upon closer inspection you will find some tapering of the exterior columns.
The demand for housing in Detroit plummeted in the 1970s and 1980s. At some point, this building either went into default or approached default. I believe that, after various financial transactions, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development guaranteed the loan for this structure. They were about to come into possession of the building but the tenants decided they would rather be their own landlord. The successfully turned the property into a co-operative and I believe that it retains that status today.
The 1300 East Jefferson Building should not be confused with the nearby and quite similar Lafayette Towers building at 1301 Orleans. They were constructed at about the same time in the same area but 22 story Lafayette Towers is now a rental property.
Architects: Gunnar Birkets and Straub
Date of Completion: 1964
Use in 2011: Cooperative Apartment building
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed but the building adjoins the Mies van der Rohe Historic District.
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed but this property adjoins
the State of Michigan’s Mies van der Rohe Residential District (P 2,577)
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed but this building adjoins the Mies van der Rohe Residential District (#96000809) listed August 1, 1996.
Photograph: Ren Farley; September 6, 2008
Description updated: February, 2012
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