Lewis Cass served as territorial governor from 1813 to 1831, then as Secretary of War for President Jackson. He also represented the state of Michigan in the Senate and was the unsuccessful Democratic Party nominee for the presidency in 1848. Early in his residence in Detroit, Cass purchased a long strip of land in Detroit extending from the Detroit River to today’s Warren Avenue and bounded by Woodward on the east and today’s Lodge Freeway on the west. This is known as the Cass Farms area. In the 1850s, Lewis Cass donated a plot of land near the intersection of today’s Second Avenue and Grand River to the city. In 1860, local officials decided to erect a several story brick building on that plot to serve as Cass United School.
In the early 1900s, Benjamin Comfort served as principal of Cass United School He realized that many children were not completing high school. At the time, perhaps as many as two-thirds of those who entered secondary school quit before earning their diplomas. He wondered if a major reason was the schools were teaching a classical curriculum when students needed more practical training for the many jobs becoming available every year in Detroit’s booming industries. In 1907, he established a school on the third floor of Cass United to offer specific training linked to the real employment opportunities. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent of Detroit schools, Wales Martindale, traveled to Europe to study their educational systems. Apparently, he came back after being very favorably impressed by the way European schools provided occupation training for teen age students. He played a role in expanding the program in Cass United. Detroit students enrolled in large numbers.
In late 1909, a fire destroyed part of the Cass United building. The school board decided to tear down the old building and replace it with a new one that would be called Cass Technical High School. Enrollment flourished as the school worked with employers in booming Detroit to provide students with the skills they would need for industrial jobs. The school was so popular that the school board decided to build a massive new building for Cass Tech. This is the one pictured on this page, a building that was torn down in 2011. The eight-story building opened in 1922 with 50 classroom and space for 4,400 students. The former Cass Tech Building became the High School of Commerce. I believe that most of the students at the school of Commerce were young women learning skills for office and administrative jobs while most of the Cass Tech students were young men. The two schools were linked by an arched walkway. The High School of Commerce was torn down so that the Lodge Freeway could be constructed.
In its early years, Cass Tech trained students for skilled industrial jobs. But in the years after World War II, it was the premier high school for the city and its graduates increasingly went to colleges for advance training. Unfortunately, there is no book describing the history of Cass Tech. Many highly accomplished Detroit residents earned diplomas at Cass Tech including Regina Carter, John DeLorean, Peter Karmanos, Kwame Kilpatrick, Earl Kluge, Diana Ross and Lily Tomlin.
In the early 1990s, rate payers in the city of Detroit approved bond issues that provided the School Board with about one and a half billion to refurbish old schools and build new ones. At that time, no one knew that public school enrollment in Detroit would plummet because of the migration of middle class blacks to the suburbs, a substantial fall in birth rates and the growth of state supported charter schools. However, the bond issue provided generous funds to build a new Cass Tech on property adjoin the old campus.
This impressive new building cost 127 million dollars, making it at that time, the third most costly school erected in the country. It features state-of-the-art classrooms for science, instruction, an 1100 seat auditorium and a complete array of athletic facilities along with well-designed space for music programs. The exterior consists of pre-cast panels that may resemble brick and panels of energy efficient glass.
Many alumni were extremely upset with the School Board’s decision to abandon and then tear down the old Cass Tech since they had an appreciation for the education they obtained there, fond memories of the building and thought that it could be put to some good use. A variety of proposals for reusing the building were put forth, but none of them were funded. At one point, an alumni group sought to sue the School Board about the issue. However, the School Board had failed to secure the old building so scrappers removed the more valuable parts of the building and then a fire did further harm. A decision was made to tear the structure down in 2011, upsetting many graduates.
The new Cass Tech faces Cass Park. This area may look quite different and much renovated in the near future. Quite firm plans are being developed to build a 650 million dollar arena nearby for the Detroit Red Wings. Supposedly, those plans call for some investments to rehabilitate small but attractive Cass Park with its statue of Robert Burns. The large Masonic Temple, designed by George Mason, and the former Kresge headquarters building, designed by Albert Kahn, also front onto Cass Park. One can imagine them being refurbished.
The 2005 Cass Tech
Architects: TMP Associates
Use in 2014: Secondary School
Website for Cass Tech: http://casstech.schools.detroitk12.org/
Descriptions of Cass Tech: http://historicdetroit.org/building/cass-tech-high-school-old/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: January, 2014
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