The John Owen House/Bertha Hansbury Music School

545 East Frederick in the Frederick Avenue Historic District near
Detroit's Cultural Center

Detroit’s rapid economic and population growth in the final quarter of the Nineteenth Century generated a large group of prosperous individuals who wished to build homes commensurate with their wealth. Several Detroit neighborhoods emerged as the locations where you found elegant homes. Brush Park may have been the most prestigious late Nineteenth Century location for the prosperous, but Woodward Avenue and East Jefferson were also popular. Perhaps, slightly more modest, but still very distinguished homes, were built in the Woodbridge neighborhood along Trumbull and Commonwealth.

Another area included the streets intersecting upper Woodward such as Palmer, Ferry and Frederick. John Owen, who apparently earned his wealth as clothing merchant, selected East Frederick between John R and Brush for his home. Several John Owens played prominent roles in the city during the late Nineteenth Century, so I am not sure about the accomplishments of this John Owen. He is not the man who helped developed the Indian Village. A John Owen served as the state’s treasurer from 1861 to 1866. He may have built this red brick Victorian style home in 1885.

During and after World War I, the city's African American population grew rapidly because of the jobs in the auto plants, but restrictive practices and intimidation kept many blacks in the Hastings Street area. Hastings Street was near to and parallel to St. Antoine, extending from East Jefferson to East Grand Boulevard and was the main street of black Detroit. Almost all of it—and the residences and shops near Hastings—were torn down in the late 1950s to make way for the Chrysler Freeway.

By 1920, the northwestward movement of African Americans along Hastings and its parallel streets reached Frederick Street and then, shortly thereafter, East Ferry. Bertha Hansbury and her husband, William H. Phillips, purchased the Owen home in the 1920s. A pianist, Bertha Hansbury received her training at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and then studied in Germany. In 1925, she established the Hansbury School of Music and tutored many of the city's African American children. This home was also the site of the Household Art Guild, which was the first state-licensed employment agency for African Americans in Detroit. I infer that Bertha Hansbury provided musical education to black children and ran a kindergarten for them, while her husband, William H. Phillips, managed the employment agency. The Bertha Hansbury School did not survive the devastating Great Depression.

East Frederick Street once included more impressive late 19th century homes, but now has just two: the Owen House and the Romanesque Revival style home at 580 Frederick built by Charles Warren which was the home of the city's first African American hospital: Dunbar Hospital founded there in 1919. After Dunbar Hospital closed and merged with the new Parkside Hospital in 1927, the home at 580 East Frederick was purchased by Charles Diggs, a prosperous undertaker who became the first black DEmocrat elected to the state senate, in 1936, and the first African American to represent Detroit in Congress in 1952. He was the fourth black elected to Congress after the end of Reconstruction.

Prior to the development of Detroit’s Cultural District in the early 1920s, East Frederick reached to Woodward and, in that location, there were many impressive homes. The Samuel Smith residence is the only one that survived to the 21st century. A banker, Frederick Farnsworth developing this section of Detroit east of Woodward; hence, the names for the parallel streets: Farnsworth and Frederick.

Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural Style: Victorian
Date of Completion: 1885

Use in 2009: Vacant buildings
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Approved October 10, 1984

State Registry of Historic Sites: The East Frederick Avenue Historic District(P25120) was listed April 11, 1977. There is no State of Michigan Historical Marker.
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description updated: February 2, 2009

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