John S. Gray Branch of the Detroit Public Library

1117 Field Street in Detroit’s Island View neighborhood

There is something quite sad about abandoned libraries and churches.  Often these buildings represent the best of the architect’s ken so they have an appeal even when they are not in use.  Perhaps we may have seen the construction of the last very beautiful library since all the contents of these buildings may be stored on hard drives and they can accessed much more readily than books.  It is difficult to imagine that people will build structures housing server farms with the ascetic appeal of Cass Gilbert’s Detroit Public Library.

John S. Gray played a role in the emergence of Detroit as the world’s vehicle capital.  He was born in Edinburgh in 1841.  His family emigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin in 1849 where his father farmed.  Apparently, that was not very appealing, so in 1858, the family moved to a growing Detroit.  John S. Gray graduated from the public high school and became a teacher in Algonac, Michigan while his father opened a toy store.  John Gray did not, apparently, find teaching all that rewarding since, in 1859, he moved backed to Detroit to enter the family’s toy business.  In 1861, the Grays opened a candy manufacturing business.  They prospered and, by the early 1880s, were running a very profitable firm.

At this point, John S. Gray had the resources to invest in other businesses.  He chose lumbering and Detroit banks.  By 1894, he was president of Detroit’s German-American Savings Bank. 

Alexander Malcomson, a coal dealer in Detroit, did his banking at German-American.  He was one of the early investors, in 1903, in what turned out to be the first successful Ford Motor Company.  That year, Malcomson convinced John S. Gray to invest $10,000 in the Ford Company in hopes that others would follow his lead and provide the capital that was needed.  When the Ford Motor Company was incorporated in June, 1903; John S. Gray was elected president with Henry Ford as vice-presidents.  Presumably, the bankers wanted to make sure their investments in the risky vehicle industry were kept safe.  Gray continued as president of the Ford Company during the stormy early years until his death in 1906.

John Gray also did something that quite a few prominent Detroit business entrepreneurs did at this time.  He served on the Library Board.  The Detroit Public Library built about a dozen and a half magnificent branch libraries in the first three decades of the last century, supported to a very limited degree by funds from Andrew Carnegie who granted the city’s libraries $750,000 in 1901.  Many of these new branch libraries carried the name of a member of the Library Commission.   The John S. Gray Library was constructed, I believe, with any Carnegie funds.

I do not know how the Detroit library system was supported when John Gray served.  Today, it is supported by a property millage.  Financially, the Detroit Library system is independent of the city’s government so it is not directly impacted by the 2013 bankruptcy of the city’s government.  However, as property values declined in Detroit, resources for the library system contracted about one-half of the branches have been closed in recent decades.  The building you see here was abandoned in 1975 when the John Gray Library was moved to the cellar of the Butzel Family Center located 7737 Kercheval at Van Dyke.  That branch was subsequently closed but I do not know the date.

Detroit’s Island View neighborhood has some potential for redevelopment given its closeness to downtown employment centers and it stock of housing that might be revitalized.  It is difficult to imagine that the John S. Gray building will ever reopen as a library but an imaginative entrepreneur might possible find a profitable use for this attractive century old structure.

Date of Construction: 1913
Architects: William Malcomson and William Higginbotham
Architectural style:  Modern Italian
Use in 2014:  Abandoned library
City of Detroit Designated Historic District:  Not listed
Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; May 15, 2014
Description prepared: May, 2015

Return to Entertainment and Culture

Return to Homepage