Proposed Lafayette Park/Mies van der Rohe Historic District
By a resolution dated July 29, 2002, the Detroit City Council charged the Historic Designation
Advisory Board, a study committee, with the official study of the proposed Lafayette Park/Miesvan der Rohe Historic District in accordance with Chapter 25 of the 1984 Detroit City Code andthe Michigan Local Historic Districts Act.
Lafayette Park is located immediately adjacent to the Central Business District, generally east ofthe Walter P. Chrysler (I-375) expressway, north of East Lafayette Boulevard, west of the GrandTrunk Railroad right-of-way, and south of Gratiot Avenue and Eastern Market. It is a primarilyresidential community composed of several separate developments positioned around a centralpark. A public school and a shopping center are located on East Lafayette Boulevard. Theresidential buildings designed by architect Mies van der Rohe - the Pavilion, Lafayette Towers,and the townhouse cooperatives - and the park that connects them, are listed on the NationalRegister of Historic Places as the Mies van der Rohe Residential District, Lafayette Park. To theimmediate east of the proposed district are two historic reinforced concrete bridges over theDequindre rail cut that are also included on the National Register, listed as Antietam Street,Grant Trunk Railway and Chestnut Street, Grand Truck Railway, as part of the multiple propertynomination of Highway Bridges in Michigan.
BOUNDARIES: The boundaries of the proposed Lafayette Park/Mies van der Rohe HistoricDistrict are the same as those of the preliminary plan for the area by Mies van der Rohe andLudwig Hilberseimer, as outlined in heavy black on the attached map, and are as follows:
On the north, the centerline of Antietam;On the east, the centerline of Orleans (including Chestnut Street between the two portions
of Orleans);On the south, the centerline of East Lafayette; andOn the west, the centerline of Rivard.
The proposed Lafayette Park/Mies van der Rohe Historic District possesses exceptionalimportance in the history of community planning and development, modern architecture, andsocial history. In the area of community planning and development, the district has thedistinction of being Michigans first urban renewal clearance project, designated UR Mich 1-1,
Gratiot Redevelopment Project, and one of the first in the nation. Its site plan was developed as aremarkable collaborative effort by Herbert Greenwald, the developer, Mies van der Rohe,architect, Ludwig Hilberseimer, city planner, and Alfred Caldwell, landscape architect.
In the area of architecture, the twenty-six residential buildings by Mies van der Rohehisonly works in Michigan and the largest collection of his buildings in the worldare excellentexamples of the methods, materials, and ideas that this world-renowned master architect used inhis later works. The districts townhouse complex is unique among his works, for it is the onlygroup of rowhouses ever built to his designs. Other buildings designed by other architects, suchas Chateautfort Place, Chrysler School and Lafayette Towers Shopping Center, are InternationalStyle in character (in keeping with the example set by Mies) and were sited within the Mies-Hilberseimer Plan. The manmade aspects of the district - its architecture, layout, and landscapedesignhave been key ingredients in the desirability of Lafayette Park today.
In the area of social history, Lafayette Park is significant in terms of the history of urbanrenewal and the involvement of the labor and civil rights movements in bringing it to fruition. As was often the case, it took several years, court cases, legislation, several developers and majorchanges in scope to be realized.
Social History Built on the site of the former Black Bottom community (named for its rich, loamy black
soil), Lafayette Park was the outcome of a city plan to counter the flight of middleandupperincome families to the suburbs by creating a community that would attract people ofdiverse backgrounds. Ironically, this area previously served a diverse community. Beginning inthe 1880s through the 1900s the district served as a port of entry and stopping off place formuch of the citys foreign born. By 1915 blacks shared this neighborhood with Detroits Italian,Greek, and Russian Jewish newcomers. However, by the late 1920s racial prejudice coupledwith restrictive covenants and real estate codes prevented the majority of blacks, especially thenew arrivals, from finding housing anywhere in the city outside of this east side district. Bythis time the term, Black Bottom community, was used only in reference to the southernmostsection of the district, a threesquare mile portion of the neareastside which was home to over500 African American families.
Immediately after World War II, Detroit was faced with two problems then prevalent inother cities across the nation: the deteriorated state of old, inner-city residential areas, which hadgone into decline during the depression of the 1930s and become overcrowded and increasinglyrundown during the war years; and the exodus of middle-and upper-income families to theburgeoning suburbs, which posed a threat to the citys tax base. These problems gave rise to anationwide movement for urban renewal, and Detroit was among the first cities to take action. In1946, in an innovative move that was soon tested in the courts, city officials proposed to acquirea large tract of land a few blocks east of the central business district, raze all buildings on it, andresell it to local builders to develop as rowhousing for lowand middleincome families. In thecitys view, this area, inhabited mainly by African Americans in the... lowest income groups,contained Detroits worst slums, and the new tax dollars garnered through its rejuvenationwould more than pay for the citys expenditure on land acquisition and clearance. Initially knownas the Gratiot Redevelopment Project, the site ultimately became known as Lafayette Park.
Condemnation proceedings began in February, 1947 and demolition started three years
later. By 1953 only Leland School, the Barstow School (later demolished) and a church were lefton the 129 acre site. According to the City of Detroit, Detroit Housing Commission FinalProject Report dated June 30, 1964, the Gratiot Redevelopment Project resulted in the necessaryrelocation of 1958 families and 989 single persons living in 1550 dwelling units. Within the43block project area, more than 90% of the housing stock had absentee owners.
Not until 1956 was any new development built on the cleared site. Contributing to thedelay was a decided lack of interest on the part of developers. Despite the National Housing Actof 1949, which encouraged private enterprise in urban redevelopment, local builders remainedwary of the citys redevelopment plan. Convinced that middleincome families would nevermove into this area, especially in view of the older neighborhoods that still abutted it, theyadvocated high-density high-rises for low-income families. By 1952, the city had evolved amixeddensity site plan aimed at providing housing for both lowand middleincome families.When the city put the land up for sale at public auction that year, it received not a single bid.Another auction a year later did produce a developer, but the deal ultimately fell through. Finally,in 1954, after Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, began applying publicpressure, city officials appointed a citizens committee to take over the project.
Headlines in the local newspapers announcing UAW Takes Lead in HousingDevelopment, UAW Offers $10,000 for Slum Project, and more heralded the unions drive tomove redevelopment forward. Corporate contributions to the effort followed. Reuther and hisfellow officers of the UAW-CIO were interested in better housing for all people, particularlyworking men and women. He wrote in a telegram to Mayor Cobo that The UAW-CIO isvitally concerned with the elimination of Detroits slums and in the redevelopment of blightedareas. The Gratiot-Orleans areas are both a challenge and an opportunity. In his telegram,Reuther expounded further on his belief that Detroit could develop a model downtownresidential neighborhood ....
Composed of representatives from labor, industry, and commerce, the new committeewas determined to avoid re-creating another low-income ghetto. Its goal, it announced, would beto establish an integrated residential community of the most advanced design, of the highestpossible [construction] standards; a community that, on a purely competitive basis, can attractback to the heart of the city people who are finding their housing in the outlying sections of thecity and its suburbs. To draw up a plan for such a community, the committee engaged OscarStonorov, the designer of several socially responsive International Style housing developmentsin Philadelphia, and the well-known architectural firms of Victor Gruen Associates andLeinweber, Yamasaki, and Hellmuth. The plan this team produced had mixeddensity housingarranged in patchlike fashion, cul-de-sacs as well as a cross street, and a grand avenue runningnorthsouth through the center of the area. With lowcost housing included in the mix, theGratiot Redevelopment Project began to represent an ideal, an example of democratic living. As told in a 1954 article in the Detroit Times, Cobo OKs New Gratiot Plan, Reuther believedthe plan presented an opportunity for Detroit to show how all classes and groups of peoplecould live together in a democracy [and] provided the United States a chance to win millions ofminds to the cause of the American way of life.
On the committees recommendation, a nonprofit corporation was formed to acquire,own, sell, lease or otherwise