When Reverend Charles Arnold came to Detroit in 1891 to become leader of St. Peter’s Episcopal church, he found a city that was just hitting its growth spurt.
In just a few short years the automobile was reshaping the city, transforming it into the industrial capital of America and drawing people from around the world to work in its factories and mills.
But even as the city prospered, there were people who did not prosper with it. In those early days the poor and sick had no social safety net to fall back on, often going without food, shelter, and medical care. Reverend Arnold had several such members in his congregation, and he struggled with how to best serve them.
In 1899, the first Arnold Home was established in a house on Baker Street near Trumbull Avenue that was donated by a parishioner. An elderly couple and four older men were put up in the home, and cared for by the church staff. The small house was quickly outgrown, and "…faced with the problem of caring for eight aged, infirm, or indigent people in his congregation, the young rector of St. Peter's church asked that a former home of the bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Michigan be converted into a refuge for them," The Detroit Free Press reported. "Through the newspapers of Detroit, Dr. Arnold appealed for aid and $2,500 was subscribed by the public and 30 old folks were established at 226 West Fort Street, Christmas day of 1899." This house was also proved to be too small, and in 1901 later patients were moved to larger house on Selden Avenue. Additions onto this house brought capacity up to 80 beds, while houses on Fort Street and Grand River were bought or donated over the years. These too quickly filled up.
The Reverend Arnold left the church in 1907 to dedicate himself to the running of the Arnold Home. He believed fervently that the home should be self-sustaining, with residents paying what they could, and the accommodations being frugal, yet inviting. In 1922 he turned his attention to the plight of cancer patients, and proposed construction of a home for their care and comfort, but died in 1925 before the plan could be realized. His daughter took over the running of the home, which continued to grow.
The individual homes, which were separated by large geographical distances, were eventually consolidated and replaced with the construction of a modern, purpose-built facility on Seven Mile Road in 1931. For some female residents, the move from the familiar house on Selden was bittersweet. The Detroit Free Press wrote "A group of nervous, elderly women clung together in front of an old house. Occasionally they looked back through its open door. More often they watched the proceedings around them in mute bewilderment. They were surrounded by bustle and confusion. Truckmen banged boxes and crates onto trucks and nosily drove away. Movers formed a steady procession in and out of the house, loaded with furniture and trunks. The old ladies themselves were loaded to their feeble capacity. In their arms were flower pots, favorite cushions, bird cages, and valued possessions, many of them relics of happier years."
Designed and built by Weston and Ellington, the cornerstone for was laid in September and the building was finished by December, when both the women and men moved in. Four wings, two stories high were built in the first phase of construction, with beds for 115 patients, a dining hall, hospital facilities, and gathering rooms. Two more floors were added in 1938, completing the Greek revival façade, and bringing the capacity up to 235 patients.
By the 50th anniversary of the home in 1949, the Arnold Home had grown from a home for the infirm into a thriving community of retirees, living out their final years in relative peace and comfort. The Free Press often did articles featuring the “who’s who of yesteryear” that lived at the Arnold home. Residents were independent types leading active lifestyles that involved gardening, cooking, music, reading, and politics. Separate quarters for the hospital's nurses and executives were dedicated in 1952, and a 110-bed addition was completed in 1958, bringing the total number of residents to 395, with an average age of 82. The home was proudly self-sufficient, not needing any outside funds to pay for operation.
By the 1960's though, the gradual erosion of the city's population was already underway, and middle-class retirees that made up the bulk of the residents of the Arnold Home had begun to leave the city. As they left they were replaced by seniors that were more dependent on Medicare and government assistance, leading to a decline in revenues and quality of care at the home. Members of the DetroitYES.com forums have mixed memories of working or visiting relatives at the home through the 1970's, 80's and 90's, generally feeling that the sanitary and staffing conditions got worse over time as financial problems continued to mount.
In July of 2004, the Arnold Home announced that it would be closing due to money problems. The 185 residents were to be relocated to other facilities, and 300 staff members were laid off. Julie Kaslly, Arnold Home administrator told Fox 2 News that "there are inefficiencies of running a building this large and this old and the bottom line is the Medicaid rate doesn't cover the cost of doing care here." Far from being the self-sufficient home of the old days, it was entirely dependent on outside funds. The home was vacated two months later. At the time, it was Michigan's oldest nursing home.
For three years the grounds were patrolled by security, keeping scrappers and vandals at bay. When the security was discontinued in 2007, the building became open to trespass and was looted. In 2008 the city foreclosed on the property for back taxes and ordered the buildings demolished, but this was postponed as a developer was rumored to be interested in the site.
In the meantime, locals tried to keep the grounds as neat and tidy as they could. A church located next door to the home starts regularly mowing the grass and trimming the bushes, but the sheer size of the property made it difficult to keep up with the overgrowth. At one point they don't realize that another church down the street was doing the same work on the other end of the property because the brush was so high that they simply couldn't see them.
The Arnold Home mostly receded from the headlines and into the overgrowth, except for an occasional article or news segment dedicated to covering the scrappers tearing the building apart or the rampant drug use and prostitution going on inside. The property was quietly sold again in October of 2011 to a property speculator for just $21,100. Then, just a few months later, it was back in the news.
On December 14th, Police made a grisly discovery in a collapsed section of the first floor: the bodies of two scrappers, who had been reported missing several days earlier, were found buried beneath the rubble of the ceiling of the cafeteria, which had caved in on them as they removed steel beams from the ceiling. Detroit Fire, Police, and other city departments spent most of the day and part of the night investigating the scene before the bodies could be reached using an excavator to remove debris.
The owner of the Arnold Home, Rashad Al-Mehdi, had bought it just a few months earlier "on a whim," deciding to bid on the building the night before the tax auction. After the accident he told the Detroit Free Press "'I really didn't have any plans when I put in an offer… I really don't know what I want to do with it.' He said it's like 'buying a car for a penny: you can always scrap it. I am paying pennies on the dollar.'" He promised to secure the building, but nothing came of it. Six months later the city announced that it was going to demolish the Arnold Home because of the damage it was doing to the neighborhood and the hazard it represented.
After several false starts, demolition of the Arnold Home started in May of 2013. The bulk of the structure was gone by August. The cost was covered by HUD grants that were originally intended for home demolition, but were re-routed for commercial buildings.
It's an inauspicious end to the bold dream of Reverend Charles Arnold to offer low-cost, high-quality health care to those who needed it most.