The history of the City of Pontiac, MI is deeply intertwined with that of the automobile industry, rising and falling with the GM plants that have come and gone over the years. Pontiac Central High, for many years the city's main high school, mirrors that trend.
In the 1860's Pontiac was a city of 4,000. Oak Grove High School was built in 1871 on 10 acres of land along Huron Street to replace the old Union School, which was over capacity. By 1910 the population had tripled to 14,000, and residents wanted a purpose-built high school for the growing community. Construction began on a the new Pontiac High School in 1913, and finished a year later.
Designed by the firm of Perkins Fellows & Hamilton, the building stood three stories high over Huron Street on the grounds of the previous school. Pontiac High grew with the city, adding a classroom wing in 1917, and an industrial arts school in 1929. By 1958 the city required an additional high school, and Pontiac Northern was built three miles northeast of the old school, which became Pontiac Central. The two schools quickly became academic and athletic rivals, with Central producing two future Olympic champions and several NFL players.
Like nearby Detroit, Pontiac had experienced a rapid and uneven growth as the automobile industry flourished in the 1930's and 40's. Like Detroit, the racial composition of the city began to change during the Second World War, and the mostly white population resisted integration, giving rise to racial tensions. The city's population peaked in 1970 at 85,000 residents, 25% of which were black. Attendance boundaries were drawn in such a way that most of the city's black students went to Central High, while most white students went to Northern.
In 1970 a federal judge ordered the desegregation of the 25,000-student school district, a move appealed by the school board and protested against by parents and students. In October, four students were shot in racially-motivated violence not far from Central High. Two days later, more students were injured as over 500 brawled in front of the school until Police broke up the disturbance. When the order finally took effect in 1971, 10 school buses were burned by members of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, and five women were arrested for chaining themselves to the gates of the bus yard to prevent busses from leaving.
Against a backdrop of unrest, plans moved forward to replace Pontiac Central High with a new building. Designed by O'Dell / Hewlett & Luckenbach, the new school was a dramatic departure in design from the old one, a collection of sharp, metal-wrapped rectangles arranged around a core of glass skylights and corridors. The school featured two full size gymnasiums, a swimming pool, and a modern auditorium seating over 1,000. Construction began in 1973 and finished in time for the 1974 school year.
By the time of its construction, racial tempers in the school had started to cool, though there were still occasional disturbances. Pontiac Central weathered a changing city, as the auto plants moved out as well as many of the residents. The school continued to be highly regarded, with a pioneering robotics team and a well-known band.
As in Detroit, the loss of population came with a loss of students as well. In 2008 enrollment had fallen district-wide to just 7,200 students. Budget cuts hit especially hard at Central High, leaving the school unable to equip the marching band. In November a school committee was looking into closing half of the city's schools and merging Pontiac Central and Northern High Schools together. Despite worries about the two rival schools mixing, the district did not have the money to run two half-empty high schools, and in January of 2009 announced that Central and eight other schools would be closing.
Bringing the two schools together was a difficult task. District officials hosted events at both schools, including social mixers and dances. On March 3rd, the two rival basketball team played their final game at Central. An alumni basketball game featuring former stars from the 1980's and 1990's was attended by over 1,000. The school closed for good on Friday, June 12th, 2009. Pontiac Northern was renamed Pontiac High School after the merger.
Many of the vacant schools in Pontiac fell victim to scrapping and vandalism shortly after closing, including Central. Thieves eventually found ways in, and in 2010, it was found that historic items had been left behind in the closed school by alumni who had been promised that they would be stored for safe-keeping. In 2011, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office searched the vacant school for explosives after a retired chemistry teacher wrote the district that he had been told to remove two pounds of TNT in 1979, and had put them in the coal bin instead. No explosives were found.
On August 16th, 2012, firefighters were called to the school after a resident reported smoke coming from the building. A fire in the school book store, located in the basement, had been burning for at least a day when firefighters discovered it. The intense fire took most of the day to put out, with thousands of gallons of water pouring into the already flooded basement. Through October and November, police were repeatedly called to the schools on trespassing calls for scrappers.
In February of 2013, the school was put up for sale by the district with an asking price of $5 million dollars. Scrappers continued to pick away at the building, while algae bloomed throughout the flooded basement hallways, gymnasium, and swimming pool. Despite its condition, the school sold in January of 2015 for $1 million dollars to Lee Industrial Contracting, company with a track record of restoring old schools.
As of the spring of 2015, workers have been seen at the site removing debris and using giant fans to dry out the building.