The evolution of school architecture from art form to afterthought is best illustrated by the two David Mackenzie Schools on the west side of Wyoming Avenue: To the left stands the old building, an ornate three story brick building adorned with elaborate gold, blue and orange tile patterns and flanked by arched entryways. To the right, its replacement is a squat kidney bean-shaped modern building wrapped around a parking lot that looks better suited to a suburban business park. The differences in styles could not be more distinct: The two buildings, one under construction and the other vacant represent the changing times of the Detroit Public Schools system and city as a whole.
Named for educator and former dean of Wayne State University, David Mackenzie High School was the product of the seemingly endless growth of the Detroit schools. The first classroom building and boiler house were built in 1927-28. An additional classroom wing was added in 1929, followed by the auditorium, library, and cafeteria in 1930. A health wing with a gym and pool were built onto the rear of the building in 1938. The exterior façade was a tapestry of multi-colored pewabic tile designs and terra cotta glazed ceramic, complemented by deep green tile and marble inside the school.
By the 1940’s, over 4,000 students were attending Mackenzie. The school offered a wide variety of classes including art, biology, typing, auto repair, and bookkeeping. Another addition in 1950 added a drafting and mechanical shop wing.
Through the latter half of the 20th century Detroit was changing, and with it Mackenzie changed too. The student population was overwhelming white through the 1950’s, and as in other parts of the city neighborhood residents fought a losing battle to keep it that way. A sharp increase in school violence and the prospect of racial integration contributed to the overall “white flight” the city was experiencing. Mackenzie was a hotbed of student activism; it’s long-time principal resigned in 1969, citing health problems caused by stress and pressure from students and parents. Sit-ins and protests demanding higher educational standards were common, closing the school several times in the 1970’s.
Despite the turbulence, Mackenzie continued to be a strong school in academics and sports. Actor Tom Skerritt, artist Stanley “Mouse” Miller, and musician Dennis Coffey attended Mackenzie, as well as future champion football players Pepper Johnson, Gilbert Brown, and Jerome Bettis.
By the mid 1990’s, the number of students at Mackenzie had dropped to around 1,700 as the neighborhood lost more and more residents. Loss of funds meant that maintenance to the building, now 70 years old was often deferred. While additional classrooms were added in 1987 and limited renovation work was carried out, the building was in bad shape by the 2000’s. In 2006, with just over 1,400 students attending, the school district announced its plans to close the building and transfer the students elsewhere, unless the community could raise $2 million dollars needed for immediate repairs. Efforts to raise the money failed, and the school closed for good in 2007.
In the intervening years Mackenzie suffered the same fate as other vacant school buildings, falling prey to scrappers. Most of the security panels over the windows were ripped off, exposing classrooms and offices to wind and rain. Demolition of the school began in June of 2012, and wrapped several months later.
Unlike other schools though, the Mackenzie story does not end there.
As part of a district-wide construction plan, a new Mackenzie building was announced in 2010. Located next to the existing building, the $21.8 million dollar school will hold 3,000 students when it opens in the fall of 2012, and will conform to new standards for environmental construction.
What the new facility will lack, however, is heritage. Aside from a blue stripe running on the outside walls of the school, the new Mackenzie has little of the look or feel of the old building. Former Mackenzie students speak with a deep sense of pride about their school, though its good years and bad. It was the cornerstone of the community for nearly 80 years. Will the new Mackenzie take up that role?