For over 80 years, Redford High School was the cornerstone of several northwest Detroit neighborhoods.
Located on the corner of Grand River and McNichols, the first unit of Redford High was built through 1920-22 to serve Redford Township, which was outside of Detroit’s city limits. The township and school were later annexed to Detroit in 1926, and Redford High became a part of the Detroit school system.
The Redford area grew along with the rest of the city, and in 1937 a second unit was built near the existing school. Eleven years later the school expanded again, with a new wing connecting the two existing buildings in 1948 and the construction of a boiler room. By 1953 the school had outgrown the existing athletics facilities, and built a new pool and gymnasium on the south side of the property. The old gym was demolished and replaced with classrooms; the swimming pool was covered was sealed off and covered with a floor so that classrooms could be placed above it. Redford also excelled at athletics, forming a fierce rivalry with nearby Ford High School when it opened in 1957. Football players Archie Matsos, Ralph Clayton, and James Woods all graduated from Redford, as well as runner Dick Sharkey and Clarke Scholes, who would go on to win the gold medal in swimming at the 1954 Helsinki Olympic Games.
Through the post-war years Redford built a high reputation for academics. Chuck Rever, class of 1965 remembers that Redford “was a college preparatory school. It was not a question ‘if you go to college,’ it was a question ‘where you go to college.’ University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University were 3 major colleges our graduates went.” As well as extensive class offerings, Redford had over 50 student organizations in 1960, including choirs, glee clubs, a newspaper, a radio station, rifle team, and a chess club.
Alum Steve Cartwright writes “I was there 1971-75. At that time there were some 4,000 students there. As big as the place was, students had to attend in shifts. Seniors started at 8 AM, Freshmen about 11:30. Then there were just two buildings, the original and the addition, and the floor levels didn't match, so you had to go up or down a flight between the two buildings. At that time, things were usually cool, most people got along fine, few race problems (and this was the early 70s, just a few years after the riots). Jocks were cool, and didn't pick on anyone. Most teachers were good, they indeed cared and would work with you if you had problems… All in all it was a good school, not perfect by any means, but I got a good education there and went on to U-M, and still know many people from RHS.”
As the racial makeup of the school changed rapidly, funding for school programs and oversight by the district dropped. Though another large addition was built onto the school in 1974, it was mainly geared towards vocational skills like auto work, cosmetology, hair styling, and other trades – programs which the district administrators steered black students towards. By the 1980’s, Redford High was struggling with school violence, as the friendly rivalry between Redford and Ford High School turned deadly.
With the arrival of principal “Mean” Joe Greene in 1983, though, Redford recovered and began to improve, cutting truancy in half and instilling a sense of pride and discipline. One thing that Redford couldn’t fight though, was the overall decline in enrollment the district faced going into the 90’s. Enrollment numbers fell from around 3,000 to 2,000; with more classroom space than students, administrators closed one wing of the original 1920 building, as well as most of the third floor of the athletics addition, installing metal bars and doors. Routine maintenance fell behind, leaving the alumni association to raise money to fix and repaint the school auditorium in the 1990’s.
Enrollment in 2006 was just 1,117 students, or about a third of the schools capacity. As the district began discussing closing the school, neighbors and community leaders protested, pointing out that despite its low enrollment and problematic condition, the school was still a central part of the community. They worried that merging Redford with Ford High School, a longstanding rival would lead to gang violence or cause students to drop out. Additionally, the school district had just spent $3.9 million on upgrades including new athletic fields and a baseball diamond the year before.
Along with 51 other schools, Redford High School closed in 2007. Students were reassigned to Ford and Cody High schools, depending on which side of Grand River they lived on. After it closed in 2007, Redford was secured and vacated. When the power was shut off to the school, pipes in the basement froze and broke, flooding some parts and doing extensive damage. After it was revealed in 2008 that equipment and student files had been left behind in many schools that had closed, DPS workers spent three months cleaning out Redford, carting away books, computers, desks, and student records. As they were working, they discovered people – likely scrappers – were living in the steam tunnels underneath the school. The school was re-secured, this time using steel anti-intrusion panels covering all windows and doors on the first two floors.
The age and layout of the school made it difficult to find a new use for the sprawling complex. Redford was made up of six separate buildings, dating from 1920 to 1982, each built onto each other at unusual angles, isolating parts of the school. However, the land under the school was considered to be prime real estate by developers, with a high median income and densely populated. In 2010, it was announced that Lormax Stern property group was considering purchasing the school with the intent to demolish it and build a Meijer grocery store and strip mall. The sale was completed a year later, with Lormax Stern formally taking possession of the school in 2012.
As it became clear that the school was going to be torn down, security was relaxed, and metal thieves stripped the building. A fire broke out in the gymnasium in June of 2012, injuring two firefighters and causing extensive damage. Asbestos abatement work began a few weeks later, and demolition of the school began in August. Construction on the Meijer store was expected to begin in 2013, but was pushed back to the summer of 2014 due to complications with the city bankruptcy.
At its peak, Redford had over 4,100 students learning in the 1.1 million square foot school. Despite its often rough nature, most alumni remember their time there fondly. And while some neighbors are disappointed to see the school go, they are also glad that it is being replaced by a strong retail outlet that will provide hundreds of jobs for the area.
If you have memories of Redford High School you’d like to share, visit our contact page and send them along. Special thanks to RHS alumni Chuck Rever and Steve Cartwright for their contributions.