Friday, June 6, 2014

Detroit's Marygrove College: An Architectural Gem

By Gretchen Sawatzki

In the heart of northwest Detroit is an architectural gem unnoticed by many and totally worth discovering.  Where abandoned buildings dot West McNichols Road and an urban landscape dominates is an anachronism, a place forgotten by time.  On one side of the street is twisted metal from a burnt-out building, on the other, hand-forged gates and cut stone, a curious sight not readily seen in this part of the city.  Beyond the gates rises two Gothic spires, a statue of Mary, a formidable structure, the majestic Marygrove College.

Marygrove College has a long history in Detroit, but its roots go way back to 1845 in Monroe, Michigan when three women formally began a Catholic congregation now known as the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or IHMs. Led by Theresa Maxis, a woman of Haitian decent, campaigns began for a school for woman, and on January 15, 1846, St. Mary Academy was opened.  As the school's reach expanded, the Academy began offering college level courses in 1905, and by the early 1920s the school had outgrown its facilities. Looking to provide more access to education for women, the IHMs chose a developing area of northwest Detroit for its new, larger location.  In 1925 the cornerstone was laid at the present Liberal Arts Building, and in 1927 the Academy opened with a new name, Marygrove College.  Today the college offers a respite from the bustle of a re-emerging city and has opened her gates to educating men and woman of all races, religions, and creeds.

To say that this site is like no other would do a great dis-service to those dedicated to its upkeep.  The grounds and buildings are as immaculate as the sisters' namesake with well-manicured, lush lawns, bright gardens, and virtually unchanged architecture. The statues show no signs of age looking brand new as if they were just installed yesterday.  The buildings are as stunning as the day they were built with hand-carved and cast stone details that boggle the mind, and Gothic ornamentation rivaled only by the cathedrals of Europe's medieval age.  The caretakers of this site should be commended for their honorable work in maintaining the school's historical integrity.

In a time when money was abundant, the IHMs spared no expense to ensure the quality and longevity of their vision.  While the exteriors of the buildings are impressive, the interiors will make any architectural enthusiast salivate.  With handcrafted Pewabic tile floors in the dorms, to bronze light fixtures, and Carrera marble statues of saints, educators, and inventors in every hall, the school evokes a rich history of education and faith.  It's a rare wonder and truly marvelous sight to see original interiors untainted by modernism.

Since the school's opening Detroit has seen some tough times, but with places like Marygrove College one can pier through a looking glass into another time and remember what the city was all about - innovation.  In a time when woman were often left behind in an educational realm dominated by men, the IHMs challenged the social norm, and gave opportunities to those women who were gutsy enough to seek it.  Like Henry Ford provided jobs to immigrants seeking a better life, Marygrove College provided a sanctuary of learning to woman also seeking advancement. Today, Marygrove is not only jaw-dropping architectural wonder, but a reminder of what made Detroit, gumption and ingenuity.

For all of you bitten by the architecture bug, this is a site that you may not find on any itinerary, but seek it out, because it will truly change your perspective on Detroit.  And while West McNichols Road may be rough, Marygrove is a small, thriving retreat from the harsh realities of a struggling city.  See it for yourself, and you may find yourself wondering, "if Detroit looks like this than why do they only show blighted areas that look like a war zone on tv?" Perception is everything, so try taking a second look, you might be surprised at what you see.

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