Downtown Detroit Hotels
The City That Was
When you click on points of interest in the panoramic photo of 1906 Detroit in the right frame, text and images will appear in this frame. Each picture within the pages can also be clicked on to provide more-detailed, higher-resolution photos.
The Detroit pictured here has been washed away in a tide of technological and social change more rapid, perhaps, than any in human history. Click on the photo at right, read the text below, and witness the transformation of Campus Martius from grand civic plaza to post-Industrial urban backwater.
HYPERLINK "https://www.merit.edu/~jimmoran/detphot/pano.map" m
Campus Martius, Detroit, Michigan, 1906
This is downtown Detroit, 1906, on the eve of the automobile explosion. There are no automobiles in the three-picture perspective at right, even though Henry Ford had driven his first model through the streets of Detroit ten years earlier. People and cargo travel by horse or electric streetcar, and pedestrians roam freely through the streets. Detroit City Hall (1871) is in the center with its wide lawn sloping to Woodward, Detroit's main street. The scene has an aura of civic idealism, equal parts bustling metropolis and manicured garden; the dusty streets, striped by vehicle tracks, lend a rural air.
Detroit's major roads radiate from this public square known as Campus Martius. (Ironically, the city had been laid out in the shape of a spoked-wheel nearly one hundred years before Henry Ford manufactured the first Model T.) All distances in Detroit were once measured from this point, including the "Mile Roads" that march into Detroit's northern suburbs. Woodward Avenue, Fort Street, and Michigan Avenue meet here, and Gratiot and Grand River start only a few blocks away. These are main arteries along which Detroit is still developing in the outer suburbs.
As the automobile transformed the country, Detroit quadrupled in population (1900-1930). Concrete was poured, skyscrapers soared, and the retail district, seen in the right panel of the panorama, expanded to world class status. Increasingly prosperous Detroiters bought more and more of their own product, and downtown overflowed with cars.
By 1928, Campus Martius was the busiest intersection in the country according to a contemporary visitor's guide.
As early as 1920, civic leaders made plans to relieve the congestion around Campus Martius. Streets were widened, traffic signals installed, and subway schemes studied. The Great Depression put an end to the subway plans, and the city's growth slowed.
After the war, Detroiters, like most Americans, were far more interested in the open spaces of their suburbs than in the grimy confines of the central city. Despite well-intentioned (yet often clumsy) attempts at urban renewal, the central city and Campus Martius slowly withered as families left the city to raise baby boomers in the clean air of suburban tract housing.
The City Hall in the center of this picture was torn down in 1961, leaving an open public space. New buildings were set back from the street, and the streets were widened, but by the late 60's, the number of people in downtown was declining. The closing of the huge Hudson's department store in 1982 signaled the end of retail in downtown, and only government and financial institutions hang on today, awash in a sea of unused office space and boarded storefronts. General Motors' recent purchase of the HYPERLINK "https://www.ehhs.cmich.edu/~williamb/rencen.html" t "display" Renaissance Center for a bargain basement price ($72 million for a complex that cost $350 million to build twenty years ago) is an indication of how far the decline has gone.
Campus Martius is still a relatively busy intersection, but no more so than dozens of other places across town and probably less so than many rural interstate exit ramps.
In the photographs at right, scattered pedestrians walk at random slants across the open space. Today, they cling together at crosswalks or huddle at bus stops, numbed by the thrum of tires and the dull grinding of laboring motors.
Detroiters have a bittersweet nostalgia for their downtown, and some still go back for sporting events, parades, and the like; but none of them would give up their strip malls and cineplexes to go back to 1906. The collective psychology that built civic plazas like Campus Martius no longer exists, dissipated in the march of technology, time, and social turmoil that goes by the name of Progress.
The average Detroiter walking across Campus Martius in 1906 probably had a pretty good opinion of Progress; the frontier days were still in living memory, and the technological and material improvements in daily life were manifest.