Hub for Learning

Higher education is flocking to Detroit’s Midtown district
Albert Khan’s Argonaut Building, now the Taubman Center. Photograph by Jennifer Nilsson

The stretch of Detroit turf that lies between downtown and Grand Boulevard goes by many names: Midtown, New Center, University Cultural District, Cultural Center, and, formerly, The Cass Corridor.

These days, you could just call it “campus.” Educationally speaking, things are getting pretty cozy on the city streets surrounding the Fisher Building and Orchestra Hall.

Wayne State University, with its main and medical campuses plus Tech Town, claims the largest footprint, with the College for Creative Studies also a significant tenant just across Woodward. But now, CCS has made a giant step west of Woodward, and Michigan State has followed the University of Michigan into Midtown, where each now has a toehold.

In the newly refurbished Albert Kahn-designed building next to Wayne State’s venerable Bonstelle Theatre on Woodward, MSU is opening an urban branch for its Colleges of Education and Music. Recently renovated by Adam Nyman of Professional Property Management, the building’s original 1919 Art Deco façade and Spanish tile roof mix nicely with new steel canopies.

Several blocks north of that MSU site, CCS is set to begin classes in the Argonaut Building. Another recently rescued Kahn structure, it was recently renamed the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education. Still recognizable from the outside as GM’s onetime design center, the Taubman Center’s interior has been updated in a $145-million overhaul.

By renovating existing buildings and making use of local resources, Michigan schools are engaging the urban landscape. The Kahn buildings, for example, work well as student centers because, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, they’re comfortable to inhabit and steeped in the rich history of the area. Famed GM designer Harley Earl once occupied studio space on the Argonaut’s 11th floor. Appropriately, it will house CCS design-based majors, as well as a charter school for younger students pursuing arts and design. Dormitory space will also be available for 300 students.

City campus sites are valued by universities seeking to provide an urban laboratory for students. U-M’s Semester in Detroit (SID) program allows students to absorb local culture while interning with community-based organizations and taking classes such as Planning Detroit: Past, Present, and Future.

“I’ve always loved the city of Detroit — the people, the sights, the history — but there are a lot of ways for the city to grow,” says U-M sophomore and Bloomfield Hills native Kaitlin Liroff, who plans to apply for SID’s winter 2010 term.

One necessary element for revival is a bustling street scene — signs of life. In this case, the new pedestrians will be students shouldering backpacks.

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