The Way It Was — Detroit Historical Museum

Take a closer look at this photograph of the opening of the Detroit Historical Museum in 1951.
Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

1951Dozens gathered at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Kirby Street for the dedication of the new Detroit Historical Museum on July 24, 1951, exactly 250 years to the day after French explorer and military officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established Fort Pontchartrain at a site that became the city of Detroit.

Those in attendance included ambassadors from France, Great Britain, and Canada; native Detroiter Ralph Bunche of the United Nations; Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams; and Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo. A statute of Cadillac was unveiled by French Ambassador Henri Bonnet as a gift from France after the flags of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were raised at the dedication. The event was part of a massive three-day celebration of Detroit’s founding.

Thirty years earlier, under the leadership of attorney and historian Clarence Burton, the Detroit Historical Society was founded, and in 1928, a small museum was established in a one-room suite on the 23rd floor of the Barlum Tower (now the Cadillac Tower).

In 1945, Detroit Historical Society President and Detroit News columnist George Stark engineered an agreement whereby the over 15,000 items that the historical society had collected over the years, plus the more than $250,000 in privately raised funds, would be donated to Detroit in exchange for the creation of a historical commission and the construction of a new museum operated by the city. Ground was broken on the $400,000 museum designed by William E. Kapp of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls on July 24, 1949.

In 2006, the historical society agreed to take on the management and maintenance of the Detroit Historical Museum, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, and the Collections Resource Center that holds more than 250,000 artifacts at Historic Fort Wayne. The city owns the buildings and the collection.

Located on Woodward Avenue just north of the Detroit Public Library and kitty-corner from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the museum attracts annually more than 150,000 visitors and over 30,000 schoolchildren who learn about the city’s rich and colorful history.

The museum features the permanent exhibits Motor City Music, the Streets of Old Detroit, the Allesee Gallery of Culture, Detroit: The Arsenal of Democracy, America’s Motor City, Doorway to Freedom: Detroit and the Underground Railroad, Origins: Life Where the River Bends, and the nationally award-winning Detroit 67: Perspectives. It also presents between 15 and 20 new, limited-engagement exhibits each year. In 2011, the museum created Legends Plaza, which memorializes in cement the handprints of celebrities connected to Detroit.

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on May 6. Plus, find even more The Way It Was articles at