One couple's cool plans for Detroit's vacant Cooley High

Oct 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

When Cooley High School was built in 1928, Detroit was racing toward its population peak and architects at the time were experimenting beyond traditional Victorian Gothic styles in favor of influences from other regions. The result was a massive, Mediterranean Revival-style behemoth that combined a then-trendy European exterior with local touches, like Pewabic tile and solid oak.

The city is dotted with Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial structures, many of them schools or apartment buildings, but most of them are falling apart. The 322,000-square-foot Cooley — that number includes a 65,000-square-foot addition in the 1970s — is still standing, but potentially not for long without intervention.

Detroit Public Schools closed the northwest-side school in 2010 amid a storm of declining enrollment and budget cuts. Since 2009, 114 schools have been closed. The district has tried to sell off its shuttered properties; to date, 48 have been sold and 43 have been leased.

But several of the city’s architecturally significant structures have been demolished, including Redford High (now giving way to a new Meijer store), the original Cass Tech, and Mackenzie High. And several still stand, stripped to the studs with helpless “for sale” signs prompting would-be buyers to contact the district.

Neighbors and then-current students around the school thought it strange that DPS would close Cooley, commenting to local media at the time that it had been renovated just a few years earlier. DPS said the building was falling apart. Cooley students, many of whom were third- or fourth-generation attendees, were stuffed into other westside schools, including Mumford High and Henry Ford High — the former of which would receive a new DPS-built building and later be taken over by the controversial Educational Achievement Authority.

Cooley was designed by the Donaldson and Meier firm, which handled the David Stott Building in downtown Detroit. Inside, the school has a two-story library with solid oak paneling, a gymnasium with an indoor track above it, a swimming pool with Pewabic tile, and a theater to rival most standalone stages. Oft-mistaken as the inspiration behind the 1970s coming-of-age movie of the same name, Cooley boasts several notable alumni, including billionaire Mike Ilitch, actress S. Epatha Merkerson, Jimmy Hoffa’s son James, and longtime newscaster Rich Fisher.

One day, while driving her husband, LaMar Williams, to work, Nicole Pitts got lost on the way back home and ended up passing by the school, which sits at the corner of Hubbell and Fenkell streets. Williams is a Mackenzie alumnus familiar with several DPS schools; Pitts is a college professor, originally from San Diego, who had never seen the building. They decided something could be done with it.

And that’s when the Cooley Reuse Project was born. Since March 2012, Pitts and Williams have been lining up resources to renovate the school, talking with local heavy hitters and smaller community interests. DPS spokeswoman Jennifer Mrozowski says the district has even tried to help them in their efforts to secure funding for a sale, but the property has been eyed by other bidders.

Several construction firms who toured the building in recent months were surprised to find it was in better condition than expected, with many fixtures still intact. “Everyone says, ‘This is one of the best schools we’ve seen,’” Pitts says. “Every single person has said without variation, ‘Oh, Lord, you could open this tomorrow.’”

Pitts in her academic upbringing spent a two-year fellowship at National Trust for Historic Preservation, sparking an interest in old buildings. “All day long, I would write about projects like this and push them down into a single sentence,” she says.

Pitts and Williams envisioned the school as a multi-use, commercial property, with an emphasis on mental health, eschewing suggestions from friends who proposed turning the building into lofts. When the couple and one potential contractor first toured the building, several neighbors approached them and immediately questioned what they were doing. “They keep a close eye out for what’s going on — it’s neighborhood watch,” Williams says.

After vetting them and finding out they weren’t scrappers, they then suggested to Pitts and Williams what they’d like to see: Mental health services, mentoring, tutoring, computer training, a community gathering place. Maybe even a Starbucks. Mental health is a key issue for Pitts and Williams. “There’s a shame involved with mental health issues and families,” Pitts says, noting the stigma that can often nag African-Americans. “My husband — his brother died last year. He had mental issues, and it had been an ongoing problem for him since he was a child.”

There’s also potential for a residential space. Pitts and Williams have identified the 65,000-square-foot addition to Cooley as possible space for apartments alongside part of the original structure.

It’s not a quick fix. “There are places in the theater where I can look up and see the sky,” she says. “It is scrapped, but not destroyed.”

Williams’ alma mater, Mackenzie, was also built in 1928 amid Detroit’s population boom, and boasted ocean-blue Pewabic tile on its exterior. It’s gone now, having been demolished in 2012. “Any of our jewels with that great architecture should be preserved,” he says.

Amateur developers can quickly get in over their heads, but if paperwork handed out at a recent planning meeting of community minds and local professionals is any indication, Pitts and Williams have a strong handle on what’s needed to get Cooley back up and running.

The pair has an estimate from a contractor for $18 million, projected costs for liability insurance, insurance costs while the school is under construction, insurance costs for when the school is operational, and a detailed laundry list of other projected expenses. The University of Detroit Mercy will be doing a capability study on the site in November while Pitts and Williams work on getting local historic designation for the school, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

A three-phase development plan has the majority of the school completed in about a year for the first phase, a two-year timeline on renovating the Pewabic pool for the second, and four years to turn the 65,000-square-foot addition into residences.

Pitts and Williams have also done legwork to secure Cooley Reuse Project as an economic development corporation with 501(c)(3) status, pursued $250,000 in grants from the state of Michigan, and have held ongoing community meetings with partners and stakeholders.

The pair has also gotten guidance from Joel Landy, the eccentric developer who, among other renovations of Detroit schools, oversaw what is now the Burton Theater for the Arts in Midtown. They then partnered with Shelbourne Development, the firm behind much of the revival in the Palmer Park apartment district and parts of the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, and several community interests and residents, including the YWCA and Satori Shakoor, founder of the Twisted Society of Secret Storytellers.

“She’s my lady,” Pitts says. “She’s the one that’s going to make the theater a destination.”

The husband-and-wife-team, raising 8- and 10-year-old sons, each bring their own set of experiences to the project. Williams “has a down to earth way of communication that I don’t usually see in people, almost like a bartender or a priest,” Pitts says. As an English instructor at Oakland Community College who has been a department chair, she has seen firsthand how lack of resources can affect a community. “Everyone here hasn’t done this before, but they’re delivering their level of expertise,” Williams says. “To hell with a quick fix. We want to show our people that we can do this.” During the planning meeting, the name “Dan Gilbert” pops up frequently as a suggested funding source, though some are fully skeptical of the billionaire’s interest. “I don’t think he’s leaving downtown,” one woman says.

But Cooley doesn’t necessarily need a Dan Gilbert. “For us, as a young black couple, having this experience is becoming quite a phenomenon,” Williams says. “We’re far from rich, but we know there’s the need."