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The original, largely unrealized campus layout and the design and quality of the buildings represented the mind of the founding IHM Sisters, their view of both Catholic culture and the purpose of the "groves of academe" at the time (1925), and the personal vision of the architect, D.A. Bohlen. The plan also saw the wooded campus as a biological teaching space. The park-like campus is seen as an oasis in a gritty, tough, sometimes brutal city. Students say it calms them. Neighbors use it to walk their dogs, practice chip shots, ride bikes. The campus specimen trees are still used for teaching purposes.
On November 10, 1920 the IHM Sisters broke ground for a new, expanded St. Mary College campus in Monroe, Michigan, where they had founded St. Mary Academy in 1846. By 1905, the Academy had grown to include St. Mary College. In 1910 the State of Michigan empowered the college to grant degrees, and in 1914, the State Department of Education authorized it to grant teaching certificates. But before construction could begin on the new St. Mary campus, Bishop Michael Gallagher invited the Sisters to build the new college in Detroit, where it would give more women an opportunity for Catholic higher education and provide a larger field of influence. Along with Bishop Gallagher, the IHM general superior, Mother Domitilla Donohue, believed that the College could be a monument to the city of Detroit itself. Accordingly, in March, 1922, for $241,000, the Congregation purchased as the site of the new college an 80-acre wooded tract in a developing area of northwest Detroit. In documents of the period, the new enterprise is referred to as Immaculate Heart College.
The new site suggested a new name, and in October 1925, St. Mary College became Marygrove College. The new name was used by St. Mary's, Monroe, from 1925-1927, until the College officially welcomed its first students to the Detroit campus. The name itself alluded to the classical groves of Plato and the groves of academe, now newly cultivated within a burgeoning industrial city and placed under the auspices of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The original plot plan for Marygrove College included approximately fourteen buildings, including the three built in the initial construction period. The President's House was begun in 1927, as the Liberal Arts Building, Madame Cadillac Hall, and the Power House neared completion. Future buildings were to include a library, science and art buildings, a conservatory of music, a church, auditorium, outdoor theatre, gymnasium, and additional dormitories. Tennis courts, running tracks, and other facilities for outdoor sports were also envisioned.
In the 1927 Souvenir Volume for the dedication of Marygrove College, the architects described their plan for the campus:
The plan of Marygrove College has a main axis running North and South featuring the stately Liberal Arts Building. On this axis the future collegiate buildings will be placed making the scholastic campus extend from the monumental gateways at Palmer Boulevard [renamed McNichols Road] to the Liberal Arts Building. Running from east to west we have developed a secondary axis for the residential group and united this to the scholastic group by the location of the President's house and upon the intersection of the two axes, in other words, at the focal point of the plan, we have used as our key-note a carefully designed Gothic column surmounted by a beautiful marble state of the Immaculate Conception. This shaft is set in the center of a large sunken garden so arranged as to give full value to the perspective and prominence of the Liberal Arts Building. The Liberal Arts Building as designed will always be the central motif of the entire group of buildings.
As the architects made clear, the College buildings were designed to reflect an IHM educational philosophy that saw faith and spirituality as central to the Catholic teaching tradition. The main campus stone arch opened onto a pathway that circled the statue of Our Lady of Marygrove, then led directly to Sacred Heart Chapel, situated precisely at the center of a building named not after a benefactor or saint, but after the College's primary intellectual mission: liberal arts.
The two wings of the Liberal Arts Building paralleling the central chapel very deliberately housed the library and the theatre in an apparent spatial trinity of reason, faith, and the arts. The fourth floor art gallery crowned the building and was entered from three possible stairways through ornate Gothic gates of solid bronze. Marble statuary depicting figures from Dante to St. Cecilia, Thomas Aquinas to St. Teresa of Avila, Christopher Columbus to St. Joan of Arc, appeared at the hallway intersections throughout the building.
In the mind of its owners, the premier campus building, Liberal Arts, was intentionally designed to present itself as a thoughtful, reflective center of teaching and learning, of culture and community, and as a space where conventional wisdom could be interrogated and faith and reason converse.
The same Gothic Revival style governed the Madame Cadillac Building, but according to Mr. Bohlen's notes in the Souvenir Volume at the dedication of the College, November 10, 1927, "a very definite note of the English Manor has been introduced." "With its many dormers, quaint casement sash and jutting bay windows, the building is tucked in between the green foliage of a beautiful grove and is delightfully situated from the standpoint of quiet comfort as well as accessibility to the scholastic campus. In its ornaments and general design the lines have been worked with more refinement."
From the first, Marygrove's park-like campus was meant to be a teaching laboratory in its own right. To that end, the first chair of the biology department, an IHM nun, selected a range of specimen trees for the campus that would create an ideal outdoor classroom. One of the plantings was a dawn redwood that still stands on the lawn east of the library. It is a very old species of tree, indigenous to the mountains of China, and was thought to be extinct in the early 20th century.
The Marygrove woodland is an oak-maple biome, and the oak and maple certainly thrive on the campus. But the lawns also claim at least one pink dogwood, white dogwood, saucer magnolia, purple flowering plum, gingko biloba, tulip tree, sweet gum, white paper birch, purple beech, Russian olive, honey locust, blue spruce, weeping spruce, white pine, mugho pine, and blue juniper, in addition to the dawn redwood.
That the ambitious plan for the campus did not materialize was caused by several factors. The IHMs assumed a $1.5 million mortgage debt from the building of the College (at a cost of $4 million), then endured a fire that completely destroyed St. Mary Academy in 1929. The Congregation immediately undertook to rebuild their Academy and Motherhouse in the depths of the Depression (1931-1932) at a cost of $2 million, significantly compounding their total debt. The Art Deco Motherhouse (376,000 square feet) and Academy (260,000 square feet) were designed by D.A. Bohlen & Son and built by the same company (W.E. Wood) that built Marygrove.
Not surprisingly, the costs of Marygrove College and the construction of the Monroe complex put the IHM Congregation under financial constraints for the next 45 years, even, however, as they built three new high schools. Erecting new academic buildings at Marygrove simply became less possible, particularly in terms of the de-capitalization and white flight that had begun in Detroit in the 1950s, trends made worse by the 1967 riot.
Though only the addition to the library (east wing of Liberal Arts Building), the convent, and Florent Gillet Hall have been built since 1927, the most recent Campus Master Plan (2001) respects the original design. (Incidentally the IHM Motherhouse has recently been completely renovated on principles of sustainable design, materials, and energy systems. At a cost of $56 million, the project has gained national attention and awards from the Michigan AIA and the U.S. Green Council. The IHM Monroe campus, for example, has the largest privately owned geothermal field in the country. See www.ihmsisters.org)
The Campus Plan is significant because it is such a material representation of the ambitions of the IHM Sisters, the Catholic hierarchy, the Detroit Catholic community, and the city of Detroit itself in the 1920s. The 1920s still represent the golden age of architecture in the city of Detroit. Indeed, the great cultural institutions on Woodward Avenue--Orchestra Hall, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library--have many of the same (if more elaborate) internal and external finishes as the Marygrove College buildings, from the limestone facing, to the elaborate stone carvings, to the marble floors and terra cotta fireplaces, to the carved beamed ceilings. The plans and buildings of the Marygrove campus reflect in miniature a brief moment in the 1920s when even the New York Times thought Detroit (without much irony) would be the American city of the future.
Johns, Barbara, comp. A Brief History and Architectural Guide. Detroit, MI: Marygrove College, 2002.
Master Plan. 2001. Marygrove College, Detroit, MI.
Rosalita, Sr. M. No Greater Service: The History of the Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, 1845-1945. Detroit, MI: Marygrove College, 1948.
Souvenir Volume [Dedication of Marygrove College]. [Detroit, MI: Marygrove College]. November 10, 1927.