Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cooley High School

Photo Courtesy of Anthony Lockhart see more of his
photos of Cooley at

In my September letter about the City of Detroit, I referred to Cooley High School in the neighborhood where I grew up and went to school.  I would have gone to Cooley High had I not gone to Cass Tech and then moved to Livonia.  I loved the architecture of Cooley High School.  It looked more like a college building than a city of Detroit Public High School.  The inside was as grand, as I recall, the entrance and the auditorium were simply beautiful.  There are very few high schools built today with such attention to style, grace, and beauty.   Today’s architecture is less ornate and concerned both with maximizing function and managing costs. 
My good friend Tim Miller wrote me shortly after I posted my letter.  I have known Tim since grade school.  We were in Boy Scouts and great friends back in the day.  We used to play tennis, baseball, and toss the football around at Cooley High School.  It was a great campus.  I looked forward to going to high school at what seemed like a wonderful place.  Tim wrote as he often does to comment on my letters.  He reminisced about the old neighborhood and the year he spent at Cooley.
In 1968-1969, Cooley was not the High School we had thought about going to.  The building, the architecture, had not changed but the student body had changed.  The change reflected the changing demographics of the city.  Cooley was transition from being an all-white school to an all-black one and it was not a smooth one.   Cooley’s transition was simply a reflection of the times.  Whites were abandoning the city.  Black people were expressing their discontent with years of discrimination.  It was just two years after the Detroit Riots of 1967 that polarized the city and divided the races.  Tim’s year at Cooley, before his family moved to Livonia, was tough.  He was jumped his first day there, he was shot at his last day, his friend from middle school who was black stopped socializing with him due to the polarization of the races, and other minor day to day pressures that made a not entirely pleasurable experience. 
Photo Courtesy of Anthony Lockhart
see more of his photos of Cooley at 
Tim wrote that he had visited the old neighborhood recently and visited his old church, Cavalry United Methodist, which was across from Cooley High School.  He told me Cooley was no longer a high school.  I was saddened to hear this much more than I would have anticipated.  It was such a grand edifice, that I just assumed it would be a grand and great high school forever.
What happened?
Cooley just became another victim of what was generally happening to Detroit.  Cooley closed on July 30, 2010 due declining enrollment.   It is a shame.  It was probably necessary as they closed several Detroit Schools at the same time.  In the greater scheme of what has happened to the city, the closing of one high school is but a small chapter or maybe even a footnote.  It is a symbol.  Everyone that loves the city has memories of what made the city grand for them back when the city was grand. Cooley High has been such an icon for me.
Why was I so impressed with Cooley?  Why did the architecture impress me so?
Cooley was designed and built in what is called the Spanish or Mediterranean Renaissance style.  It is one of the few examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture in Michigan.  Most other examples of this style architecture are in places like Miami and Southern California where the climate is more like the lands in which this style of architecture was created.  The architects of the building were Donaldson and Meier, a firm founded in Detroit in 1880.  Other notable buildings from this firm include the David Stott and Penobscot buildings that help define the Detroit skyline.  The firm also designed the Beaumont tower on the Michigan State University and the Dental Building and Alumni Hall at the University of Michigan.  It would be interesting to know how they chose this style of architecture for the building.
Cooley High School just after it opened in 1928
Cooley High School was built in 1928.  The first classes at the school commenced on September 4 of that year.  The City of Detroit had expanded.  Greenfield Township and the Village of Strathmoor were annexed by the city and houses were built to accommodate the randomly growing population of the city.  The previous high school in the area quickly became too small.  Cooley was built as the new high school.  The old high school became Robert Burns Elementary School where I attended from kindergarten through 7th grade.  Cooley was named for Thomas Cooley (1824 – 1898) who was the chief justice of the Michigan State Supreme Court. 
Cooley in 2008
The school population grew with the neighborhood population.  1,570 students were enrolled when the Cooley opened its doors.  Enrollment grew to 3,750 by 1932.  Cooley was a pretty large high school for its day.  In fact, Cooley was the third largest high school in the Detroit Public Schools at the time of its closing. 
The most notable graduates of Cooley High School was Jimmy Hoffa, the famed leader of the Teamsters, and Mike Ilitch the owner of Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Tigers, and the Detroit Red Wings.  Cooley produced three major league baseball players:  Joe Ginsberg, Bill Roman, and Milt Pappas.  Milt Pappas used to return to Cooley when his team, the Baltimore Orioles, was in Detroit.  He would warm up on his high school field to the delight of the youngsters.  I believe Milt used to like to see the young ballplayers in his old neighborhood.  I also believe Milt enjoyed pitching from the old high school mound.
The Cooley Auditorium
I never went to school there.  But it was a cornerstone, and as I said icon, of our neighborhood growing up.  We only lived two blocks from the school.  I learned to swim in the Cooley pool.  I learned to play tennis on the Cooley tennis courts.  I hit my first home on the make-shift ball field we used next to the big boy high school field at Cooley.  I felt special every time I entered the building simply because of the grandeur and design of the building inside and out.  I attended plays and concerts in the magnificent Cooley auditorium.  Look at the beautiful photo of Cooley on this site click here.  There are several comments under the photo on the closing of the school which are worth reading.
Time passes, things change, and nothing lasts forever.  The closing of Cooley hurt a bit more than architectural closings.  I hope the school is not torn down.  I hope it can be reborn as a school or other useful community building someday.  It is a treasure worth saving.


  1. My last year at Cooley High was the 1968-69 year (I graduated in January 1969). Although my family moved from Detroit in 1966 (part of the white flight), much to the chagrin of my parents, I continued to attend Cooley while living in Ferndale. You are right, the architecture is amazing and I hope the school can be saved...

  2. I really enjoyed your article! It saddens me to watch the closing of Cooley. I like yourself never attended. I was just a neighborhood child who was marveled by is beauty.

  3. Thanks for the info.
    Does anyone know what the max enrollment was?

    1. I don't know the max enrolment, but if I remember rightly my senior graduation class was supposed to be 500. That I was told by some other people was more than their entire school.

  4. Yesw, We had wonderful riots in 1969-70!! Canine and Tacticle Mobile Units. Cars on fire. White folk could not enter certain entrances and bathrooms. One of my classmates was knocked unconscious after being hit with a pipe and was wheelchaired out of the school. I never saw him again! What a nightmare!

  5. Inevitably, Cooley High School is falling prey to vandalism and deterioration. So sad.

  6. Thanks for the article! A slice of life!!