Over the past couple of weeks, we have run a three-part series on the historic St. Paul’s Church complex. The series concluded with a review of the school and convent buildings, designed by Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls in September 1927.
This week we stay with the theme of historic schools in Grosse Pointe as we visit Defer Elementary School – the oldest public-school building still in use in the Grosse Pointe Public School district. Defer was designed by renowned Detroit architect George J. Haas. Construction began in 1924, classes opened in February 1925.
Defer Elementary School was originally built for Rural Agricultural School, District No. 1. It is located on the corner of Kercheval and Nottingham Road in Grosse Pointe Park. In 1921, Rural Agricultural, District No. 1 (renamed Grosse Pointe Public School District also in 1921) consolidated five fractional districts, bringing together students who had previously met in five separate schoolhouses. Defer Elementary School was the first school built after the consolidation.
In the late spring of 1923, at a special election, a bond issue amounting to $146,000 (around $2.5m) was approved for the purchase of a six-acre site on the north side of Kercheval between Nottingham and Somerset Roads, for the purpose of building a public school. The land on which the school was built was once a rhubarb field located on the Ludwig Meininger Farm – a two-block-wide strip of land that extended from Jefferson Avenue to what is now Chandler Park Drive in Detroit. Source: National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) Registration Form (2001). It was intended the new school would accommodate 320 elementary students and 40 kindergarten students. Upon completion, in February 1925, the school was named in honor of George Defer (1880-1927) who served as a village trustee and president, and as a state senator. A stone bearing his name is centered between the school’s front entrance doors. Image courtesy of Katie Doelle.
Architect George J. Haas designed Defer Elementary School in the Tudor Revival Style, a popular approach in Detroit and across the U.S. during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The three-story building has a rectangular floorplan and sits on a concrete slab foundation. The school is constructed from brick, with superb Indiana limestone detailing used to frame the doors and the many large casement windows. Some of the most decorative features include “a three-story limestone bay window with a crenellated parapet, wood-paneled Gothic arched doors topped with Gothic arched transoms, decorative tracery windows, limestone door and window surrounds, modified stone buttresses, and decorative carved limestone panels”. Source: National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) Registration Form (2001). Limestone was a popular material in Grosse Pointe from the turn of the century through to the 1930’s on homes, schools, and churches. The first photo (below) is courtesy of © Indiana Limestone Company. Courtesy, Indiana Geological and Water Survey, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Color photos are courtesy of Katie Doelle.
The interior of the school is flooded with light, courtesy of the large windows. Several of the rooms are decorated with Pewabic tile; the kindergarten room contains a Pewabic fireplace and drinking fountain. The ground floor once included a combined auditorium and gymnasium (a room that was two stories high), a domestic science room, a domestic art room for sewing classes, a boys’ and girls’ locker and shower rooms, along with a student lunchroom. The second floor was the location of four classrooms, a kindergarten room, a clinic for dental and medical examinations, along with access to the combined auditorium and gymnasium. On the third floor are four more rooms, two were originally used for music and art, one for the library, and a teacher’s rest room. It is believed the construction of Defer Elementary School, in 1925, cost around $244,000 (around $4.1m today). Images are courtesy of: National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) Registration Form (2001).
By 1927, the neighborhood had grown significantly, and the school was already starting to become overcrowded. That same year a twelve-room addition to accommodate 480 students, was commissioned. The addition, also designed by George J. Haas, allowed the science room to be relocated and included a new conservatory. It is reported the addition and minor changes to the original building cost around $100,000 (around $1.7m today).
It is reported, “in February 1928, secondary students moved to the newly constructed Grosse Pointe High School, in Grosse Pointe Farms, which had also been designed by George J. Haas”. “Defer then remained an elementary school, accommodating grades kindergarten through sixth, until1985, when the sixth graders moved across the street to Pierce Middle School as part of a district-wide restructuring of middle school education”. Source and image: National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) Registration Form (2001).
Architect George J. Haas was born in Detroit in 1889, the son of a cigar maker. He trained at the Detroit Technological Institute and resided in St. Clair Shores. Haas had a wide and varied career both as an architect and as a prominent member of several communities. Early on in his career George Haas was a specification writer in the office of Albert Kahn. Having started his own firm, believed to be around 1916, George Haas then became Mayor of Hamtramck in 1920, president of the Michigan Society of Architects (between 1924-25), and received multiple honors from the American Institute of Architects. Haas tended to specialize in designing schools and municipal buildings on the east side of Metro Detroit – he designed at least three schools in Grosse Pointe. Much of his work in the area was created during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, including:
- Grosse Pointe Park Municipal Building –1918
- 905 Berkshire – 1923
- 31032 Jefferson, St Clair Shores – between 1922 and 1924 – his own home
- Defer Elementary School – 1925
- Grosse Pointe South – 1928
- Stevens T. Mason Elementary School – 1928
- Hamtramck High School – 1930
- Jefferson Beach Amusement Park Coliseum – 1930
- Macomb County Building, Mt Clemens – 1931 – 1944
You can read the full story of George J. Haas by clicking here.
Defer Elementary School is an incredible building. It was listed as a designated Michigan Historical site in 1996, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
*Photos courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives unless stated.
** Research, information, and data sources are deemed reliable, but accuracy cannot be fully guaranteed.
Written by Katie Doelle
Copyright © 2022 Katie Doelle