The Union School Buildings

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2012,
Winter 2012
Original Images:





Author: James Mann

Today Cross Street Village, senior housing, stands at 210 West Cross Street. This building is still known to many as Old Ypsi High. For many years this building was the high school. The use of this building, for senior housing, is the first time since 1844, that a building on this site has been used for purposes other than education.

When someone talks of the history of the buildings that have stood on this site, the result is likely to be confusion, for this is the story of not one building, but of four. Of the four buildings that have occupied this site, two have been completely destroyed by fire, while the third was damaged by fire and rebuilt. The last building was later demolished to make room for the west wing of Old Ypsi High, the fourth building.

All of these buildings were used as schools, and were a major reason for Ypsilanti having a reputation for excellence in education for many years. The first of these buildings, however, was the result of a business folly.

During the 1830s, a railroad was proposed linking Tecumseh to Ypsilanti, where it would connect with the Michigan Central. To house the patrons of the railroad, a hotel was built at Ypsilanti called the Tecumseh Hotel. The railroad was never built, so there were no patrons, and the hotel failed. Charles Woodruff, who was running an academic school in Ypsilanti, moved his school into a portion of the hotel in 1844. The school, he wrote, was “at an awful distance from the thickly built portion of the village.”

Woodruff continued the school at that location until 1848, when the building was purchased by a company headed by the Reverend L.H. Moore, pastor of the Baptist Church. After the sale, Woodruff went into the newspaper business, as editor of The Sentinel. The Rev. Moore began operating a private school in the building, called The Ypsilanti Seminary, designed to provide students with a liberal education.

That same year it was found that the old White School House on North Washington Street was inadequate. At the annual meeting of School District Number Four, $1,000 was appropriated for the erection of a new building. This attracted the attention of contractors, and there was much talk of a new school house. Instead, the board purchased the Tecumseh Hotel building from the Rev. Moore, for $2,400. Changes were made to the building during the summer of 1849, better adapting it for use as a school. The school opened in October of that year.

“The Seminary Building,” wrote Harvey Colburn, in The Story of Ypsilanti, “was a plain three-story brick edifice built close to the sidewalk and in the form of an ‘L.’ The longer arm extended westward from the corner and the shorter northward. The roof was surmounted by a cupola with a bell. Attached to the west wing was a two-story frame building, originally used as a dwelling.”

This may have been the first “graded school” in Michigan and, because of the moderate tuition, it attracted students from outside the Ypsilanti school district. The terms union school and graded school are interchangeable. The upper floors of the school were used as dormitories for the out-of-town students, called the “foreign students.”

Soon the rooms were filled to capacity while more students were seeking admission. To make room for more students, an addition was added in 1854. This three story brick addition ran north on Washington St. for about 60 feet. The first and part of the second floor of the addition were finished as class and school rooms, while the rest of the second floor and all of the third were used as dormitories. These rooms were soon filled, and the school was prosperous beyond all expectation. Then disaster struck.

On the morning of Sunday, March 29, 1857, the building was found to be on fire. In spite of heroic efforts with every means available, the building was soon nothing but ruins. Several of the teachers and many of the students suddenly found themselves homeless. Fortunately, the school had closed the previous Friday, for the nine-day spring vacation.

“As the inhabitants gathered around the ashes.” noted The Michigan Journal of Education of October, 1858, “some of the children wept, and the purses of the rich shuddered a little, but all consoled themselves with ‘Well, we will have a better school now.’ At once arrangements were made for temporary locations for classes, until a new building could be built. “A plan for a building was presented,” reported The Michigan Journal of Education, “by Jordan & Anderson which so well pleased all, that it was adopted by unanimous vote of the District.”

The new building, built on the site of the old, was dedicated August 17, 1858. The architects were Jordan & Anderson of Detroit, and the builders were McDuff & Mitchell, who were also of Detroit.

“The entire structure,” noted Colburn,” was architecturally satisfying and even beautiful.”

“This edifice stands in the center of a beautiful square in the central part of the city of Ypsilanti,” reported The American Journal of Education, “one of the most attractive healthy and flourishing towns in the State of Michigan. The building has a transept of 120 feet and a depth through the transept of 95 feet, and through the end compartments of 68 feet.” The building was in the Italianate style of architecture, and had a height of 59 feet. “The quoins in the corners,” noted The American Journal of Education, “the window and door caps and stills, the cornice, the architave moldings, belt courses, &c, are finished in imitation of brown free stone––the remainder being of hand-pressed brick.”

The American Journal of Education published a print, plans and description of the building. This was republished in the Michigan Journal of Education in October of 1858, and later used in other publications.

The first floor of the building was 6 feet above the lot, “leaving a lofty basement story under which was the heating apparatus, storage and fuel rooms.” The first floor was 20 feet high, and, the center of the building had a large room, or chapel, 90 by 45 feet, used for commencement and other public exercises. It was then the usual practice to place assembly rooms on the highest floor of a building, possibly because of interior load bearing walls limiting space. It was considered an advantage to have the chapel on the first floor. “This in infinitely more convenient and safe, than it is to require an entire congregation at commencement or other exercises, to climb up to the top of a high building. It is also more desirable, as the infant children can be taken into the room on all occasions, without danger to them, which in ordinary cases, tutors are afraid to do.”

The chapel had no columns or pillars to block the view of the stage. Fears were expressed in 1866 that the building was unsafe. Inspection found the building to be structurally sound. Even so, four pillars were placed in the chapel.

The first floor had two corridors one of each side of the chapel, each 12 feet wide and running from the front to the rear of the building. The first floor had four primary rooms, two on each side of the building. Between each of the primary rooms was an entrance in the center of each side of the building. Each of the entrances opened to a clothes room.

The building had four more entrances to the first floor, two at the front and two at the rear, opening into the corridors on each side of the chapel. A total number of six entrances allowed the younger children to enter and leave the building separate from the older children. The number of entrances also allowed for the separation of the students by sex, as it was then considered best to keep the boys and the girls apart as much as possible. The interior arrangement of the rooms allowed the boys and girls to come together when necessary, and to separate again when returning to their classrooms without confusion or inconvenience. This structure stood until 1877 when it was destroyed by fire.

By August of 1878 the School Board and Building Committee had closed a contract for building the new school on the site of the old, with Spitzly & Bro. of Detroit. The Ypsilanti Commercial of August 10, 1878 reported, “The masons began laying the foundation of the new Union school on Wednesday. The building will be enclosed before winter.” The building was ready for use at the beginning of the school year of 1879.

The new three story building was different from the old one. The most striking difference was the one-hundred- foot high tower with clock and bell. For many years this was the only town clock the city had, with the bell striking the hour with remarkable accuracy. A challenge for the boys, although it was strictly forbidden, was to sneak into the bell room, and be there when it tolled the hour. The sound was deafening, but every boy was expected to do it at least once before graduating.

Another change from the previous building was the placement of the chapel on the third floor, instead of on the ground floor. Light for the chapel was provided by a skylight in the roof. Some would come to see the skylight as the building’s fatal flaw.

A two story addition, measuring 23 by 23 feet 8 inches, was added to the north wing of the building in 1893. “The sewer from it,” reported The Ypsilanti Commercial of August 18, 1893, “passes under the whole length of the main building and thence diagonally to the south-east corner of the grounds, connecting at the Cross and Washington street manhole.” When digging the ditch for the sewer, workers uncovered the ruins of the old Seminary building that had burned in 1858.

Students had just taken their seats and settled in for an afternoon of study, on Thursday, May 3, 1893, when a terrible crash was heard from the chapel on the third floor. The sound frightened everyone in the building. Those in charge of the building quickly went up to the third floor to investigate. They found the entire ceiling of the chapel in flames. Outside the building, flames were seen leaping in sheets thirty feet high, from a spot on the roof north-west of the tower and near the chapel skylight. It was the sound of part of the ceiling falling into the chapel that had frightened everyone. The building was ordered evacuated, and was soon empty of the 600 students and teachers. A few students suffered minor injuries, when they jumped from windows on the second floor.

Fire fighters were soon on the scene plying the flames with water from their hoses, but pressure from the mains was inadequate for the streams of water to reach the fire. To fight the fire, fire fighters had to wait until the fire had burned down low enough to be within reach of their hoses. It did not help, when the hoses busted three times. Some of those present, said the fire fighters could have made good use of a ladder.

At 2 p.m. the bell in the clock tower tolled the hour for the last time, as soon after the tower caught fire. Then, with one or two last clangs, the bell fell by stages to just above the main entrance, the landings having prevented a terrible cash.

At 2:45 p.m. the Ann Arbor Hose Company received a request for assistance and, with hose, hose wagon, and three men, for a total load of 4,000 pounds, covered the distance in 28 minutes. They had a stream of water playing on the fire within two minutes of their arrival. The team of horses, the grays, showed the effect of the hard run, being covered in foam. “The horses,” reported The Ypsilanti Commercial, “were skillfully and carefully cared for and soon seemed none the worse for their record-breaking run.” The fire was brought under control by 4 p.m. and fire fighters continued fighting the fire until a hard rain fell that night.

“The most plausible theory of the cause of the fire,” reported The Washtenaw Evening Times, of Friday, May 5, 1894, “is that the prismatic shaped skylight on the roof and the plain one which lights the chapel below made possible a concentration of rays of the sun, that body being at the time about in its zenith, upon some cobweb hanging from the lower skylight and this set fire to those minute things which by nature’s aid could result in disaster.” A more likely cause, said others, was a combination of boys and cigarettes.

Less than an hour after the discovery of the fire, even before the flames were under control, the Superintendent and several members of the school board were making arrangements for space to be used as temporary classrooms so classes could continue. The day after the fire, the school board traveled to Northville, to see if they could get school seats

Unlike the previous two buildings, this building was not a total loss. The walls of the building appeared undamaged and could be reused. Then the west wall fell, carrying two rooms with it, after the insurance was adjusted.

The third floor was a total loss, as was most of the second, but for two rooms that were not too badly burned. “The north wing,” reported The Washtenaw Evening Times of May 4, 1894, “was the least damaged and could be put in shape at a moderate cost.”

The first floor seemed to have suffered little damage, and the library, for the most part, was saved. “The bell and clock,” reported The Ypsilantian of May 4, 1894, “are a total wreck, the former being cracked so as to be of no value except old metal. The cost of the clock was $1,500, and was an excellent timer.”

Insurance companies paid an award of $16,589.91 on the building and $5,250 on the furniture and fixtures for a total of $21,839.91.

It was decided that the new building would be built along the plans of the old one, but with some modifications. “The first change,” noted The Ypsilantian of January 10, 1895, “a teacher would observe is the quieting of the building. This is secured by thoroughly deadening of the floors, a thing that was not well done when the building was first erected.”

The first floor was little damaged by the fire, so remained much as before. The greatest change was found on the second and third floors. The former winding stairways were replaced so as to have a platform landing between the second and third floors. “The stairs and the second and third stories are beautifully finished in natural oak,” reported The Ypsilanti Commercial of December 26, 1894, “except two rooms on the second floor which were not burned, and in these the woodwork is being grained in imitation of oak. The stair was is no longer lighted by a skylight as was the old, but the light for the second floor is borrowed from the school rooms on either side by means of double winders. It was this sky¬light which came so near making the old building a death-trap. By adding some new windows and lengthening others two of the rooms on the third floor are greatly improved. On each side of the building, and on each floor, are large pipes connected directly with the city water works. At the end of each is a long hose and nozzle, so that in case of fire at any point of the building, one needs only to turn a valve and water will flow.”

As with the old building, this one had a tall tower with a clock and bell. The dials on the face of the clock were 6 feet across, and illuminated after dark by electricity. The bell weighed 2,660 pounds, and had a tone that was said to be clear and musical.

The new building was dedicated on the evening of Tuesday, February 5, 1895.

In spite of the history of the site, it was purely by chance that the fire house was built in 1898 across the street from the building. As it happened, it was, for once, good luck for the building. At 3:50 a.m. of Tuesday, August 16, 1904, the flagpole on the clock tower was struck by lightning. Firefighters in the firehouse saw the lighting splinter the flag pole. At 4:10 a.m. they saw the building was on fire. They rushed across the street, to put out the flames.

Damage to the building was slight, mostly caused by water to rooms in the tower. The walls of these rooms had to be replastered. The clock in the tower was completely destroyed, but the flames did not damage the belfry enough to harm the bell. The cost of the damage was placed at between $3,000 to $5,000. The tower was rebuilt exactly as before.

The name of the building was changed early in 1900, from Union Seminary to High School, although many continued to refer to the old building as The Seminary.

Early in the 20th century it became apparent that the building was overcrowded and lacking in modern facilities. Plans for a new school building were drawn up as early as 1911. After two bond issues were rejected by voters, $110,000 for school construction was passed in 1914. The amount was increased by $12,000 in March of 1915.

Construction of the new building at 210 West Cross began in February of 1915, and opened in January of 1916. This is the west wing of what came to be known as Old Ypsi High. The old building at the northeast corner of Cross and Washington streets remained in use. The gymnasium was built just north of the old building in 1925. The old building was finally demolished in 1929, to make room for what is now the east wing of Old Ypsi High.

At the center of the building, where the two wings come together, is the main entrance. Above the main entrance is the clock and bell tower. In the tower is the bell from the old Central High School building, installed in 1930, as construction was nearing completion. The bell remained in use until the graduation of the last senior class in 1972.

From hotel, to school, to senior housing, in a sense the site has come full circle.

[James Mann is a local author and historian, a regular contributor to the GLEANINGS, and a volunteer in the YHS Archives.]


Photo Captions:

1. Charles Woodruff, who was running an academic school in Ypsilanti, moved his school into a portion of the Tecumseh Hotel in 1844

2. On August 17, 1858, the new Union School was dedicated. The New England Journal of Education said: “It’s the finest school building of its kind in America”

3. First Story Plan - Union School
A - Halls
B - Chapel, or Hall for general exercises
C - Primary Rooms
D - Clothes Rooms

4. The most striking feature of the school built in 1879 was the 100 foot tower with clock and bell. Most of the top two floors of the building were destroyed by fire in 1894 and rebuilt. The building was demolished in 1929 to make way for the east wing of the new high school

5. Construction of a new building at 210 West Cross began in February of 1915, and opened in January of 1916. This is the west wing of what came to be known as Old Ypsi High. You can see the old building at the northeast corner of Cross and Washington streets which still remained in use

6. This photo shows Old Ypsi High after the east wing was completed in 1930