Mackenzie High School: From boom to bust, the story of a Detroit institution

Brad Smithfield
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This now abandoned school on the west side of Detroit bears the name of David Mackenzie in honor of his widely respected career as an educator. Born in Detroit in 1860, he provided the leadership for the Detroit Central High School, which grew and flourished. Following that, Mackenzie established the Detroit Junior College, which later became Wayne State University, of which he was the first dean.

The David Mackenzie High School was built on land of the former Greenfield Township, during a period when Detroit was experiencing a boom in school construction.

The school was built in phases. The boiler house together with the first three-story classroom wing was built 1927-28. By the end of 1930, a second classroom wing, library, cafeteria, and the auditorium were completed.

Old photograph of the school.

Further additions were made to the campus in 1938 with the construction of a pool and gym, together with the health department. In 1950 a mechanical drafting and shop wing was built, for Detroit was after all Motor City. The crown jewel of the overall work was the façade: an artistic multicolored masterpiece comprised of thousands of colored tiles and high gloss polished terracotta created by Pewabic Pottery.

The multicolor doorway. Author: Timothy Boscarino CC BY 2.0


The main arch doorway was made in three colors, blue, gold and orange, on top of which stood the massive letters “DAVID MACKENZIE HIGH SCHOOL,” placed on top of a blue background. During the 1940s the school was attended by some 4,000 students.

The dry pool. Author: Nitram242 CC BY 2.0

The broad mixture of classes offered to students was further enhanced by the school’s wide-ranging extracurricular activities. These included a successful speech and debate team, and top-quality sports facilities with coaches such as Bob Dozier and Carl Andrews, who led their teams to victory and their students to future achievements.

The economy of Detroit was booming in the years following World War II. Mackenzie High School had an outstanding reputation and was one of the largest schools in the state by 1950 as the student body swelled to 5,000. However, the city population began to decline throughout the 1950s and continued to do so for several decades.

Empty classroom. Author: Nitram242 CC BY 2.0

Falling student numbers wasn’t the biggest issue to face the school. Social and political changes such as fair housing legislation led to a period of rapid racial integration. Despite many positive changes that took place throughout the 1960s, there was much social tension in the city. This unrest was echoed in the violence of some students at Mackenzie High School, which caused the school to be closed and reopened several times during the 1970s. The situation at the school become so difficult that even its principal left his position in 1969.

The school logo. Author: Nitram242 CC BY 2.0

Throughout this troubled period, the school’s high standard in education and sporting achievement survived. But as time went on, the school lost more of it student numbers. Between 1950 and 1980 the student population fell by one-half.

Part of the artistic façade. Author: Nitram242 CC BY 2.0

This transformation came as a direct result of the demographic changes that the city of Detroit was experiencing. The surrounding area was losing its residents. Nevertheless, the school kept fighting for survival.

The sinking gym. Author: Nitram242 CC BY 2.0

Even though the school was getting pretty old, a new set of classrooms was added and some partial reconstruction was done in 1987. But nothing changed the fact that the students were getting few and far between, and by 2007 the number of students enrolled was little more than 1,000.

Part of the interior of the school. Author: Nitram242 CC BY 2.0

The Detroit Public Schools Community District had no choice but to take action. And so they did when they announced that the school had to raise $2 million dollars for repairs or risk being shut down.

The demolition of the school. Author: Nitram242 CC BY 2.0

The school never managed to scoop up the money and its services were terminated in 2007. During the following years, the buildings continued to deteriorate.

After years of abandonment, the school suffered one final blow, literally. It was scheduled for demolition, which was carried out in 2012. Even though the building itself was leveled with the ground, the legend of this school rose higher than ever.

Read another story from us: “The Shame of Pennsylvania:” Inside the tragic and frightening Pennhurst State School and Hospital

And so a new school was born in 2015, that carries the same name but many different stories, as the legend of David Mackenzie High School continues to thrive.