Van der Rohe Historic District Brings Life to Detroit

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Detroit has often had to face a bad reputation due to press about high crime rates, a struggling economy, fires in abandoned buildings, and political difficulties. All that aside, the city has worked hard to promote Detroit as a great tourist destination and, indeed, a great place to live. Lafayette Park, a planned community just east of downtown Detroit, has

After World War II ended, the city of Detroit acquired a large tract of land that was considered to be one of its worst slums. The area had once been a working-class African American neighborhood, but had fallen into disrepair and disrepute during and after the war. The city razed the neighborhood in the 1940s, and in the mid-1950s brought in Herbert Greenwald, a Chicago developer, to develop the site.

Greenwald brought in urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, landscape designer Alfred Caldwell, and well-known architect Mies van der Rohe to design the buildings and the park, and were met with a huge and lasting success. Van der Rohe designed three high-rise apartment buildings and 186 ground level, two-story townhouses, making it the world’s largest collection of buildings designed by the architect. The buildings embody van der Rohe’s style, with steel frames, brick, aluminum, and glass sides, and spacious, open interiors.

Lafayette Park comprises 46 acres that feature van der Rohe’s buildings as well as a beautiful park with 13 acres of greenery, recreation facilities, and a school. The tall trees, green lawns, flowers, and bushes surrounding the buildings are all a breathtaking oasis in a busy city. Indeed, walking into the neighborhood feels like stepping into a different world and a different time.

The interiors of the buildings feel almost like being in special viewing rooms to see the gardens surrounding them. The back wall of the townhouses are all windows, and the interiors flow into each other with large living areas, high ceilings, and open staircases to help continue the flow and to keep from restricting the view. Light pours in and the yards feel like they are an extension of the interior of the house. The parking lots are 3 feet below grade level, so when residents look out their windows they see above the cars to the trees and bushes beyond.

The Lafayette Park community is one of the city of Detroit’s most economically stable and racially integrated neighborhoods. The neighborhood was deigned for middle class people and families, making it an affordable place to live. The residents work together to make it a safe and nice place to live, as well, growing community gardens on abandoned lots, planting flower gardens around their buildings, many of them even playing on a community soccer team together. It is a great example of not only the work of one of the best architects of the twentieth century, but also of a successful attempt to bring people back into the heart of Detroit, a once-thriving city that’s beginning to thrive again.