Swans Commentary » swans.com September 12, 2011  



Requiem For An Iconic School


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - September 12, 2011)   The building did not quite make it to the century mark. Its cornerstone, removed in time from the rubble that used to be Cass Technical High School in Detroit read: "1917 Macombson-Higginbothom-Architects." This architectural firm also designed several other Detroit schools ten years later. The building, seven stories high and covering an entire city block, was designed in a quasi Parisian Gothic style. A more modern replacement school had been erected right next door on an old parking lot and for about ten years the city fathers, educational administrators, and Cass's alumni association, despite several efforts and inquiries, could find no further way to recycle or re-use the old building. So finally in the summer of 2011 the long-threatened demolition of the building began and in a few weeks nothing remained but a pile of bricks, some of which were being sold on the street by vagrant entrepreneurs. I heard that the intended use of the now vacant space was to be as a football field!

Detroit, having lost about half its population since the days I grew up there in the 1940s and '50s, (down to 900,000 from 1,800,000 and at that time the fifth largest city in America) thus maintained its desperate reputation as the most vandalic city in America, if not the world. A few seasons ago I was in Dessau, Germany, reviewing operas for Swans. I visited the Bauhaus School of Architecture located in that city and still going strong decades after the high point of its worldwide architectural fame in the 1920s. I stepped into their 2nd floor library and as I browsed I came upon a book, Shrinking Cities. Imagine, a whole book devoted to that very topic of shrinking cities around the world. Sure enough, taking up a big fat chapter was Detroit and its lugubrious history over the last half century.

There is not a place on earth that for about 50 years has displayed such a contempt for its own heritage (unless it be China and its vast dam project on the Yang-Tse River, which will destroy much of its ancient valley heritage soon to be under water.) Both Detroit's city government and its own inhabitants have taken great glee in either tearing down, burning to the ground, or leaving for decades long in disrepair, neglect, decay, and disuse so many of the valuable architectural memories of its past eras that traced the economic growth of the city from making stoves to automobiles around the turn of the 20th century. Web page after Web page on the Internet, too many to list here, vividly picture the decline and fall of one of America's great industrial cities, citing the political and financial reasons behind it all. Just Google "Destroyed Detroit" and see the vast number of horrifying sites that greet you.

Soon after I left Detroit in 1961, before the national preservation movement had gotten its later traction, the city fathers decided that Detroit needed a new underground downtown parking garage so they tore down the half-century-old city hall, an architectural gem that resembled several of its classic contemporaries in Washington, D.C. In later decades I was greeted on the Internet at one of those "Destroyed Detroit" websites with a video of the implosion of Detroit's downtown Hudson building in a controlled demolition whose goal was still one more parking lot. This sight bore an uncanny resemblance to the later implosion of the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11. This resemblance has given rise to the many conspiracy theories out there that 9/11 was an inside job abetted by co-conspirators in Washington designed to transfer $8 billion dollars from the insurance companies to the owners of the building, as well as to create another Reichstag Fire event as in Hitler's Germany in 1933 to terrorize the American population into accepting the destruction of its constitutional liberties, and to prepare the psychological groundwork for the already-planned invasion of Iraq. Hudson's Department Store, before its days of downtown abandonment, was Detroit's version of Macy's or Gimbel's in New York. It later merged with the Dayton stores in Minneapolis, and the merged company later morphed into what is now Target. I used to spend many a pleasant hour gazing in at the many Hudson ground floor windows and browsing through its many higher floors of assorted goodies.

And now, to throw the last pile of garbage onto the stinkpool that Detroit has become (I forbear to use the expression "icing on the cake") comes the destruction of the school that laid the foundation of my musical education in the years 1952-55. I could vivify the significance of the education received at Cass Tech by listing my many contemporaries who later became highly prominent in the fields of classical music, jazz, and opera, but in the fear of leaving anyone out who should be listed I won't. I will make one exception, however. One of my fellow Cass attenders was Lily Tomlin, later to become the celebrated entertainer and recipient of the Mark Twain Prize. Now imagine musicians all over the country equally illustrious and you will have the picture of what a Cass education represented in the 1950s. My contemporaries, including myself, became concertmasters, principal players, and as outstanding musicians became members of major orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Cleveland, and Minnesota Orchestras; the Buffalo Philharmonic; the orchestras of the Metropolitan Opera, The National Opera at the Kennedy Center, and the Baltimore Opera; and featured chamber musicians at Lincoln Center in New York. One of my singing classmates later sang at the Metropolitan Opera and another at New York's City Center Opera; and another instrumental colleague became a highly prominent bass player in the field of jazz.

The Etude magazine published by the music publisher Theodore Presser in Philadelphia from the 1880s to the 1950s tells us in the issue of June 1934 that in the public schools of America there are no fewer than 5,000 orchestras! Cass's orchestra became part of this tradition soon after its opening in the early 1920s. In an issue from 1928 of another magazine, The Musical Courier, we are greeted with a large photo of Cass's orchestra performing for a convention of music educators in Detroit, the photo accompanied by a list of all the participating students. I joined this illustrious tradition after Cass's orchestras and bands had passed under the leadership of two remarkable musicians, Michael Bistritzky (1899-2000) and Harry Begian (1921-2010). To expand upon the accomplishments of these two men would require an article in itself, so I restrict myself to saying that the record of Cass's graduates described above was in good measure the result of the leadership and inspiration of these two men.

But lest I give the impression that Cass Tech was simply a music school, far from it. Each of its seven floors housed a different industrial or artistic discipline: music, art, printing, electrical, etc. In all my years at Cass I never set foot on any other floor but the 7th where the music department resided other than to visit the library on the 3rd floor or the music library on the 6th. The courses given in the music department were at the college level and I presume those in the other departments were also. But of course 100 years ago, a high school degree at most schools was sufficient for a well-rounded education. The remedial courses needed at most community colleges today would have astounded the educators of those days. Cass was simply carrying on the tradition of a first-class high school education typical of the early days of the 20th century.

In its combination of the technical/industrial and the artistic under one roof Cass probably remains unique in American education, even in its new modern quarters. Cass was not a neighborhood school, but a magnet school decades before the term was invented. To attend Cass its students had to travel from all over Detroit to attend the department in whose discipline they desired to be educated. My bus ride to and from school lasted 45 minutes, plenty of time for great reading (especially plays by Shaw.) The destruction of Cass's original building with all its historical memories and implications in the history of American public education is another crime to add to Detroit's long list of architectural infamies.

Arthur Lieb (See "Remembering Mstislav Rostropovich," Swans, May 7, 2007) just reported to me that on his recent drive over the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River going to Windsor, Ontario, he could see the beginnings of the destruction of the Henry B. and Edsel Ford Auditorium, a circular white building on the western bank of the river not far from the Renaissance Center, the most recent home of the General Motors Co. I spent about five seasons performing in the Ford Auditorium as a member of the Detroit Symphony when I was around 20 years old. Though it was much criticized for the cement-walled dryness of its acoustics, which couldn't compare to the symphony's former homes in the Masonic Temple and its original building, Orchestra Hall (into which the symphony returned and has stayed now for many decades), nevertheless to tear down (for another parking lot?) a building that for over 50 years represented the leadership of musical culture in Detroit is still another act of barbarism adding to Detroit's despicable cultural notoriety and lack of interest in its own, sometimes brilliant history.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 12, 2011