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Natural Awakenings of Greater Ann Arbor & Detroit / Wayne & Monroe Counties Michigan

Abandoned School Building Transformed

On the East side of Detroit, the former Anna Joyce Elementary School, built in 1916 by Wirt Rowland, architect of the Penobscot Building, had been boarded up for a decade, but Kyle Smitley, co-founder of Detroit Prep, the free public charter elementary school that opened last November, bought the building in June 2017.

But the deed belonging to Detroit Public Schools stated that it could never again be used as a school. Smitley sued, and now the 43,500-square-foot space has 21 classrooms, a kitchen, a cafeteria and a gathering/performance area. It serves kindergarten through fourth-grade students.

Smitley felt the building’s history was important, but wanted the space to feel joyful, too. She says, “We didn’t want it to be sterile, and we wanted to activate as much space for learning as possible.” Much of the $7 million renovation effort was donated by local businesses such as WeWork, Sherwin-Williams Paint, Fireclay Tile and Beaver Tile & Stone.

She started with the goal of saving an architectural masterpiece, but the school has breathed life back into the neighborhood, and represents the true meaning of the word regrowth.

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