Detroit: Grand Planning for a Territorial Capital

June 11th, 1805: Detroit burns to the ground. What was once a settlement of over a thousand is reduced to a courthouse and a handful of stone chimneys. Three weeks later, on June 30th, Congress proclaims the creation of Michigan Territory, carving a state-sized chunk from the Northwest Territory, and designates Detroit its capital. While urban history provides innumerable examples of the profound durability of cities, the events of June 1805 in Detroit demonstrate that the right confluence of circumstances can induce radical change in urban spatial patterns.

Detroit was founded in 1701 by the french explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, another link in the great chain of interior, riverine outposts tying together Quebec and Haiti, the twin capitals of French North America. Detroit’s 18th century plan was typical of other French “closed grid” settlements; oriented towards the river and surrounded by fortifications. If the great fire and the designation of the city as territorial capital had not occurred simultaneously it is likely that Detroit would be upheld today as either example of french-colonial “ordered” planning––as with New Orleans––or as an example of “City Beautiful” retroactive grandeur imposed on an older grid––as with Chicago. Instead, Detroit serves as one of America’s best examples of purpose planned pseudo-baroque grandeur west of the Apalachains.

In the aftermath of the fire, Michigan Territorial Governor William Hull tapped Judge Augustus B. Woodward to draft a new plan for Detroit, elevating the city in accordance with (he hoped) its soon to be status as the capital of a state. Judge Woodward drew inspiration from the other purpose built capital cities of his era––including the L’Enfant plan for Washington, and several discarded proposals for the reconstruction of London after its own fire. However, Woodward’s product proved to be far more radical than the sources he drew upon. Rather than a gridiron pierced by the occasion angled boulevard (as in Washington), the Judge set a series of predefined hexagonal units within a broader macro-grid, intended to be expanded modularly like the “cells” of Savannah. Each hex measured 3/4ths of a mile across, and was centered on a grand circus, from which a dozen boulevards radiated. Side streets and alleys subdivided the spaces between the avenues into more intimate blocks, while the corners where three hexagons met were themselves reserved as additional public spaces.

Woodward’s proved to be too radical for its own good: Detroit abandoned his plan after it proved too difficult to expand, allowing two partially complete hexes to be swallowed up by a sea of gridiron. Unfortunately, the 20th century would prove to be even less kind to Judge Woodward’s vision than the 19th, as urban renewal, white flight and downtown freeways did further harm to his carefully balanced mix of grandeur and intimacy. However, the recent rival of Detroit’s downtown in the wake of the 2013 city’s bankruptcy has raised hopes that elements of Woodward’s thinking could be restored.

1. Roger Biles, Expressways before the Interstates: The Case of Detroit, 1945–1956, Journal of Urban History, May 2014
2. Wes Aelbrecht, Decline and Renaissance: Photographing Detroit in the 1940s and 1980s, Journal of Urban History, January 2015
3. Michael Jackman, How the Woodward Plan for greater Detroit died 200 years ago today, Detroit Metro Times, June 2018

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