6 Stunning Detroit Locations Every Urbex Photographer Should Shoot
Urban Exploration Photography (urbex for short) is the art of finding old and abandoned buildings and locations, exploring them, and shooting pictures. It has been a passion of mine for quite some time and can be very exciting, perhaps due to the potential of danger at every turn.
The first thing I want to cover is the legality of Urban Exploration Photography, because this is sometimes a grey area depending on where you go, but most times involves trespassing. I know some urbex photographers that will break and enter, but not me. I treat it like I'm in a National Park...take only pictures, leave only footprints. Most buildings will have an access point if you just look around. Some will even have security guards present, which you can either move on from or ask if it's alright to shoot some photos. You'd be surprised at how many will allow some shots taken as long as you are respectful.
The locations described here are all easily accessible, some more than others, and none had visible No Trespassing signs posted. At East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church we climbed down through a window onto a ladder that was pretty rickety, only to discover when we left that the front door was open. The chain on it was not locked, but I forgot to check. At least it made it more exciting, right? The rest of these locations are literally wide open so anyone can walk in without having to risk a B & E charge!
East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church
On the corner of Gratiot Avenue and East Grand Boulevard lies one of the oldest churches in Detroit. Gratiot Avenue Methodist Episcopal Mission was founded in 1888, when most of the land east of Mt. Elliot Street was farmland. For 12 years the church moved from one location to another, "...and four times was obliged to take quarters either adjoining to or above a saloon, where the tinkle of the slot piano mingled with doxology," according to the Detroit Free Press newspaper in 1908.
In 1899, the church moved to a permanent location on Bellevue, building a wood frame chapel in 1900. The congregation grew to 149 in 1904, and in 1907, Reverend Charles Ryerson was assigned to lead the church, no longer a mission. His first goal was the construction of a new church on land that had been bought a few blocks away on the corner of Gratiot and East Grand Boulevard. On one Sunday alone, he raised $10,000 towards the construction of the church. (source)
Walking from the front door on Gratiot Ave will take you straight into the main congregation area. There's a wrap around balcony here, but watch your step, it's littered with bird poop. You may want to wear a mask or ventilator. From here you can just wander around side rooms and stairwells, making notice of how the light slips through the boarded up windows. On the northeast side is the gymnasium, which also has a spectator balcony to shoot from...pretty cool! Don't forget the basement. It's as big as the church and has tons of small rooms that were once used as offices and children's classrooms.
Fisher Body Plant 21
The Fisher Body Company, formed in 1908 by Albert Fisher and his nephews Charles and Fred, initially produced bodies for both the carriage and auto industries, though they dropped the carriage line in 1911. At the time auto bodies were made of a mixture of shaped wood and metal, the construction of which was a complicated process requiring skilled tradesmen. Automakers found it was more cost-effective to outsource body construction; by 1910’s Fisher was producing high-quality automotive bodies for Cadillac, Ford, Studebaker, and Hudson, among other names.
Check out my article with images from abandoned Gary, Indiana.
Today despite over $1 million dollars of work, the site is still considered “contaminated” by the EPA. The front of the building facing Harper avenue has been cleared and is now used as a Police auto impound lot. Looming over rows of towed cars is a building in steady decline, slowly being broken down by natural elements. Several sections of the floor have caved in, the cement being eaten away by water and broken by ice. At least one fire heavily damaged the ground level of the first floor. The City of Detroit is seeking interested developers to renovate the site, but as of yet there have been no takers. For just $300,000, you could own a slice of automotive history with a great view of the city. (source)
This place is an urbex photographers dream! Six floors of abandoned automotive industry relics complete with a rooftop water tower. It's a pretty well-known spot so don't be too surprised if you run into other people exploring the site as well. Fisher Body Plant 21 is located on Piquette Avenue & Brush Street.
Highland Street in Highland Park
Highland Street west of Woodward Avenue in Highland Park is a particularly troubled street in a troubled city. Once the civic center of the city, it is now lined by vacant apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals. There are literally blocks of abandoned buildings here to explore, but be careful, of not only people, but the structures themselves. As you can see here, some of the buildings are extremely unstable.
Though Highland Street today looks grim, plans for a major redevelopment of the area by New York-base Galapagos Art Space were announced in December of 2014. Most of the vacant civic structures are part of a planned arts community. (source)
Hutchins Middle School
Hutchins Intermediate opened on March 6th, 1922. Mary Mumford, son of school board member Samuel C. Mumford, unlocked the front door, and Louise Cody, daughter of superintendent Frank Cody, pressed the button for the opening bell. Though the school had a capacity of 1,500, only 900 students were enrolled, as the school initially had seventh and eighth grade programs. The first principal was Mercy J. Hayes.
On it's opening, The Detroit Free Press marveled at the amenities of the new school, calling Hutchins "the last word in equipment." The vocational wing boasted shops for woodworking, machinery, printing, electricity, and gas engine repair. The school was built of white brick and stone on steel, with corridor floors of battleship linoleum with a terrazzo base. Classrooms and the gymnasiums had floors of hard maple. A rarity when it was built, the school had an automatic telephone system which allowed any part of the school to make or receive calls.
Despite the strong academic performance of the school, enrollment continued to decline. In 2007, the Hutchins program and its 372 students were moved to the newer McMichael School on McGraw and 16th Streets, about 20 blocks southwest. Many parents decided to switch schools rather than have their children walking such a long distance through dilapidated neighborhoods. The Hutchins building became the new home for the Crosman Alternative School, which moved out of their old building a few blocks away. The program started out with 309 students in 2007, but had fallen to 229 students by 2009. Crosman at Hutchins closed that year. Two years later in 2011, the once successful Hutchins at McMichael program closed as well. Scrappers found their way into the building in the summer of 2013, and within a few months had stripped it clean of most of its metal. (source)
Easily seen from the Lodge Fwy near the Clairmount Ave exit, Hutchins School is a huge building. A photographer could spend days here and still not see every room. The school has two gyms, two pools complete with locker rooms, a giant boiler room, a beautifully ornate library, an auditorium, and as many classrooms as you care to enter. Most of the classrooms have gorgeous maple built-ins and some have theater seating. A once magnificent building now left in decay.
St Agnes Church & School
In 1910, the LaSalle Park neighborhood was far from bustling downtown Detroit. Only a few houses had been built along 12th Street, leaving long open tracts of countryside. But Bishop John Foley, leader of the Detroit Catholic Archdiocese had watched the city grow rapidly, and knew that it wouldn’t be long before this area would fill up with houses too. With that in mind, he bought a parcel of land on the corner of 12th Street and LaSalle Street as a possible site for a future church. He didn’t have to wait long.
St. Agnes thrived through the middle part of the century, growing to 1,600 families, three priests, 22 nuns, and a girl’s high school with 180 students by 1964 – the 50th anniversary of the church. A few years later though, a police raid on an after-hours drinking establishment down the street led to a confrontation between officers and residents that quickly grew into one of the worst outbursts of civil unrest the country would ever see. Though St. Agnes was relatively unscathed by the 1967 riots, most of the buildings around it along 12th Street were burned to the ground. The neighborhood never recovered, and attendance numbers started to drop.
The future of the church is still very much up in the air, but there is a new owner. In June of 2012, Scott Griffin, a theater producer and real estate investor bought the church for $90,000. Though he has no immediate plans for the buildings, he has secured them against further trespass, and is talking with the community about what can be done with it. (source)
The main congregation area is massive here, with the cathedral ceiling shooting straight into the air, making for some stunning images. Don't miss exploring the adjacent school which can be accessed through a pitch black tunnel leading to a boiler room. A flashlight is a must. The images seen here were taken using long exposures, some over one minute, while I painted the areas I wanted with my flashlight.
Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church (Curvy Church)
The origins of what would become Woodward Avenue’s most distinctive and unique churches had a very modest beginning in the basement of the home of Richard Owen on Alger Street on June 25th, 1907. A meeting was held by a group of residents to address the growing number of Presbyterian families moving into the area who did not regularly attend church because the lack of one nearby. The “North Woodward Presbyterian Committee” found that they were 260 families in the area, numbering around 1,000 individuals that could be served by construction of a new church. It was resolved at this meeting to establish such a church, the plan for which was approved by the Presbytery a few months later. The first meeting of public worship of the new church was held in November in the auditorium of a nearby church, attended by 150.
What rose along Woodward Avenue over 1909 to 1911 was a masterpiece of modern English Gothic design: Two square towers flanking a gabled entrance of carved stone, with the octagonal sanctuary rising up behind to a lantern-style dome of stained glass and stone at the center. At the rear was the Sunday school wing, with classrooms and recreational facilities. The exterior of rock-faced brownstone quarried in Polk County, PA has a rough, hewn look to it, contrasting with the smooth limestone trim.
Inside the arched sanctuary, curving wood pews were arranged in a fan shape around the altar, with a matching balcony sweeping around the rear. The massive pipe organ, also donated by Mrs. Tracy McGregor, was built by the Stevens Organ Company of Marietta, Ohio.
Over the summer of 2011, the church was used as a set for the movie “Alex Cross.” In preparation for shooting, much of the debris was cleared out of the building, and the pews were moved to make way for a boxing ring built in the center. After shooting wrapped, the pews were put back – albeit slightly haphazardly – and covered with a plastic tarp. The church was re-secured with steel panels over many of the entrances. In the fall of 2014, workers began repairing the roof and gutting the interior of the church in preparation for renovation, though few details are available. (source)
For tips on how to improve your interior architecture shots, go to my post Interior Real Estate Photography: 5 Tips for Better Results.