Woodward Avenue, Detroit's grand old 'Main Street'

Woodward Avenue in the 1890s, looking north from downtown.

When fire raced through Detroit in 1805, only one building was left standing in the tiny settlement. But rather than give up and leave, prominent Detroiters including the territorial governor, William Hull, and the territorial supreme court judge, Augustus Brevoort Woodward, went to Washington to seek funding to rebuild Detroit.

Their new plans for the city included a snowflake pattern similar to the layout in Washington D.C. and in Paris designed by Charles L’Enfant. The Grand Circus Park area in the middle of the main street was originally called Court House Avenue after a planned court building. Parts of the street had also been called Pontiac Road, Saginaw turnpike and Witherell. However common usage sanctioned Woodward.

Fort Street today is a reminder that at the time Detroit was little more than a frontier outpost. The center of the pinwheel shaped fort would now be at the corner of Fort and Shelby. Houses and businesses were located outside the walls of the fort, near the river.

ImageThis photo of Grand Circus Park, looking north up Woodward in 1935, clearly shows the design the city’s early planners had in mind.

      Judge Woodward was quite a character. Controversies about his judicial opinions caused one contemporary to describe him as “A wild theorist fit only to extract sunbeams from cucumbers!”

He loved puns. Returning from an absence to find the street that would later permanently bear his name called Witherell, he said that it “withered all his plans.”

According to Detroit historian George Catlin, “There was more or less disagreement over the naming of streets and some of the names were changed several times. Judge Augustus B. Woodward was at times very sarcastic and something of a ‘kidder.’ When some protested the naming of Woodward Avenue he made the curious retort that Woodward Avenue was not named for him, but because it led woodward, toward the forested district north of town.

“Atwater street, the Judge said, was not named for Reuben Atwater, but because it was literally ‘at water,’ being on the riverfront; that Woodbridge street was not named for William Woodbridge, but because it began at a wooden bridge across the little Savoyard River near the foot of First street. It was one of Judge Woodward’s efficient methods in debate to confuse his opponents by some ingenious ruse.”

ImageJudge Augustus B. Woodward by a contemporary caricaturist. Historians suggest he may have been better looking than this.

      The town plan originally called for a very wide Woodward, however it was actually built to a narrow 66-foot width, much to future planners dismay. The next century brought many efforts to widen it.

In 1824 Governor Lewis Cass extended Woodward 27 miles to Pontiac. Along the way travelers encountered toll booths, surfaces of 16-foot planks, cedar blocks, gravel, ruts, water-filled holes, mud and horse droppings.

In 1908 the world’s first mile of concrete was built on Woodward between Six mile and Seven mile, thus creating the first arena for today’s continuous battle against potholes. A fitting event for the emerging automobile capitol of the world.

The entire 27-mile length of Woodward was paved in 1916 and in 1919 the three-color traffic light appeared on the thoroughfare.

The General Motors Building opened in 1921 on the Boulevard just off Woodward in the New Center area and in 1928 the Fox Theater opened, the second largest theater in America.

ImageThis 16-foot wide pavement on northern Woodward was new in 1916.

      All along the way magnificent homes and churches decorated the avenue. At one time part of the avenue became know as “Piety Hill” because of the number of churches lining the street. Businesses thrived as trolleys carried shoppers and gawkers up and down the avenue. Taxicabs delivered the elegantly dressed to elegant theaters and restaurants.

Legal disputes over the widening of Woodward, including an 1874 condemnation proceeding in which the Detroit News offered a certificate of publication (of the original condemnation proceedings) as evidence, were finally resolved in 1932 and all that remained was securing agreement a majority of property owners along the way. John W. Chandler took it upon himself to get the signatures and refused to shave until he achieved success.

Historian George W. Stark writes that a friend told Chandler, “You’re just like one of those old-fashioned Democrats from Alabama who decides he’ll never shave again until a Democrat is elected president. I suppose you’re not going to shave until you get Woodward widened.” A good idea, Chandler agreed.

He went around with his growing whiskers getting signatures of Woodward Avenue property owners to a document agreeing to the widenings. When that was done and the widening of Woodward from 66 to 120 feet was assured, Chandler had his by now luxuriant whiskers removed.

ImageWoodward Avenue in 1931.

      The plans required the razing of St. John’s Episcopal Church. However, parishioners resisted and instead had the church moved back 60 feet.

Later, parades and celebrations marked the widening.

In 1937 voters in the five-county Detroit area approved planning for new style road called limited access roads. No one at the time could have predicted what effects the coming freeway system would have on Woodward.

In 1970 Woodward lost its 43-year-old U.S 10 designation to the Lodge Freeway. It became M1.By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News