Campus Martius -- city's heart may beat again

Campus Martius, as it appeared around 1865.

The new Compuware headquarters in downtown Detroit on the old Kern block focuses new light on the nearly forgotten center of the city, Campus Martius. At one time Campus Martius was the corner on which the city’s life turned, the end of the line for the Pontiac-Detroit railway and the city’s electric streetcars.

The depot of the Detroit & Pontiac railway stood next to H.R. Andrews Railroad Hotel on the north side of Campus Martius in the mid 1800’s. The same site housed the old Detroit Opera House, which opened March 29, 1869, and burned October 7, 1897, then became the Shubert-Detroit Opera House in 1920 and was closed as a theater in January 1931. In 1936, Sam Osnos purchased the opera house for his department store, Sams, which was demolished in 1966, along with the rest of the Kern block. The area is still undeveloped.

Campus Martius means “field of Mars” or “military ground.” It served as a drill ground for militia in 1788 and was named after the Campus Martius at Marietta, Ohio, a 180-foot stockade. Marietta was the first capital of the Northwest Territory.

In 1861 colors were presented to the First Michigan Regiment at Campus Martius as they headed of to Civil War duty.

The H.R. Andrews Railroad Hotel on the north side of Campus Martius in the 1860s.

      The Soldiers and Sailors Monument commemorates the 14,823 Michigan servicemen who were killed in the Civil War. The 60-foot monument was unveiled April 9, 1872, seven years after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865.

Sculptor Randolph Rogers designed the four-tiered monument. The armed female figure at the top represents Michigan shielding and defending the rights of her citizens and nation. Below her are four figures representing Victory, Union, Emancipation and History. At the lower stage are seven-foot bronze statues of an infantryman, a cavalryman, an artilleryman and a sailor. Four plaques depict Abraham Lincoln, Gens. William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, and Adm. David G. Farragut. Four “screaming” eagles on pedestals surround the base.

In the original 1806 city plan, the purpose of Campus Martius was spelled out as an open place for large public assemblies, a city center. It was meant to be kept as a park in the middle of a bustling downtown.

The day after Abraham Lincoln’s death, April 15, 1865, Detroiter’s crowded Campus Martius to attend services and grieve the loss of the Great Emancipator.

When he died in 1881, former Michigan Gov. John Judson Bagley left a bequest and specified in his will that it be used to build a fountain near the park “to satisfy the thirst of Detroiters with water cold and pure as the coldest mountain spring.”

The Memorial Fountain, made of granite, was adapted from an ancient shrine in the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice. The design allowed for thousands of pounds of ice to be packed around the pipes so the water was always cold. The found pipes were kept iced for more than 40 years until the fountain was moved in 1926 and the ice cooling system underneath it was cemented in. The fountain was dry for 11 years until the Department of Public Works was ordered to make it work again. The fountain was moved again in 1964 to its present location — the former site of the Merrill Fountain.

In 1917, Campus Martius was the center of a bustling downtown Detroit.

      In the 1960s City Council debated relocating Campus Martius for development puposes. Then-Council President Ed Carey referred to the park as “pigeon plaza.” Many deemed the park useless for anyone but the birds.

The five block district surrounding Campus Martius includes the Hudson Block, Crowley Block, Kern Block, Monroe Block,.and Kennedy Square Block. The redevelopment plan entails building a two-acre park at Woodward and Michigan and surrounding it with a mixture of mid-rise office buildings, shops, restaurants, hotel and a potential theater complex. Campus Martius park is the focal point .

Compuware plans to build a 14-story, 1.2-million-square-foot headquarters stucture of brick, glass and stone at Woodward and Monroe to house about 3,000 employees.

With the flurry of new development plans, Campus Martius is once again the focus of Detroit’s downtown as the city prepares to enter a new century, just as it was when the city entered this one. And with a new view that will rival the one that Detroit historian Silas Farmer once called “worthy of any city.”

A view of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Campus Martius, circa 1880.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. By Julie Condit / The Detroit News