Capitol Park: Where's Detroit's past and future intersect

By Laura Berman | Detroit News columnist

You might not notice Capitol Park, even if you were in it: It’s a tiny, triangular wedge with a few benches and monuments, largely concrete, tucked behind the Westin Book Cadillac.

Lacking the grandeur of Belle Isle or Palmer Park, it’s been idling for decades, yet another remnant of the city’s past, awaiting rediscovery and — what all Detroit awaits — rebirth. Jack Dempsey, the president of the Michigan Historical Commission, walked through the park many times as a young lawyer working nearby, without paying it any heed.

But Capitol Park is not just another city remnant. It’s in play, as developers have recently recognized, and invested in the restoration of the stately buildings surrounding the park.

Anyone captured by the architectural charm of this square might imagine this pocket of downtown as a chic residential address. (And “The Albert,” an Albert Kahn-designed building, is now being billed that way.) And Dempsey, a lawyer and award-winning historian, recognized Capitol Park as a place where the city’s past and future intersect. “It’s coming back to life after falling on hard times,” he says.

While others are refurbishing once-grand buildings, he’s restoring its reputation by explaining its significance as a historic anchor. Dempsey wrote “Capitol Park: Historic Heart of Detroit” (The History Press) in early mornings and late evenings last year, as a way to remind readers that the park is vital to the city’s and state’s history. “This is where democracy was born in Michigan and started to grow up,” he says.

First state capitol

The first state capitol was erected in Detroit at the current site of Capitol Park.

Here is where the first Capitol was erected in 1828, with its church-like tower and a row of trees in front, serving first the Michigan territory and then the state. That building became the city’s first high school, and — in 1865, as the Civil War ended and money became available — its first public library, too.

The area is also notable for a true oddity: It contains the grave of Stevens T. Mason, the state’s first governor, who died in New York in 1843 and was brought home to Detroit for reburial and fanfare in 1905. “This idea that you would bring this figure back from obscurity, from a grave in another state, and rebury him at the site of the Capitol … I can’t find another park like this in America,” says Dempsey, who likens that to “holy ground.”

Stevens T. Mason

In 2010, the remains of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s first governor, were located and added to the base of his statue in Capitol Park. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News)

In 2010, the park captured the public’s imagination. A construction crew working on a redesign of the park — including a move across the park for the Mason memorial and statue — couldn’t immediately locate Mason’s remains. Once found — they were only a few feet from the Mason statue — Mason in his coffin was taken to a funeral home, before being formally re-interred in an above-ground crypt.

Dempsey began amassing files about the park, even as he worked on two award-winning books. “There’s such a crying need for people to promote our history,” says Dempsey. From its beginnings as part of the city’s original plan to more recent days as a bus and transit center, the park’s trajectory has followed the city’s.

Although he was born in Detroit, Dempsey grew up in Redford Township and Dearborn, and like so many suburban Detroiters became “tremendously cynical’ about the city and its prospects. His son, Michael Dempsey, who worked for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, helped renew his interest in the city and to a sense of excitement about what it might yet become.

But Michael C. Dempsey, who left Detroit to work for the U.S. government in Afghanistan, died suddenly on a visit home last August, at age 33. On Aug. 1, he and his father joined others at the Urban Bean in Capitol Park to talk about the park’s history and future. Ten days later, he was gone.

But for Dempsey, the city, the park, the governor who died young, and the loss of his son are joined together. This book is still another kind of restoration.