In Detroit, a Groundbreaking School Comes Back as Condos

Posted on June 18, 2014

Due to plummeting enrollment and a troubled district, vacant school buildings—heck, just vacant buildings—are none too rare in Detroit. After 19 years of abandonment, the Nellie Leland School, however, is no longer vacant—it, as abandoned urban buildings are want to do, is back in session as condos. When it first opened in 1919, vacancy was far from anybody’s mind; in fact, demand was so high that it had a waiting list for admittance, and two years after opening had to build an expansion that more than tripled its enrollment. The reason Leland was such hot property? It has little to do with the economy, and everything to do with the fact that it was the first opportunity most local students with disabilities had for a public education.

As late as 1970, just one in five disabled children was educated in U.S. public schools. So when the Nellie Leland School for Crippled Children first opened its doors, it was the first public school in the city designed exclusively for disabled students, noted for its spacious halls and classrooms and long ramps connecting its three floors.

Today, the school is known as Leland Lofts, a set of expansive condos in the Lafayette Park neighborhood near downtown Detroit, where a 1,465-square-foot, one-bedroom loft goes for $175K. It all began, however, in 1917, when Detroit built the school, naming in memory of the late Nellie Leland, who, along with her husband, helped care for sick people in Detroit in the early 1900s, working especially closely with people with tuberculosis.

Prior to the school’s opening, Detroit’s disabled children were being taught in just a few rooms in another school. This was several decades before legislation like the ADA mandated equal rights for people with disabilities, so educational opportunities were sparse, usually at the home, in institutions, or private schools.

As a result, demand was high, and in 1921 an expansion would allow the school to serve 300 children, up from 82, with a room dedicated for students with special needs, a large cot room for napping, an auditorium, and an art room with a large brick fireplace. It was also, after its expansion, one of the first schools in the city to have an elevator. Another standout feature: a rooftop playground with doors that opened wide to allow air circulation.

The school operated until 1981, a few years after federal legislation opened up federally funded opportunities for people with disabilities, including the integration of special education into general schools.

After the school closed, it sat fallow until 2000, when eccentric developer Joel Landy, a local figure who owns three entire city blocks of historic Detroit, decided to convert it all into condos.

Today, Leland Lofts is that same brick, L-shaped property, with the same Arts and Crafts, Tudor and Neoclassical architecture, and its gables and rows of tall windows at the entrances. Units are extremely roomy—adapted from extra-large classrooms and hallways—and one high-ceilinged unit boasts a living room that’s 40 feet long.

Because the developer retained as many school features as possible, no two units are the same, says Janese Chapman, a historic planner who worked on the building’s nomination for the National Register. (Chapman loved the property so much, she moved into one of the lofts.) Units are extremely roomy—adapted as they are from extra large classrooms and hallways—and some boast features like built-in library shelving, the stage where the auditorium used to be, shuffleboard on the gym floor, and drawers from the former science lab. Even the slate blackboards are still in use: some units have them as kitchen countertops.

Other tender traces of the Nellie Leland School survive, including its name carved into the limestone of the façade. That rooftop playground? It’s still put to good use, as terraces with views of the city.