Looking Back: Fragments of Warren's history survive in a 'built-out' city

This story is part of an occasional series about historic preservation in metro Detroit’s historic communities.

Originally named Beebe’s Corners after John L. Beebe, who established a toll gate on the stretch of Mound road near its intersection with Chicago road, Warren began as a minor stopping point village for people traveling north from Detroit in the early nineteenth century. In 1832, when the village was first settled, Mound was covered with wood planks, typical of roads built over swampy areas.

Today, a Michigan Historic Site plaque marks the location. The Warren Historical Commission recently relocated from the Mound median to the northwest corner of Mound and Chicago in the newly established Beebe Pocket Park, a memorial park dedicated to Warren’s beginning.

Historic preservation in Warren reveals itself in areas like its state-registered historic village and the one-room Bunert School. The city also features numerous vintage homes dating from the 1930s to the 1950s, whose best features have not been altered since their construction.

Warren Bridge over Red Run looking north. 1900, @ Warren Historical and Genealogical Society.

When Historical Society member Elanor Bates grew up in the 1940s, she remembers open fields. For the last ninety-three years, she has lived on Studebaker Avenue. She says that the street looks just the way it always did, other than one or two houses. 
Around this same period, Jean DeDecker, another seasoned resident and Historical Society member, enjoyed riding her bike and roller skating down Chicago Road between Mound and Van Dyke.

At the time, Mound was a two-lane street that ran along its current northbound side. DeDecker recalls the storefronts that once existed on Mound's west side, which were bulldozed when the county widened the road. But some of the original historic buildings still exist on the east side of Mound, including structures like St. Paul the United Church of Christ, which is just south of the original Beebe’s Corners site. Its sanctuary, constructed in 1894, still stands today as a remembrance of Warren’s German heritage. 

According to city marker, services at St. Paul’s were conducted in German until 1935 and a German Bible was built into its cornerstone. Records indicate that the steeple originally rose thirty-five feet above the belfry but had to be removed after lightning struck it in 1921.

One of Warren’s most universally historic and significant landmarks is The Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery. Established in 1925, it is the first Black-owned cemetery in the state. Discouraged by humiliations like being forced to bury their dead at odd hours and occasions of vandalism and mockery, Charles C. Diggs and Aaron C. Toodle, two prominent Black businessmen in Detroit, decided to purchase a place where people could bury their loved ones in peace. They chose Warren because it was more difficult for Black men to purchase land in Detroit. Today, the cemetery owns three properties in Michigan and has buried some of Detroit’s most influential Black doctors, musicians, philanthropists, and athletes. 

Warren, Detroit Memorial Park present day. @ Warren Historical and Genealogical Society

After World War II, Warren quickly developed into an industrial hub with the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant construction. The Detroit Arsenal was the first factory specifically built for mass tank manufacturing.  Brian Louwers, a reporter for the Warren Weekly, explains that “Before the thirties, Warren was farmland. It did not start to boom until World War II when the arsenal plant was built.” 

Designed by Albert Kahn, owned by the government, and run by Chrysler Corporation, the massive facility is said to have “sprung up overnight” on vacant farmland in Warren in response to the dire need for mass tank production plants after the United States declared war against the Axis Powers on December 11th, 1941. For the duration of World War II, the plant produced close to ninety thousand tanks. 
As a result of employment at the Detroit Arsenal, Warren’s population began to grow. People began to move to the area and open shops to supply basic needs to the plant's employees and Warren’s newest residents. 

“The second World War made a big difference,” remembers Jean DeDecker. “As soon as the war was over, people began to flock to the area. Farms were bought and subdivided; houses were built where farms had stood for years.” 

Warren. Mound Road looking south across Chicago. 1896 @ Warren Historical and Genealogical Society. The drug store is still there today.

“Up until the 1970s, Warren was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country,” explains Louwers. “And it probably peaked in size and population in the 1970s. These days Warren is entirely built out, he adds.

Sue Keffer, the chairperson of the Warren Historical Commission, has lived in Warren since 1962 and confirms few changes to the neighborhoods since that time. She explains that in most cases, a house is only torn down in Warren if it has deteriorated beyond repair or if a company would like to use a commercially zoned plot with a house on it. She adds that the city has yet to take a proper census of its historical sites, which would help it acquire more historic preservation grants. The Commission has tried to apply for grants for the census itself without success.

Warren’s prized historical treasure is the Bunert School. When it closed in 1944, it was the longest operating one-room schoolhouse in Warren. During this past winter, a pipe burst and damaged the floors, which are now in need of restoration. 

The Commission has been able to raise funds in the past with block grants, and the City of Warren budgets a small amount for the Historical Commission every year, but most of the funds come from donations. 

“I do believe that studying our past can give us an understanding of who we are, what it took to get here, and, hopefully, an appreciation of what lies ahead," says Keffer. "Many of the buildings and sites can be preserved. Our historic structures tell irreplaceable stories and, although we can't preserve everything, some examples should be kept.”

Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.  
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