I took this photo a couple weeks ago, before the snow flew, of the remains of William Howard Taft School as crews finished up demolishing the old school to make way for a 72-unit housing development called Parkdale Townes. It’s one of two former neighborhood schools in Ferndale to be razed, following the demolition of the Woodrow Wilson school for housing by the same developer.
I live just a few blocks away from Taft and visited the media center and gym inside the handsome building to vote many times. It was a pretty neat building, and it’s sad to lose it purely as a neighborhood landmark, so I went in search of some history for the place.
Taft opened in January 1928 as Ferndale’s ninth neighborhood school, meaning the structure had stood for just under 90 years at the corner of Fielding and Allen. It had been vacant after the Ferndale Schools district closed the former Digital Learning Center in late 2014 following an incident involving a student with a gun.
For much of its life Taft was a K-8 school. It replaced the former Ridgewood School, which was located on the northwest corner of Livernois and Eight Mile Road. The district sold that building and part of the land it was on in to the state in 1927 for $63,000 to facilitate the widening of Eight Mile, according to the publication “Ferndale 1918-1943: 25 Years of Progress.”
Its opening came at a major time of growth for the city of Ferndale and its school district, with the Ford Model T plant a few miles south in Highland Park serving as a major employer and widely credited as helping to fuel the area’s development. Ridgewood itself opened in 1917, a stately two-story grade school that was served by a well and two outdoor toilets. The city’s high school at the time was Lincoln High, which stood roughly on the site of what is now Ferndale Foods and its parking lot.
Taft was a sturdily built and handsome school, with one engraving over an entry door proclaiming the school’s motto: “Learn to do by doing” and another that read “Learn to live and live to learn.” A woman who helped me dig up background information at the Ferndale Historical Museum told me she attended Taft and remembers playing in the woods that previously stood behind the school all the way to Eight Mile; today, that property is Garbutt Park.
Inside Taft were Pewabic-tile inserts for a drinking fountain and fireplace decorated with animals, moons and star-decorated files. Those structures were dismantled; the tiles will reportedly be displayed at the Historical Museum on Livernois.
With the district seeing declining enrollment, Taft ceased its life as a neighborhood school in 2002 and re-opened that fall as the Taft Education Center, a place for alternative adult education. In 2012 it was rebranded the Digital Learning Center.
During those years, the building became associated with crime. According to an undated newspaper clipping from the Daily Tribune during the aughts, “More than 20 serious crimes are reported at the school annually, including drugs, assaults, robberies, thefts and weapons. Students at Taft have also been arrested for neighborhood crimes such as burglaries and malicious destruction of property.”
Ferndale Schools in 2016 also closed the Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson schools, all as part of a districtwide restructuring to shed surplus real estate and free up money to fix up other buildings. Wilson is now a full-bore construction site — it’ll become the 28-home development called Wilson Park Village by the same company redeveloping Taft — while Jefferson last I saw it was starting to be renovated by a Troy company in an adaptive reuse as affordable housing units called Jefferson Oaks.
Ferndale today no longer has any more true neighborhood schools, instead operating a lower and upper elementary, a middle school and two high school programs.