Detroit: A City of Music, Ingenuity, and Innovation

The region that is now Detroit, Michigan was originally inhabited by members of five tribes: the Huron, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Chippewa, and Miami. It wasn’t until 1669 when colonizers from France traveled down Lake Huron to camp at present day Detroit, with a formal settlement established in 1701 by Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac. In 1760, following the French and Indian War, the British obtained Detroit from the French, and while Michigan became a part of the United States in 1783, it was not until 1796 that Detroit was fully relinquished by the British.

Today, Detroit is known as a city driven by a spirit of ingenuity and innovation. From the assembly lines of Henry Ford to the classic hits of the Motown Sound, this guide—featuring a few of its historic sites, parks, and neighborhoods—provides a glimpse of the complex history of this midwestern city.

  1. Loja Saarinen and a weaver in Studio Loja Saarinen

    Photo By: Hermann for The Detroit News; Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

    Cranbrook Education Community

    Located in Bloomfield Hills, Cranbrook Education Community was founded by Detroit Philanthropists George and Ellen Scripps Booth as a private estate in 1904 with a design rooted in the Arts & Crafts movement. In the 1920s and 30s, it grew into a center of education, artistic experimentation, and scientific discovery. Designed, for the most part, by Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook is anchored by its Academy of Art—where Eliel and his wife Loja taught—a graduate school of art, design, and architecture where it served as an incubator of Midcentury Modernism. This is where his daughter Pipsan (an industrial, interior, and textile designer) and son Eero (the well-known architect) were raised. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

  2. Interior view of a Midcentury Modern building that houses the GM Global Technical Center

    Photo By: Michigan State Historic Preservation Office/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    General Motors Global Technical Center

    Designed by Eero Saarinen, and dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the General Motors Global Technical Center was described as an “Industrial Versailles” by Architectural Forum when it was completed in 1956. Located in Warren, Michigan, this building served for nearly seven decades as the company’s innovation center for automotive design, engineering, and advanced technology. This was the first of Saarinen’s independent projects and shaped his future work and achievements in designing large-scape corporate environments for companies like Bell Labs, IBM, and John Deere.

  3. Exterior view of the Ford House.

    Photo By: Ford House

    Ford House

    Finished in 1928 on the shores of Lake St. Clair, Ford House was the home of Edsel Ford (the only son of Henry Ford), his wife Eleanor, and their four children. Today the family residence is an 87-acre National Historic Landmark designed to reflect both their public and private roles. A stately mansion inspired by cozy cottages the family sought to surround themselves with art and nature. Architect Albert Kahn modeled the home after the vernacular architecture of the Cotswolds in southern England. Landscape architect Jens Jensen created a lakefront landscape with meadows, woodlands and vistas that reflected his signature natural style.

  4. A view of a pathway through a set of trees in a park in Detroit, Michigan.

    Photo By: Michigan State Historic Preservation Office via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Belle Isle Park

    Also known as Swan Island to the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes (who used the site for hunting and fishing), Belle Isle was purchased by the British from the Ojibwa, Chippewa, and Ottawa leaders in 1769, and was later acquired by the city of Detroit in 1879. On June 20, 1943 the island was the location of the start of the Detroit Race Riots—instigated by growing racial tension between the city’s Black and white communities—the fighting on Belle Isle spread to the rest of the city, resulting in a number of deaths. Today it is a 982-acre island park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Visitors can wander the park, or visit the Albert Kahn and George Mason designed Belle Isle Aquarium which was reopened in 2012 by the Belle Isle Conservancy.

  5. House at 2217 Macomb, taken on May 3, 1950.

    Photo By: Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

    Black Bottom/Mies van der Rohe Residential District, Lafayette Park

    A predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit, Black Bottom was one of the neighborhoods demolished in the late 1950s-1960s as part of the urban renewal movement. Black Bottom was a major community center for the city’s Black citizens and is where Black-owned businesses, social institutions, and night clubs were located. From 1946-1956 buildings in Black Bottom and the neighboring Paradise Valley were condemned and transformed into the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park (the Mies van der Rohe Residential District) which today is mixed-use neighborhood representative of van der Rohe’s modernist architectural aesthetic.

  6. Exterior view of a church in Detroit, Michigan.

    Photo By: Carol Highsmith

    First Congregational Church of Detroit

    Established in 1844 by abolitionists, the historic First Congressional Church of Detroit was designed by John Faxon in the Romanesque and Byzantine Revival style, with an Albert Kahn addition completed in 1924. The interior includes an intricate ceiling painting that features the four Gospels. In 2002 the church opened the Underground Railroad Living Museum which shows the role Detroit played in the Underground Railroad, hosting more than 85,000 visitors a year. The Historic First Congregational Church of Detroit received a $50,000 grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places in 2018, which supported urgent repair work on the church tower.

  7. Exterior view of Hitsville U.S.A house in Detroit, Michigan

    Photo By: Blob4000/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

    Hitsville U.S.A (and the Motown Museum)

    The first headquarters and recording studio of Motown Records was purchased by founder Barry Gordy in 1959. When Gordy purchased the house the photography studio on the property became a recording studio open 22 hours a day. The site eventually became the first of a series of properties used for the recoding label until Gordy moved the headquarters to Los Angeles in 1972. A number of Motown’s hits—“Please Mr. Postman,” “Shop Around,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”—were produced at Hitsville U.S.A. In 1985 the site became home to the Motown Museum. In 2023 the museum completed an expansion, growing the museum campus to a 50,000 entertainment and education tourist destination.

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