There is no comprehensive published—or online—history of Belle Isle. The city of Detroit, after many legal steps, acquired Belle Isle from the state of Michigan in 1879. For the next thirty or forty years, many of the monumental buildings we now admire on Belle Isle were constructed. Interestingly, the legislation that transferred Belle Isle to the city for $200,000 gave the city the right to acquire land for the ring road we now called Grand Boulevard. This was designed to separate an urban Detroit located inside the ring road from the rural landscape and farms outside the ring. The legislation also gave the city the right to approve the building of a railroad tunnel that would link Michigan and Ontario, one that would pass under Belle Isle. Perhaps it is fortunate that tunnel was never constructed. The railroads decided to build their tunnel just south of downtown Detroit and Windsor. This tunnel is still in use.
I am not certain who designed what parts of the building that you see pictured here. I have read that this building was designed by Albert Kahn in 1898 to provide stables, presumably for the staff of workmen who maintained the island. Since it is a large building, I wonder if there were also stables available for horse owners who wished to board their animals here. They may have also been designed to provide workshops and storage areas for the maintaince crews. However, I have also read that the building was designed by George Mason as early as 1894. For a brief period from about 1884 to 1887, the city of Detroit supported a collection of animals at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull where Bennett Field would be built for the Tigers in 1896. Perhaps as early as 1887, some of the animals were transferred to Belle Isle in hopes of establishing a zoo there. The Belle Isle Conservancy website reports that when George Mason designed this building he had the developing Detroit zoo in mind as well as stables. The city eventually established a large zoo on Belle Isle but most all of the building were constructed after the turn of the Twentieth Century.
There is a further complication of the story of this building. As early as the 1840s, there was a farmers’ market located on what is now Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit. As the downtown boomed in the decades following the Civil War, it seemed less and less wise to devote highly valuable real estate to a market selling food and, very importantly, hay to feed the city’s horses. A decision was made to shift the farmers’ market to its present site at Gratiot and Russell. I believe the first shed opened there in about 1891 but the oldest standing shed there, designed by Richard Raseman, dates from 1893. Apparently, the former farmers’ market building—a wooden Victorian structure—was removed from downtown Detroit and sited on Belle Isle to serve as a stable. I do not know if the building you see pictured here is a totally new structure or one that incorporates some of the previous Belle Isle stable building. When this building was completed, there were eight families living on the island. They were responsible for the maintenance of the park. Presumably, they stabled their horses in the building. All of those homes except the Bernard Campau residence, now known as the White House, have been torn down.
The Belle Isle stables closed in the 1960s. In the 1970s, there was an attempt to repair and reopen them, presumably for people who want to rent a horse for a ride. This proved financially impossible and the stables were closed in the 1970s.
The Belle Isle Conservancy—a private philanthropic organization—announced in 2011 that they would begin a restoration of these stables. I believe that they began by repairing the roof. The state of Michigan rented Belle Isle from the city for 30 years in 2013, thanks to a decision of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. By 2014, the state was starting to make capital improvements in the park but I have not heard any reports about a Master Plan or specific plans for a possible use of these stables.
Architect: Apparently Albert Kahn or George Mason
Date of Construction: Perhaps 1894 or 1898
Use in 2014: Storage?
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Belle Isle was listed as an historic site September 10, 1979.
National Register of Historic Places: Belle Isle was listed on February 25, 1979.
Photograph: Ren Farley; July, 2014
Description prepared: August, 2014
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