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Michigan became a territory of the U.S. in 1805, and Detroit was named its territorial capital. A brick Greek Revival building was constructed in 1828 to serve as the territorial courthouse. When Michigan gained statehood in 1837, it would become Michigan's first state capitol. The building was where Michigan's first constitution was drafted and where its first elected governor took his oath of office. The legislature voted to move the state capital to Lansing in 1846. The building was used as a high school from 1847 to 1893, when it was destroyed by fire. Rather than rebuild another school or public building, the space became Capitol Park for public enjoyment.

  • Michigan's Territorial Courthouse
  • Augustus Woodward's 1805 plan for the city of Detroit after fire destroyed much of the city, with the territorial courthouse circled
  • Michigan's First Governor, Stevens Thomson Mason, elected at only age 25, now interred in Capitol Park
  • Capitol Union High School, much as it looked when the building was Michigan's capitol
  • Capitol Union High School, Detroit's only high school for years
  • Capitol Union High School, after extensive additions and renovations
  • Capitol Union High School on January 27, 1893, after fire consumed the building, including the original wooden interior that served as the capitol
  • Capitol Park in the 1910s
  • Capitol Park
  • A model of the original capitol still stands in Capitol Park
  • Michigan's 1835 constitution was drafted and approved inside the capitol in Detroit
Michigan Territory was established in 1805 with Detroit as its capital. A territorial courthouse was erected on the corner of State and Griswold Streets. The cornerstone was laid on September 22, 1823, and it opened for operations on May 5, 1828. This building would later serve as Michigan’s first state capitol when Michigan joined the Union on January 26, 1837. The capitol was designed by architect Obel Wait in a Greek Revival style, with six Ionic columnns along a portico and a central tower 140 feet high. It was 60 feet by 90 feet, constructed out of red brick, and cost $24,500 (roughly $600,000 today).1 The building held offices and meeting spaces for the three branches of government. One newspaper from the era said that the building was “a superb ornament to Detroit, the rising metropolis of Michigan.”2 This capitol was where Michigan’s first constitution was drafted and approved, and it was where the Michigan Legislature held its first session. The state’s first governor, 25-year-old Stevens Thomson Mason, took his oath of office in the capitol. (He also has the distinction of being the youngest governor ever elected in the United States to date.)2

In 1846, the Michigan Legislature voted to move the capital to Lansing, which was at the time a very small and insignificant settlement. However, it was more centrally located within the state and farther away from the threat of an attack from British Canada (see Clio entry “Lansing’s First Capitol” for more information). The last day the Detroit building served as Michigan’s capitol was March 17, 1847. After that, the building became Union High School, the only high school in Detroit at the time. It also housed the first Detroit Public Library from 1865 to 1877. In 1870 and 1875, front and back additions were made to the building and two floors were added as well, faced in stone. The high school was destroyed by a fire on January 27, 1893.3

The half-acre triangular space was converted into the Capitol Park the next year. The park served as a transportation hub for streetcars and later buses for many years. In 1905, the remains of Michigan’s first governor, Stevens Thomson Mason, were moved from New York and interred in a place of honor in Capitol Park. A statue of Governor Mason was placed over the grave. (The grave and statue were relocated within the park in 1955 and again in 2010 to adjust for reconstruction.)2 A scale model of the original capitol is located in the park, along with several historic markers. Capitol Park is the center of a one block radius of historic buildings that is known as Capitol Park Heritage District.

1. "History: The First Capitol." The Michigan Senate Official Website. Accessed July 29, 2016. 2. Dempsey, Jack. "Landmark of Liberty: Detroit's Capitol Park." Michigan History Magazine, January/February 2012, 19-24. 3. Austin, Dan. "The Day Michigan's First State Capitol Burned." Detroit Free Press Website. Published January 27, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2016.