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The future of Marygrove College appeared grim in 2016, when the Detroit institution reached out to the Kresge Foundation for help in navigating its financial straits. Although the Troy, Michigan–based foundation could not prevent the Catholic college from shuttering undergraduate courses, it launched a multi-organization collaboration to reinvent the 53-acre campus as a learning center for the Livernois-McNichols neighborhood and surrounding communities that have not experienced the same revitalization as Detroit’s CBD and Midtown areas.

Three years later, Marygrove’s picturesque main building reopened as a public high school, with an enrollment that now tops 300 students. Then, last September, Kresge and its partners opened the Marygrove Early Education Center (EEC), a $15 million structure designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects, which provides local families with services ranging from prenatal support to pre-K education for 144 kids.

The new facility comprises a wedge-shaped plan punctuated by three courtyards, its low profile energized by a zigzagging roofline and striped facade. “One-story is standard for a lot of educational buildings, from the standpoint of universal design and control,” Blackwell says of the design’s origins. While convention would have also dictated maximizing daylight by way of a bar-shaped plan, the Fayetteville, Arkansas–based studio had to nestle 28,000 square feet immediately east of the high school. “It could not be long, so we had to go with a mat building,” Blackwell recalls. To create that mat, the architect and his team coiled the hypothetical bar volume onto itself so that every classroom enjoys outdoor access. Folded planes and asymmetrical light monitors deliver additional sunshine into the EEC.

Marygrove Early Education Center.

The preschool (1) and most rooms open to the outdoors (2 & 3). Photos © Timothy Hursley, click to enlarge.

Marygrove Early Education Center.
Marygrove Early Education Center.

Manipulating the form also allowed Blackwell to vary the scale of the rooms, in response to each one’s function and the age of the child occupants. “Schools are often uninspired, overly diagrammatic, repetitive spaces; we were able to challenge an impoverished building type,” Blackwell says.

The architect adds that Kresge, as well as the Illinois Facilities Fund (IFF), a Chicago-based nonprofit tapped by the foundation to develop this project, wanted to push the design envelope. He initially anticipated cladding the EEC in a timeless material like brick or copper, but the client thought a uniform skin would have a corporate appearance. Kresge’s Detroit Program, in particular, wanted to send a message of inclusivity. Today, a glazed terra-cotta rainscreen interprets the stone and brick colors of nearby buildings as a series of vertical stripes that also evokes the work of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective in Alabama, which Blackwell says celebrates the Great Migration’s impact on Detroit history: “It suggests that you’re as valued as the kids over in Grosse Pointe,” he notes, referring to the nearby well-to-do suburb.

Since 2017, when Marygrove terminated its undergraduate and graduate program, more than 500 other colleges and universities have shut down nationwide. Yet Marygrove’s transformation suggests a path forward that may well prevent a college campus from becoming the next dead mall. Currently on the Marygrove site, the renovation of a defunct girls’ academy into a K-8 public school is under way by the Ann Arbor–based firm PLY+, and the University of Michigan has begun a unique teaching residency here that is structured like a medical-school program. Kresge estimates that its commitment to the campus will eventually total approximately $75 million, making it the largest philanthropic investment in a Detroit neighborhood in the city’s history.

Click plan to enlarge

Marygrove Early Education Center.

Read more from our January 2022 issue’s Education & Community focus.


Marlon Blackwell Architects
42 East Center Street
Fayetteville, AR 72701

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Marlon Blackwell, FAIA; Meryati Johari Blackwell, AIAJustin Hershberger, AIA; Mari McLeod, AIA; Stephen Reyenga; Colby Ritter; Callie Kesel; Leonardo Lieva Rivera

Architect of record:
Marlon Blackwell Architects

Interior designer:
Marlon Blackwell Architects

Civil: Giffels Webster
Structural: SDI Structures
MEP: Peter Basso Associates

Early Childhood Education Planning: Heirdun Hoppe Associates
Associate Architect: Intoto Studio
Landscape Architecture: Margie Ruddick Landscape
Lighting Design: TM Light
AV/IT Consultant: Commtech Design
Envelope: Studio NYL
Accessibility Review: McIntosh Group
Specifications: Amy Baker Architect
Food Service: Stephens-Bangs Associates

General contractor:
Barton Malow Builders

Timothy Hursley



Structural System:
Structural Steel Fabricator: Casadei Structural Steel Inc.

Exterior Cladding:
Metal panels: Atas
ACM: Royalton Architectural Fabrication
Moisture barrier: Carlisle
Storefront: Tubelite
Terracotta Rainscreen: Shildan

Built-up roofing: Carlisle
Metal: PAC-Clad

Glass: Guardian Glass
Skylights: Wasco

Entrances: Tubelite
Metal doors: LaForce
Wood doors: VT Architectural Wood Doors

Locksets: Schlage
Closers: LCN
Exit devices: Von Duprin
Pulls: Rockwood

Interior Finishes:
Acoustical ceilings: Armstrong
Suspension grid: Armstrong
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Turner Brooks
Paints and stains: PPG
Plastic laminate: Nevamar
Solid surfacing: Corian
Floor and wall tile: Daltile
Resilient flooring: Tarkett
Carpet: J&J Flooring; Interface

Office furniture: OFS; Mimeo; Soi-Lumin; Allsteel
Reception furniture: Davis; OFS
Chairs: Grand Rapids Chair Co.; OFS
Tables: Blu Dot; Allsteel
Upholstery: Designtex
Other furniture: Vitra; Allimuir; Clinton Industries; Emeco

Interior ambient lighting: Lumentruss; Litecontrol
Downlights: Intense Lighting; Pinnacle Architectural Lighting
Exterior: 3G Lighting; Beacon; Hinkley
Dimming system or other lighting controls: Crestron

Water Closets: Kohler; American Standard
Urinals: Toto
Lavatories: American Standard
Faucets: Symmons;
Sinks: Kohler; American Standard
Shower: Kohler; American Standard
Drinking Foundations: Elkay

Energy management or building automation system: Johnson Controls
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: Geothermal System