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While the origins of Ford Field and the Little Ceasars Arena are pretty obvious to most, millions of people each year visit Detroit landmarks such as Hart Plaza and Belle Isle knowing little, if anything at all, about the people and stories behind the names. Read on for more about the city’s fascinating history.
In March 1805, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Augustus Brevoort Woodward as the Michigan Territory’s first Chief Justice. Unfortunately, by the time Woodward reached Detroit in July it was in ruins after a great fire. Woodward played a key role in the city’s recovery and was responsible for its new layout, including the five main avenues that branch out from the river. The main north-south highway was named in his honor.
Running parallel to Woodward from downtown to New Center, Cass Avenue was also named for a key figure in early 19th century Detroit. Lewis Cass was made Governor of the Michigan Territory in 1813 in recognition of his accomplishments in the War of 1812. He stayed in the position until 1831, after which he held a number of prominent positions including representing Michigan in the Senate. After unsuccessfully running for president in 1848, he later served as Secretary of State. He is buried in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Heading northeast from the city is Gratiot Avenue, which leads to Port Huron where Fort Gratiot once stood. The fort, and therefore the road, was named after Charles Chouteau Gratiot, who had rebuilt the fort in his capacity as Chief Engineer during the War of 1812.
Belle Isle was originally called Île aux Cochons, or Hog Island, by early French settlers. However, it was renamed Belle Isle in 1845 in honor of Isabelle Cass, the daughter of Governor Lewis Cass, before becoming a public park in 1877.
Sticking with the War of 1812, Antoine Dequindre was a shopkeeper born and raised in Detroit who formed a company of riflemen and joined the Michigan Legion. He and his company played a significant role in the Battle of Monguagon, a small skirmish early in the war. His name is now on the city’s urban greenway and several roads.
Though the plaza stands where Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac is thought to have landed before founding Detroit in 1701, Hart Plaza wasn’t actually built until 1975. The year after it opened, Philip Aloysius Hart, Senator from Michigan, tragically passed away from cancer and the plaza was named after him. He had previously been a war hero, worked for several law practices in Detroit and served as Lieutenant Governor of Michigan.
The Cobo Center, once known as Cobo Hall, was opened in 1960, three years after Mayor Albert Eugene Cobo passed away from a heart attack. However, Cobo, who also served as the city’s Treasurer for a long time, is not fondly remembered due to his controversial policies which contributed to the city’s impending decline and racial tensions.
One of the city’s most popular Art Deco skyscrapers, the building most people think of as the Penobscot Building is actually the third and final part of the Penobscot Block. The first building was completed in 1905 for lumber baron Simon J. Murphy, who had grown up in Maine, home to the Penobscot River and the Native American Penobscot tribe. The Penobscot Building Annex was completed in 1916, before the famous 47-storey tower, called the Greater Penobscot, was added in 1928.
Detroit is home to the largest of the Fox theatres, a large chain of movie theaters built in the 1920s by Fox Film studio owner William Fox, the same man behind Fox News and 20th Century Fox.