Canadians crossing into the United States at the Ambassador Bridge know the Michigan Central Station well. It’s the huge, hulking, empty building on the north side of the bridge. It’s hard to miss, particularly when the sun hits the right angle and shines directly through hundreds of shattered windows. Or, at least that’s the way it’s been for close to thirty years since the last train pulled away in 1988. But, like the other places I’ve discussed over the past few days, it, too, may rise again.
Built in 1913 and dedicated in 1914, this Beaux Arts-style building was the tallest train station in the world when it was built–but strangely enough, in the Motor City, it did not contemplate travel by car even though it was located away from the downtown core, in order to stimulate development in the area. Passengers were expected to arrive via streetcar; no substantial parking was built to serve the station. And for many years, arrive they did. At its peak, during its first decade of operation, over 200 trains arrived and departed daily. In the 1940s, thousands of passengers used the station daily while thousands of others worked in the 13-story office tower above the station’s gorgeous Great Hall.
But when streetcar service was discontinued in the 30s, the station became isolated from downtown. It was still heavily used for awhile, especially for troops during WWII, but after the war, when the automobile began to reign supreme for daily and vacation travel, the station began its long decline. By 1956, traffic was so low that the owners tried to sell the property for less than one third the price it cost to build it in 1913. By 1967, all of the restaurants and amenities had closed, the main entrance shuttered, and passengers no longer waited in the main hall. An abortive effort to revive the station was made in the 70s when Amtrak took over train service, but it came to naught. After the station was closed in 1988, it changed hands a couple of times before investor Manny Moroun purchased the building in 1996.
Various proposals were made over the years to repurpose the building, including as the headquarters for the Detroit Police or as a casino. The City of Detroit at one point designated the building a “Priority Cultural Site” and at another voted to demolish it. Slow work was done to stabilize the building, to replace windows (twice), and remove asbestos, each time sparking rumours that perhaps the building would be restored. The Moroun family even talked about using it themselves, having spent about $10 million over the years on its upkeep.
Meanwhile, the neighbourhood in which the station is located began to rebound. Corktown, named for the Irish who first settled it, is Detroit’s oldest neighbourhood. In recent years, hotels, restaurants and businesses have opened, and the old empty lot from the demolished Tiger Stadium replaced with a new sports complex. The most recent arrival has been Ford, which once, in its early history, had looked at the area for expansion. In June 2018, it was confirmed that Ford had purchased the MCS and would incorporate the building in its new Corktown Campus, to focus on the manufacture of electric and autonomous vehicles. The restoration, which began in December 2018, is expected to cost $350 million. The restoration will take place in three phases. The first will stabilize and dry out the building (which has been more or less exposed to the elements for over thirty years); the second will replace the wiring and mechanical systems and restore the outside, and the final phase will restore the interior. You can read more details on what is planned for each phase, along with some wonderful photographs, here.
And Ford wants to show off their cracked gem with a bright future. This month, they have sponsored a ten-day winter festival at the station, including a light show and a display of artifacts from the station. Since the project was announced, various people have been returning artifacts “acquired” from the building over the years.
Curbed has posted an excellent photo tour of the MCS from 2018 here. Detroiturbex hosts a collection of historic photos and more recent ones here. A collection of historic photos of the station is available on the Historic Detroit site.
It just so happens that I will be in Detroit on the last day of the festival. I hope to have a chance to drive by and perhaps catch a few photos of the Michigan Central Station beautifully lit, and to think on what the future might bring.
Tomorrow: What was lost…