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Michigan Central Station rises from neglect and ruin to become an important part of Detroit again

October 2020

Since 1913, the towering Michigan Central Station been a landmark in the Corktown area of Detroit, Michigan. Built for the Michigan Central Railway, the station was an architecturally stunning structure, built in the Beaux-Arts style. Consisting of a train depot and a thirteen story office tower, two mezzanine levels, and a roof height of 230 feet, the station features included antique chandeliers and lighting, tile, ornamental terra cotta, stone, and furniture.

Designed by the same architects who designed the Grand Central Terminal in New York City, it was the tallest rail station in the world at the time it was built.

The grand waiting room on the main floor was done in the style of an ancient Roman Bathhouse, with marble and vaulted ceilings. A large hall was adorned with Doric columns that housed the ticket office and an arcade of shops.

The concourse was beyond the arcade, with brick walls and a copper skylight, leading passengers to the tunnel that took them to the train platforms.

Michigan Central Station was used heavily during World War II by military personnel, but the post-war boom was not kind to the station. A growth in the ownership of cars and improvements in highways, saw a decline in passenger rail service.

In 1967, the restaurant, arcade shops, and main entrance were closed, along with much of the main waiting room. After two failed attempts to sell the station, Michigan Central found the maintenance costs too high and enacted these cutbacks, leaving only two ticket windows to serve passengers and visitors.

Amtrak Railway took over passenger rail service in America in 1971, and re-opened the passenger waiting room at the Michigan Central Station four years later.

In 1984, the station was finally sold as part of a proposed transportation centre, but this plan was ultimately abandoned. The new owners decided to close the station in 1988, with the last Amtrak train leaving the station on 6 January 1988. It was sold to a developer the following year.

While several plans for the future use of the station came and went, the building slowly began to deteriorate. Many of the building’s historic features and fixtures were removed or stolen by scavengers, including antique chandeliers and lighting, tile, fixtures, salvageable metals and ornamental terra cotta. All the windows in the office tower and many on the lower floors were removed or destroyed by trespassers. While the interior of the building

Controlled Terminals, owned by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun, bought the station in 1996, demolishing the train shed in 2000 and converting the remaining tracks into an intermodal freight operation, run by Canadian Pacific Railway until it closed in June 2004.

Various plans were proposed for the use of the station, including as the headquarters for the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, or Homeland Security offices, a Customs and international trade processing centre, a convention centre and casino.

Although the threat of demolition continued up to 2009, Moroun’s company began making repairs to the deteriorating building in 2011. While the interior was in poor shape, the building was still structurally sound.

In June 2011, partial asbestos abatement on the first floor began, along with other work including demolition of deteriorated interior features, the removal of water and broken glass from first floor windows. By the following June, electricity was resorted to the interior.

By 2015, a new 9,000-pound capacity freight elevator was installed, which enabled the installation of new windows on the entire building and roof restoration.

By September 2017, the “Detroit Homecoming” event was held in the station, the first officially sanctioned event to occur in the building since its closure in 1988.

On 11 June 2018, the former Michigan Central Station was purchased by the Ford Motor Company in a surprise development that had only come to light three months earlier, when the Detroit News broke the story that Ford was in talks to buy the station, with its biggest proponent being Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford.

Public tours have been held periodically at the station, giving the general public a peak inside the station as the restoration work is undertaken.

The restoration work is expected to take until 2022 to complete, after which Ford plans to turn the former station into the centrepiece of its Corktown Campus; a hub for its autonomous vehicle development centre, with both Ford company offices and offices of suppliers and partner companies occupying the tower. Residential apartments may also be added on the top floors. The first floor concourse will re-open to the public at that time, with restaurants and retail services available.

Ford also plans to retain four of the passenger tracks, with the hope of enticing Amtrak to return from the station in New Center, where they relocated to after leaving the station three decades ago.

In light of the fact that many historic structures have been demolished across North America in the name of “progress,” it’s nice to see buildings being saved and restored to their former glory.

Sources: https://handbuiltcity.org/2020/09/22/tour-of-fords-michigan-central-station-project/?fbclid=IwAR3ctzF1ellNMJafMC-r4sm87__QwOAHP54T-l0ol-C7v6HG9NoASEKadq4, https://web.archive.org/web/20140714162656, http://www.talktothestation.com/Gallery, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Central_Station, https://www.motorcities.org/story-of-the-week/2018/remembering-the-michigan-central-station, https://archiseek.com/2013/1913-michigan-central-station-detroit-michigan, https://corporate.ford.com/operations/locations/corktown.html

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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