When Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was dedicated in 1914, it became the tallest train station in the world at eighteen stories. The massive Beaux-Arts structure was designed by the same architects as New York’s Grand Central Terminal Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stern-and was conceived as a kind of companion piece, ensuring that passengers would embark and arrive through similar grandeur.
At the height of its use, more than two hundred trains left the bustling Michigan Central every day for destinations throughout North America. The station’s centerpiece was its great waiting room, which was modeled after Roman baths. It boasted 55-foot tall vaulted and tiled ceilings with massive chandeliers and soaring Corinthian columns. The very height of magnificence, the station saw presidents, statesmen, and icons pass through its doors.
But as Detroit rose in prominence, Michigan Central Station became less and less useful, because the very cause of Detroit’s economic boom also spelled doom for its massive train station: the rise of the automobile. As the country moved toward air travel and focused on building a massive highway system, the grand age of train-travel began to decline.
Over the years, Michigan Central Station changed operators and owners as its patronage steadily waned. Gradually, the station’s amenities were downsized and eventually shuttered, creating an eerie effect for the few travelers passing through the giant building. Finally, in 1988 the last train left Michigan Central Station, plunging the building into decades of disuse. For decades, policymakers and entrepreneurs proposed uses for the building; it was alternately proposed as a police headquarters, a customs processing center, and a trucking hub. In 2009, it was confirmed for demolition by Detroit’s City Council and then saved by a lawsuit claiming its historic significance.
But mostly, the building decayed. It became a destination for vagrants, graffiti artists, urban explorers, even paintball enthusiasts. Looters snapped up the building’s decorative embellishments and scrappers stripped its copper wiring and brass fixtures. Michigan Central became a prominent symbol for the fall of once-mighty Detroit, an imposing marvel of broken-windows and an elegy for a lost mode of transportation.
However, in 2018 the building found an ironic savior: the Ford Motor Company. Paying $90 million for the site, the automaker plans to turn the station into the centerpiece of a new 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use campus, with room for 5,000 total workers (including 2,500 of Ford’s). When it is complete in 2022, the Ford’s workers will be focused on developing autonomous and electric cars and various “mobility solutions” (although there’s no word on whether they’ll be developing trains).
The four-year renovation effort will need to combat decades of weather damage, as decades of water and Detroit’s infamously harsh winters have taken their toll on the structure. At the heart of the project is the station’s famous waiting room. The vision is not to repurpose it but to restore it to its original grandeur, replacing broken plaster using 3D modeling technology and restoring gaps in the 21,000 square feet of the waiting room’s breathtaking Guastavino ceiling title.
Ultimately, the company hopes to establish a thriving corridor in Corktown (Detroit’s oldest neighborhood), acquiring a handful of other historic buildings in the area. The station’s concourse will contain shops and restaurants open to the public following a growing nationwide trend of repurposing historic structures for retail and hospitality applications.
As news of the restoration was announced, the Ford team received an anonymous confession about a particularly intriguing piece of architectural salvage: a massive clock that had once adorned the Station. The repentant thief carefully wrapped the clock and left it for pickup near an abandoned building, heartened by the knowledge that it would be returned to its home without any further damage-perhaps even to watch over crowds of busy people once again.
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