Michigan Central Station
Location Name: Michigan Central Station (Detroit, Michigan)
Location Type: Abandoned Site (Train Station)
Year Completed: 1913
Architect(s): Warren, Wetmore, Reed and Stem
The story of Michigan Central Station begins as part of a larger project that included the station as well as the nearby Michigan Central Railway Tunnel beneath the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. In 1910, construction began on the new station, built to replace the previous Michigan Central Station. Architects Warren and Wetmore, who were considered experts in hotel design, joined forces with noted railroad station designers Reed and Stem to build the impressive new structure. By December 1912 the steel frame was in place and the rising train station became Detroit’s fourth tallest building (and the tallest train station in the world).
The building was nearing completion, when just about a week prior to its planned dedication, the previous Michigan Central Station suffered a disastrous fire. On 26 December 1913, the unfinished station was forced to open early and railroad traffic was flowing without delay within hours of the fire. At a final cost of about $2.5 million, Michigan Central Station became an icon for Detroit. As the rail hub of one of the nation’s largest cities, most people traveling to Detroit were welcomed by the massive waiting room and impressive hulking architecture of the office tower above the station proper.
Designed in the Beaux-Arts style, much attention was given to the detail adorning both the interior and exterior of the building. The building boasted approximately 500,000 square feet of floor space between the 18 story tower and the station below. The grand waiting room measured 97 by 230 feet, with a 65 foot ceiling. A large copper skylight covered the main concourse area with ramps leading to 11 train platforms. The massive station served about 200 trains a day during its early years. During the World War II years, average passenger travel through Michigan Central Station was often at 4,000 per day. Yet, the heyday of train travel began to decline during the 1950s and Michigan Central fell victim to dwindling use.
As rail travel fell out of favor for many Americans, other factors added to the station’s woes. Built relatively far from Detroit’s downtown core, most passengers arrived at Michigan Central via streetcar and interurban service from elsewhere in the city. Due to this, little room was set aside for vehicle parking (this was to become a problem in later years). During the Great Depression of the 1930s, interurban service was discontinued, leading to decreased ease of public transportation to and from the station. When streetcar service stopped, the station was effectively isolated from the majority of the population.
By 1967, after an unsuccessful attempt to sell the building, maintenance costs were becoming too high relative to the decreasing passenger volume. The restaurant, arcade shops and most notably the main waiting room, were closed. Hard times were evident to all who made their way through the massive station operating well below its intended capacity. The building was allowed to fall into disrepair and the gem of Detroit’s future was in question. This continued for nearly a decade before new hope was found after Amtrak took over the nation’s passenger rail service in 1971.
With Amtrak’s arrival, Michigan Central Station was the re-opening of its main waiting room in 1975. In 1978 the station underwent a $1.25 million renovation project, but the new life only lasting a few years. When Amtrak built its new station in Detroit’s New Center area, Michigan Central Station was closed for good. The last train, Amtrak No. 353 bound for Chicago, rolled out of the station on 06 January 1988. With it ended an era for the city of Detroit.
Since its closure, Michigan Central Station has been more or less ignored. Unsecured, the building has been destroyed by scrappers, vandals and vagrants. Yet, the massive and well-built structure stands strong against all that seeks to destroy it. The structure has become an enduring symbol of the many issues that plague Detroit today. While still a beautiful reminder of our past, the train station has endured so much neglect; and it is evident to all who pass through the economically plagued city. Too costly to restore and too costly to destroy, Michigan Central Station sits as a hulking reminder of both what we have to lose and what we have already lost. It cannot be forgotten, it cannot be hidden; and it is on display for the entire world to see, for better or worse.
In the words of Detroit Free Press editorial writer Jeff Garrett, "Demolishing the depot will erase the city’s most iconic eyesore, but it won’t end the blight on the blocks; no more than pushing the homeless out of downtown will ease the plight of the poor...Maybe we need this rotting relic to remind us how far we have fallen, and how far we must travel together." Despite many plans to repurpose the historic building, so far all have failed. Of recent note, in June 2011 the owner of the station has begun work to replace the roof and windows of the building. While no plans have been disclosed for the structure, preventing the building from suffering further decay is surely a step in the right direction. Whether the station will see more life in the recording of movies (it was used as a set for Transformers in 2006), or is redeveloped into a viable business, the rebirth of the iconic station might signify the ‘Renaissance’ that Detroit has been patiently awaiting for decades.
Michigan Central Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975Sources