One of the first things you see when driving into Detroit on I-75 is the large, and looming, Michigan Central Train Station. To me, standing tall and alone, it looks like a tombstone; a tombstone for a city that seemed to have given up on itself.
For too many years the Michigan Central Station has stood in ruin, its windows broken out and the building surrounded by a chain link fence that tries to protect an already ravaged grand lady.
However, this is not a post of gloom, but rather one of hope and vision.
I’ll begin with a little history of the train station and then I’ll go into what we hope is its new, and exciting, future under its new owners.
A magnificent expression to 20th century progress
Michigan Central Station’s story began in 1914, right after the former stationed burned down in 1913, when Michigan Central Railroad decided to build a world class train station on its main rail line. They hired the firms of Warren and Wetmore and Reed and Stem, who had also built New York’s Grand Central Terminal, to do the design and construction.
The architects chose the Beaux-Arts Classical style for the station’s design, and to handle the rail company’s workers a 18-story office tower was added, making Michigan Central the tallest train station in the world at that time.
When it opened thousands of travelers would embark or disembark from one of the more than 200 trains that arrived or departed daily. These passengers could then take one of the many street or interurban railcars that converged there to get to their final destinations. Such notables that came through Michigan Central were Presidents Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman, as well as Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Edison. Over 3,000 employees occupied the many offices in the station’s tower. In those pre-automobile days public mass transportation was how you got around, and Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was one of the crown jewels in the country.
Henry Ford’s development vision
But the station had a major downfall; it was built on the south west side of the city, far from Detroit’s downtown. This was done because the station was to be an important part of a master plan to develop that area of the city. Henry Ford, even though he didn’t own the station, was a major contributor in these plans. Ford had bought up land around the station in preparation for this new development; however the Great Depression put an end to those plans.
The station continued to thrive through the Second World War, after which it began a slow decline as cars and airplanes took over as the public’s mode of transportation. In 1971 Amtrak took over operation of the station, they made some repairs to the building and reopened the main lobby. But in 1988, with passenger rail traffic almost nonexistent, the last Amtrak train left Michigan Central on January 6th.
The now vacant and abandoned station became a target for scavengers and defacers: stripping the building of its fixtures, marble, wiring, and plumbing. Graffiti now covered its once elegant walls.
The Moroun years
Eight years later, in 1996, Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who owns the Ambassador Bridge that links Detroit with Winsor Canada, took possession of the station. Moroun didn’t do much with the building until 2000, when he demolished its train shed to help convert the property to a freight depot for the Canadian Pacific Railway. But this usage didn’t last long, four years later Moroun closed the station permanently in 2004.
The relationship between Moroun and the City of Detroit, in regards to the train station, is interesting. In 2006, the city named the station as a “Priority Cultural Site.” But in 2009, even though Moroun owned the building, the City Council voted to demolish it. The station’s demolition was only stopped when Stanley Christmas, a Detroit resident, sued the city under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
Little was done to renovate the old station until 2011 when Moroun, with the city’s help with funding, replaced the tower’s roof, removed some of the asbestos, and drained some of the water from the basement.
In 2015 electricity was restored to the building, and for the first time in years the main lobby was illuminated. In addition Moroun acquired a permit to install a new freight elevator. Also in 2015, after a land swap with the city, the Moroun family agreed to install windows throughout the building.
A very special occurrence happened during the “Detroit Homecoming” celebration in September of 2017. The station was opened for an event for the first time in twenty-nine years.
There was excitement for the future of the old building when on March 20, 2018 the Detroit News reported that the Ford Motor Company was in talks with the Moroun family on purchasing the station. And on June 11, 2018 the Moroun family confirmed that the Ford Motor Company was now indeed the new owners of the Michigan Central Station.
With Ford, it comes full circle
William Clay Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, spoke on what the future prospects were for the Michigan Central Station under Ford Motor Company. They plan on doing a total restoration and renovation of the historic site. Not only the station is to be renovated but also the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository building next door is included in their plans. These two buildings, as well as the surrounding land, will become a campus for Ford’s futuristic autonomous vehicle division. The projected target date for completion of this project is 2022.
One of the big question asked of Ford is: will there be trains in Michigan Central’s future? And although Ford can’t answer that question for sure, they did say that they’re leaving the passenger tracks in place, just in case.
With Bill Ford’s commitment he picks up right where his grandfather left off in the 1920’s, reviving a neighborhood centered on a magnificent and grand building.
Taking a look inside the station
After the announcement on June 19th Ford opened the train station to the public to tour on the weekend of June 22-25. My wife and I were among those who patiently stood in line for an hour and a half to enter, and experience this historic event.
As we walked in the expansive waiting area, along the halls where shops had been, stood looking up at the skeletal remains of the concourse’s roof that held the glass skylight and the
dark cavernous room that was the station’s restaurant, we weren’t depressed by the acts of destruction and neglect that was before us. No, we were encouraged by the possibilities to come.
The rising of this Detroit phoenix says a lot about a community. A community that’s tired of the decay, and wanting to build to a new and positive future. From Ford’s commitment, to the over 20,000 people that came to see what was and learn of what will come, this is what will redefine Detroit.
There was one selfless act that I’d like to mention, and it may seem small to some, but is really meaningful to the stations history and of one person’s desire to help; as I had stated, the interior of the station had been stripped of everything that might be of value. One of those items was the brass clock face that was on the station’s gateway.
Right after the announcement was made by Ford the company got a phone call; it was from the person who had taken the clock. Without giving his name, or asking for any form of payment, he told them where they could find the clock. This important part of Michigan Central’s history will once again be back home, after restoration by the Henry Ford Museum.
In closing, I look forward to the day when I drive into Detroit on I-75 and not see a tombstone, but rather a beacon to what can be accomplished when you have a vision.
Because with a vision, there is always hope!
The photos in this post were taken by me, and the following website was used for background information in my story.
Wikipedia. “Michigan Central Station.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia , 20 June 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Central_Station.