A miracle for Michigan Central Station

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Detroit's impressive Michigan Central Station, a crumbling ruin for decades, is about to be reborn thanks to an improbable sponsor: Ford Motor Co. Jeff Mast
I usually don’t believe in miracles. But I can’t think of another word for what’s happening in Detroit, where a savior has stepped up to not only rescue but also transform one of America’s greatest and most notoriously derelict train stations.

The unlikely savior is Ford Motor Co. The miracle is what Ford promises to do with Michigan Central Station, the towering 1913 monument whose fall from grace became a symbol of Detroit’s historic decline.

Ford is scheduled to release more details this week about its latest acquisition. The automaker has already announced plans to make the station the centerpiece of a vast technology campus, the locus of its efforts to develop electronic vehicles and driverless cars. And although there’s zero chance trains will call on the station again, Ford says it intends to restore and open up much of its interior space to the public.

What wonderful news for any of us who ever patronized this grand old structure. Michigan Central was not necessarily the most beautiful station in the U.S. — many architectural critics see the depot and its 18-story tower as a stylistic mismatch — but it might be the most imperious.

In its day, the MCRR was a rich, haughty railroad, born of Boston aristocracy and later a key piece of the Vanderbilt empire, and MC Station helped make the point. For more than a century, its massive office tower has loomed over the city’s southwest side, by far the most prominent building in a neighborhood that also boasted the late, lamented Tiger Stadium. 

By 1975, when Amtrak was running French-built Turboliners on its Chicago–Detroit trains, Michigan Central Station was vastly underutilized and in steep decline. The light towers of nearby Tiger Stadium are visible at far left. Ernest L. Novak
In its heyday, MC Station was a great railroad terminal. It had the architectural pedigree: the main station was designed by Reed & Stem of Grand Central Terminal fame, along with the partner firm of Warren & Wetmore, designers of luxury hotels. It certainly had the trains: more than 90 arrivals and departures in 1929. And some of those trains were blue chip: the New York–ChicagoWolverine, the Detroit–Chicago Mercury, and the nightly Twilight Limited, which through the 1930s boasted a parlor-car-only consist. Lucius Beebe said the train “was perfumed with folded money.”

I became familiar with the station deep into its decline, in the mid-to-late 1970s, when I was working for a suburban daily newspaper near Detroit. By then Amtrak served the station with only four Detroit–Chicago trains, and much of the depot was closed off. In fact, as you entered the main doors you encountered temporary walls that kept you out of the vast old waiting room, which, ignominiously, had become a huge evidence room for the Detroit Police Department.

Instead, you made your way back to the original concourse, where Amtrak had a ticket office, a makeshift waiting room, and someone was running a small lunch counter.

A disappointment, for sure, but at least the station wasn’t crumbling yet. And when it was train time, you still made your way down into the stairwells and out into the Bush-style trainshed, where the old architecture contrasted with your waiting Turboliner. Most of the station’s 11 through and stub tracks were still in place, and you could imagine an era when the adjacent platforms were teeming with people bound for New York, Toledo, Kalamazoo, and Mackinaw City.

Although the chandeliers still glow brightly, temporary partitions (far left and right) block public access to the waiting rooms in this 1981 view, made 7 years before Amtrak vacated the station. John Uckley
MC Station was also the ideal place to begin what became an occasional evening trip in those days, a fast ride aboard Amtrak 355, also called the Twilight, over to Ann Arbor, 37 miles. There, we’d enjoy a four-star meal at the Gandy Dancer restaurant, housed in Ann Arbor’s handsome old stone MCRR depot, then catch return train 354 at 10:18 p.m. Today, the Gandy Dancer is still a great restaurant, and you can make the same trip on 355/354 from Amtrak’s other Detroit-area stations.    

Once I wangled an invitation into MC Station’s office tower, courtesy of my friend Dave DeVries, in those days the manager of Amtrak’s Michigan operations. I’ll never forget what Dave showed me up in his upper-floor office: an exterior window etched with images of the NYC oval logo and a streamlined observation car. Apparently the north-facing side of the building still boasted several of these classy little details. The station was clinging to past glory.

All that ended in 1988 when Amtrak pulled out to concentrate on serving passengers out of other stations, mainly suburban Dearborn and Pontiac. The structure fell into the hands of the Manuel Moroun family, trucking magnates who also own Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge. Under Moroun ownership, the station became a crumbling haven for gangs and the homeless, as well as a destination for the faux chic responsible for what’s come to be known as “ruin porn.”

I’ve encountered MC Station several times in recent years, yet I could never linger for long. The vast expanse of broken windows, the disintegrating masonry, the spectacular but annoying graffiti — it was all too much. I had to look away.

That’s all about to change, thanks to Ford. There’s no doubt that corporate self-interest is the main driver in their plans, but I also believe them when the company characterizes its billion-dollar venture as a vote for Detroit’s future. The irony of their mission — using a 105-year-old railway station to help create a transportation system antithetical to trains — is not lost on me. But that’s OK, now that a great civic monument is being saved. It might just cause me to go out and buy a Ford. 

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