The front of Michigan Central Depot as seen from Roosevelt Park on a foggy morning. BUY PHOTO
Like so many other photographers, urban explorers, and railfans, I have been completely fascinated by the Michigan Central Station building. MCS calls back to the grandeur of Detroit's historic past, yet also reflects the sad plight of today's urban decay. When talking about MCS, the conversation always seems to focus on two topics:
- How vandalism and graffiti have defiled and desecrated the building.
- Will the building ever be restored?
It is important to note that the station's demise started long before it was closed in 1988. Due to several fatal flaws and unfortunate events, I would argue that Michigan Central Station was doomed from the start as evidenced by its slow decline over the decades. Owners and curators have just as much to do with the destruction of the building as random vandals.
- In the 1910s, the station's creators consciously decided to build the station beyond the limits of downtown Detroit in a gamble to create a new area of economic growth. This gamble did not succeed. The building was very much separated from the people who would have used it.
- No large automobile parking facilities were ever worked into the plans. When you're in the automobile capital of the United States, this is a fatal flaw.
- The station was dependent on the Detroit trolley system to provide a lifeline of customers to the station. With the rise of the automobile effectively killing the majority of public transportation, the trolley service to MCS was shut down in the 1930s. (And of course, the Great Depression didn't help business much either.)
- By the 1950s and 1960s, various owners were already trying to play "pass the hot potato" because the station simply was not profitable.
- While we like to imagine that all of the building's services remained as glorious and fully-functional as in their heyday, in reality most were shut down well before the station's final closure. Back in 1967, the restaurant, the arcade shops, and the waiting room were all closed to the public. The waiting room was even used for makeshift storage.
- During the 1970s, during Amtrak's renovation and attempted revival of the station, many of the station's original elements and accents were removed and replaced by cheaper, more modern materials. Many rooms (like the employee restaurant) were "renovated" and repurposed for storage. And covering the office walls of the lower tower floors with cheap low-grade wood paneling is a crime unto itself!
- By 1988, the various attempts to revitalize MCS had failed and the last train left the station on January 6, 1988. Since then, the property has switched hands many times.
- In 2000, the train sheds were demolished by the owners, officially destroying one of the most beautiful parts of the building complex. In the following years, scavengers have completed the job by removing just about every single fixture or loose piece of metal left in the building, including entire staircases and pieces of roof over the great rooms.
- While the backbone of the building is of very strong construction, many of the accents in the building were made with cheaper materials. Pillars made of terra cotta and plaster cannot withstand the elements the way that stone pillars can. Window frames made of wood will not last for 100 years the way that metal frames would have. Couple that with unrepaired holes in all of the roofs and every single rain storm knocks off a few more pieces of the building.
- The current owners appear to have no love for the building and have effectively let the building further deteriorate. They are probably sitting on the land waiting for the day when it is commercially viable to develop the property into something else.
- As of April 2009, the Detroit City Council has put demolishing MCS on their agenda, thinking that spending $3.6 million to knock down one of Detroit's most beautiful and historically significant buildings will magically help the local economy and make the area safer. Almost in response, the owners announced in May 2011 that they would begin a restoration project on MCS, including repairing the decimated roofs and replacing the broken windows. A year later, not much actual work has taken place.
So is there any hope to bring the station back to its original grandeur? Probably not. There have been numerous proposals over the past decade, but none that are truly commercially viable or sustainable. The only crazy plan that I could see working would be to convert the building into a train-themed casino and hotel that calls back to the glory days of the 1920s. Slot machines and gaming tables could take up the Waiting Room and Concourse, cashiers could occupy the old ticket counters, and the arcade shops and restaurant could be brought back to life. The upper floors of the old office tower could be converted to hotel rooms with outstanding views of the whole area.
The only other gimmick that would be needed would be some sort of train-themed roller coaster ride where the old train shed used to be. Yes, this is a sick fantasy, but maybe it is true that you have to "destroy the village in order to save it..." Until then, MCS will function as the backdrop for the occasional post-apocalyptic movie that gets filmed in Detroit. The corpse of MCS lives on.
A final view of MCS from Depressed Drive. BUY PHOTO
Joe Braun Photography