Historic Detroit

Michigan Central Station

Nothing symbolizes Detroit’s grandiose rise and spectacular fall like Michigan Central Station. No other building exemplifies just how much the automobile gave to the city of Detroit — and how much it took away.

For 75 years, the depot shipped Detroiters off to war, brought them home, took them on vacation and sent them off to visit Grandma. It was Detroit’s Ellis Island, where many generations of Detroiters first stepped foot into the city for factory jobs. It was filled with the sounds of hellos and goodbyes, panting locomotives and screeching wheeled steel. But for nearly twenty-five years now, it has been a place for vandals, thrill-seekers, junkies and the homeless. The only sounds to be heard are the hissing of cans of spray paint, the clicks and whirs of camera shutters and the slow drips of water through holes in the roof. Wind whistling through broken windows has replaced the deep-throated whistles of trains.

Designing the depot

From 1884 until 1913, the Michigan Central Railroad ran out of a depot downtown at Third and Jefferson. The railroad’s business was growing, and the company had started an underwater tunnel in southwest Detroit in 1906. It was decided another, much larger depot should be built near the entrance to the tunnel, and Michigan Central began buying up land in the city’s Corktown neighborhood just outside of downtown in the fall of 1908.

By spring 1910, about fifty acres of property for the depot had been acquired with about three hundred small, wooden-frame homes being bought or condemned. Matthew Scanlon, the real estate dealer who acquired the land for the railroad, had to call on one old woman forty times to get her to sell. It was said to be the largest real estate transaction ever in the state at the time. Some deals took only five minutes, while others took six months, the Detroit Tribune reported in December, 1913. The city forked over $680,619.99 ($14.75 million today, when adjusted for inflation) in condemnation proceedings on Aug. 6, 1915, to acquire the land for the depot and the land in front of it for a park. The idea was part of the City Beautiful movement of the time, which called for grand public buildings at the end of dramatic vistas. The park was named Roosevelt Park in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had died in January 1919, and the landscaping was more or less completed the following year. Construction on the station began after permits were obtained May 16, 1910. The steel framework of the building was in place in December 1912.

Michigan Central Railroad was a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad, which was owned by rail tycoon William Vanderbilt. For the new station and office building — one fitting for the growing city it served — the railroad turned to the architects Warren & Wetmore of New York and Reed & Stem of St. Paul, Minn. The architectural firms had teamed up on the Grand Central Terminal in New York. Charles A. Reed and Allen Stem were known for their designs of railroad stations, while Whitney Warren and Charles D. Wetmore were considered experts in hotel design, which explains the hotel-like appearance of the building’s office tower. This architectural juxtaposition was not without its critics, as Harold D. Eberlein wrote in The Architectural Record at the time: “The exterior of the Detroit Station presents an extraordinary lack of continuity of conception. Seen from a distance, the casual observer, unless otherwise informed, would never take the two parts of the station to be portions of one and the same building, so utterly different are they. Each part taken separately might be good. Joined together, they are architecturally incongruous.”

But such critics were in the minority, as even during construction, Michigan Central Station was an object of great civic pride. The design reflected a return to classicism and romanticized transportation. The station created a majestic setting for passengers, many of whom had come to associate train stations with soot, smoke and noise. And the sheer mammoth proportions of the station was meant to be awe-inspiring and make a statement to travelers about the greatness of the city in which they were arriving and the railroad they were arriving on.

Michigan Central Station, or MCS as it is often called, consists of a three-story train depot and an eighteen-story office tower. It is made up of more than eight million bricks, one hundred and twenty-five thousand cubic feet of stone and seven thousand tons of structural steel — plus another four thousand tons in the sheds. The foundation has twenty thousand cubic yards of concrete. When the building opened, it was the tallest railroad station in the world, and the fourth tallest building in Detroit. The railroad invested a total of $16 million (nearly $332 million today) on the new station, office building, yards and the underwater rail tunnel, which was inaugurated on Oct. 16, 1910. The price tag for the station alone was about $2.5 million ($55 million today).

The depot was to be formally dedicated on Jan. 4, 1914, but a fire that started at 2:10 p.m. on Dec. 26, 1913, rendered the old depot unusable and forced MCS to be rushed into service early to avoid a disruption of service. And rushed into service was an understatement: Newspapers reported at the time that within a half hour after officials were certain the old station was doomed, arrangements were made for trains to start using the new one. At 5:20 p.m., the first train left the new station for Saginaw and Bay City, Mich.; an hour later, the first train arrived, having steamed in from Chicago.

“Before the firemen had uncoupled the hose at the old place, trains were running into and out of the new station,” the Tribune marveled at the time. “It was a signal achievement, efficiency of the highest possible standard, and inside of 24 hours after the clock in the old tower tumbled to the ground with the rest of that structure, things were moving as though nothing had happened.”

The headline on the Detroit Tribune story on Dec. 28, 1913, read: “Walls of Historic Structure Still Hot From Flames While Trains Roll into $2,500,000 Depot, One of Finest in Country.” Because of the fire, the dedication of Detroit’s new station was canceled. “The new station was aglow, not with fire as was the old one some hours previous, but aglow with thousands of electric lights which glimmered high above the one and two story dwellings,” the article said. “The crunching of frozen pavement, as taxicabs hurried travelers to the new station, and the noise of automobile horns gave the neighborhood an air of commercial growth to which it has been looking forward to for some months past. Moving vans, which had been plying between the new station and the old, and various furniture and fixture establishments helped swell the tide of traffic. … The story of the new station’s opening on a half hour’s notice would hardly be believed. ….

“Thus the new station stood last night, lights shining from windows high above the building line in the neighborhood, a sentinel of progress and a monument to the old depot which burned, as well as a marker to the railroading of today.”

The first ticket sold at the new terminal was paid for with “a bright new $20 gold piece” from a passenger from Bay City, Mich., the Tribune reported. The first “lost article” in the depot was a poodle named Tessie, who got away from her owner on Dec. 27, 1913, when she was allowed to romp around the station while they waited for their train. The pooch was found in the outer gallery way playing with the taxi chauffeurs. “Needless to say, she was soundly ‘spanked’ before being returned to her basket,” the Tribune said.

A temple of transportation

As one would walk into the building’s centerpiece, the main waiting room, with its marble floors and soaring, its 54½-foot ceilings echoed with the sound of a bustling city on the move. The waiting room was modeled after the public baths of ancient Rome and stretches the length of the building. Covered by Guastavino tile vaults divided by broad coffered arches, the waiting room was decorated with marble floors, bronze chandeliers, gargantuan 68-foot Corinthian columns, and three arched 21-by-40 foot windows flanked by four smaller windows ornamented with lovely wrought iron grilles. “The grandeur of the interior is something that will be lasting, for it is of marble, brick and bronze, all of this is set off by one of the best lighting schemes ever installed in a building,” the Free Press wrote in December 1913.

Travelers would enter from Roosevelt Park into the building’s centerpiece, the main waiting room. Walking through bronze doors with mahogany trim, they’d be surrounded by cream-colored brick, marble finishes and massive soaring arches. There are 14 marble pillars set against the walls and at the entrance to the concourse. The depot itself, which held the ticketing offices, main waiting room, the restaurant and other facilities, was only 98 feet tall. The waiting room is 97 feet wide and 230 feet long. Its arched ceiling is 65 feet high.

“Everybody knows that Michigan Central Station was magnificent,” said William M. Worden, the city’s retired director of historic designation. “But for some of us, the first impressions were when we were 4 feet tall or less. … To a 10-year-old, those huge spaces seemed big as the universe; you got a stiff-neck from being a rubber neck.”

Beyond the waiting room, you could buy your ticket from one of the many ornate ticket counters, or walk down the 28-foot-tall arcade to visit a newsstand, drugstore, cigar shop, or barbershop. At either end of the waiting room were additional lounge areas, including a mahogany-paneled men’s smoking room with a coffered ceiling and a women’s reading room illuminated by Italian globes.

“It was the most beautiful station in the country outside of New York or Chicago – a feather in the city’s cap!” Wihla Hutson, whose father was a Michigan Central Railroad conductor, told the Free Press in 1982. “You’d have thought you were in Buckingham Palace.”

In addition to the arcade and waiting room, the station featured a restaurant with vaulted ceilings, a main concourse with copper skylights, and a lunch counter. There also were bathing facilities, where travelers could freshen up or get a shave before getting on the next train, and facilities where they could send telegrams, buy postcards to send home, or make telephone calls. At the west of the waiting room was the restaurant, featuring marble counters and floors of Welsh quarry tile. The main concourse had nearly 20 skylights and huge windows providing tons of natural sunlight. There were 10 gates, so there “will be no need for crowding.” the Tribune noted. As a passenger entered the gates, he or she would go down an incline toward the train sheds. “Passengers cannot take the wrong train, neither do they run a chance of being injured by crossing tracks when they attempt to board trains.” The office tower had more than 500 offices for the railroad’s business functions, such as auditors, personnel and other departments. The passenger auditors alone took up the entire seventh floor. Initially, the railroad’s various departments filled seven of the floors, making it a “beehive of industry,” the Free Press wrote Dec. 31, 1913. The railroad also intended not only to accommodate every rail line running into Detroit, but also planned on leasing office space to their competitors, such as the C&O, Toledo & Ironton and the rival Pennsylvania. The tower’s halls are lined with white marble wainscoting and terrazzo floors.

The eastern side had the streetcar entrance. The western side had the carriage entrance, later used for taxis. It had a one-floor underground parking garage. The customs offices were along the eastern side of the underground passageway. Immigration bureau offices and detention rooms were under customs.

“During the forties, I took many a train ride to New York state, and also to Chicago in the other direction,” said Ray Downing, a 73-year-old retired Detroit police officer now living in Henderson, Nev. “Trains fascinated me as a kid, so each trip was a treasure to me. It seems like we usually arrived at the depot not too far in advance of the departure time. Far different from getting to the airport two hours in advance of flight time now. Maybe there was time to get a magazine from the newsstand, but there was never enough time to grab a bite at the lunch counter in the back. Then through the gates and down the ramp that led to the stairs up to the track levels. … Up the stairs and into the wonderful smell of steam and coal smoke.”

At the beginning of World War I, the peak of rail travel in the United States, more than two hundred trains left the station each day and lines would stretch from the boarding gates back to the main entrance. In the 1940s, more than four thousand passengers a day used to cram the cavernous waiting room and fill its 24 hardwood and mahogany-finished benches into the 1940s; more than three thousand people worked in its office tower. Seven days a week, nearly every hour of the day, trains chugged and whistles shrieked at the station. Among those who arrived at MCS were Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt, actor Charlie Chaplin and inventor Thomas Edison. Henry Ford traveled into MCS from New York riding The Detroiter — and he rode in style in his own private car, “The Fairlane.” Baseball teams would arrive or leave victorious or not. Many Detroiters serving in the wars would leave from MCS; many of them would be welcomed home there.

“Michigan Central was a bustling, dynamic train station” when Melvin Larson arrived in Detroit in 1952. He recalled in a September 1997 letter to the editor in the Free Press that “there was a constant subdued roar of crowds and public address announcements resounding from the high, vaulted ceilings.”

Former Free Press reporter Bill McGraw first took a train out of MCS in the late 1950s, when he was about six or seven years old: “I can still remember the large waiting room, or hall, and the sturdy-feeling marble, and how vast it felt, and how busy it was, even though I doubt the bustle was as great as it had been in, say, the 1940s. I clearly remember how everyone seemed to be very purposeful; they seemed to know where they were going. I remember a loud speaker, but I can’t say I remember what it was saying.”

What that loud speaker would be hollering were the names of distant lands: “Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and all points east now boarding” or “Train No. 3 now leaving on Track 10 for Chicago.” Everyone would hurry toward the gates and down wide marble ramps toward the billowing, huffing trains with fantastic names like The Twilight Limited, The Mercury, The Motor City Special and The Wolverine. “It was exciting when the ticket-taker rolled back the iron gates in the center of the rear wall of the concourse and people began to file through,” Worden said. “The gates opened to a ramp which led down to a concourse under the tracks with stairs left and right leading up to the platforms.”

Beginning of the end

However, passenger trains soon fell into a major decline with competition from government subsidized highways and intercity airline traffic. Following the war, a portion of the restaurant was partitioned off to add a kitchen. A drop ceiling was added, hiding the lovely vaulted ceilings of caen stone. The restaurant was renamed the Mercury Room after The Mercury, billed as the “Train of Tomorrow,” that ran out of the depot starting in 1936.

Even in the 1950s, rail depots were being abandoned because of the decline in business. In 1956, the New York Central System offered MCS — then known as New York Central Station — and 405 other passenger stations up for sale to cut costs and rid itself of extra depots it did not need. The asking price? $5 million, the equivalent of $40 million today. There were no takers, and the depot continued to limp along. Passenger lines were canceled left and right. The massive waiting room was closed April 1, 1967, and many of its grand walnut benches were sold for a mere $25 each. The flower shop and other amenities vanished. While MCS had been getting about four thousand passengers a day in 1945, that number had dwindled to about one thousand at that point; the entire NYC system carried 78 million people in 1945 and only 25 million twenty-two years later. After the waiting room closed, people were confined to the space in front of the gates or in the concourse, and the majestic waiting room was used for storage. The restaurant and main entrance were closed. The building was hanging on by a thread at that point.

When the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads merged to form Penn Central in early 1968, the depot became known as Penn Central Station. But the merged rail company declared bankruptcy only two years later, the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history at that point.

In 1971, the federal government formed Amtrak, which took over MCS that year, though the rail service was struggling at the time. Still, the 1973 oil crisis gave train travel a boost, and Amtrak set out on a plan to clean up MCS and modernize it. More than $1 million was spent, and alterations to the ticket windows and adding a bus terminal were among the changes. A celebration for the formal reopening of the waiting room was held June 20, 1975 – the closest the building ever got to an official dedication. A few months earlier, on April 16, 1975, the station was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The move would not save the terminal, but it has helped to stave off its demolition.

Cleaning of the massive depot continued for a couple of years, the cocoa terra cotta was scrubbed. The Corinthian columns got a wipe down. “It is a thrill to see the old place struggle back to life,” columnist Louis Cook wrote in the Free Press in October 1977. But all the optimism in the world couldn’t counteract the deterioration of America’s intercity rail system. There were fewer than a dozen trains coming and going each day about this time, and fewer than one thousand people working in the depot, running the northern division of the Penn Central railroad.

“In the ’70s, as an adult, I traveled to Chicago by train many times, both for work as a Free Press sportswriter and because I had a girlfriend there,” McGraw recalled. “The station by then — really, only about 15 years later from my first trip — seemed empty and dark and almost spooky. There were few workers and few trains, but if I recall correctly, there were still a number of signs denoting trains that were no longer running. Nobody had taken them down.”

In April 1985, Conrail announced that it would try to sell the station — or abandon it. Amtrak was running six to eight trains a day in and out of the station, said it couldn’t manage the upkeep and would seek smaller quarters. It found a buyer in New York-based Kaybee Corp., and coincidentally, the sale was finalized on the 72nd anniversary of the station’s opening, Dec. 27, 1985. The sale price was undisclosed. Amtrak and Conrail remained as tenants in the “largely vacant and deteriorating building,” the Free Press wrote in January 1986, but was still looking to move because of high utility and maintenance costs. Kaybee landed a new Urban Development Action Grant to convert the station into a $30 million retail and office center. But the $3.25 million in federal money was withdrawn because insufficient progress was being made, and the president of the corporation’s financial credibility had come under fire and was sued by creditors. Perhaps of a sign of things to come, the great clock over the ticket windows had stopped in the mid-1960s at one minute to seven.

Take the last train to Chicagoville

At 11:30 a.m. Jan. 5, 1988, Train No. 353 bound for Chicago became the last train to roll out of the venerable depot. It was just over 74 years after the first steamed in. The big clock in the waiting room, however, said it was one minute to seven. The depot’s size, location on the outskirts of downtown, the rise of the automobile and plane travel and the decline in the city’s population were all working against the station’s survival.

“More than a mere excursion into nostalgia, the shutdown of the Michigan Central Depot should be the occasion of serious reflection about what we once were, what we have lost — and what, given sufficient will, we could regain,” the Free Press wrote in a January 1988 editorial.

Mark Longton Jr. bought the terminal in December 1989, and the pistol-packing real estate developer who tried his best to keep scavengers out for more than a year, come hell or gunfire. He sought to hit the jackpot by reopening the decaying depot, which by this point had no electricity and no heat, as a casino. He envisioned a nightclub dubbed the Midnight Express — after the train that once pulled out of the station — and a hotel carved out of the office tower. But the voters wouldn’t agree to add casinos until 1996, and Longton gave up before the vote came, as he was paying thousands a month in bills.

Throughout the 1990s, Detroit’s monument to the golden age of railroads remained wide open to trespass and looting. During that time, vandals stole anything of value, such as brass fixtures, copper wiring, decorative railings along balconies and staircases, plaster rosettes from the ceiling and marble from walls and the base of columns. Those who didn’t steal found other ways to disgrace it. Nary a window is left intact out of the hundreds that once filled the monstrous building. Inside, graffiti is everywhere, with some tags nearly 15 feet tall and dozens of feet long. Paintball matches were regularly held inside its corridors, splattering neon greens and electric blues all over the yellow brick.

In 1995, Controlled Terminals Inc. of Detroit acquired the building, by then already hit hard by scrappers, and erected a razor wire fence, but the building has been far from impenetrable. The company is owned by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge and a network of trucking companies. He bought it with the idea that it might hold future value with his rail yard.

Gerald “Catfish” Williams, who started living in the abandoned depot after losing his job, told the documentary “Train Station” in 1998 that “the kids from (suburbia) … do the graffiti, then when they get done, if they’re bored they start smashing shit up. Sometimes they just leave. But they come here because they can’t do it out there (in the suburbs). You get caught spray-painting a garage, you’re going to jail, you know? … So they come down here to the inner city, mess everything up, then they go home, ‘Yeah, Detroit sucks. It’s this, it’s that, you know?”

Something old, hoping for something new

City building inspectors have recommended that it be demolished since at least 1994, but such threats stopped in March 2001, that’s when Moroun unveiled a grand plan to restore the station as a cutting edge international trade and customs center. That, of course, never happened, and even at the time, some city officials questioned whether Moroun was just trying to stave off demolition. Estimates at the time were that it would cost $110 million to $300 million to restore the station. The project never happened.

On Oct. 3, 2003, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s office announced he had selected the building to be renovated into the city’s new police headquarters. The waiting room was to become a public space with a restaurant and police museum, and the building, now nearly 100 years old, was found to be structurally sound. In his State of the City address on Feb. 24, 2004, Kilpatrick challenged Detroiters to “dare mighty things” and announced the city had reached an agreement to buy MCS for an undisclosed amount from Moroun. The project was to have cost $100 million to $150 million and taken 18 months.

However, skepticism over the costs given the city’s multimillion-dollar budget deficit and the building’s condition and location far from the city’s courts and jails doomed it almost from the beginning. The city’s auditor general, Joseph Harris, even went so far as to call Kilpatrick’s police plan “a fiscal pipe dream” in a memorandum to the Detroit City Council. “We can’t afford to pay that much for demolition,” Kilpatrick told the Free Press in June 2005. “If you imploded it, the amount of explosives you’d need would probably blow up half of Mexicantown. So what we’re trying to do is make it work.” But his plan was called off that year. Hopes that a symbol of the city’s fall would become a symbol of its rebirth were dashed.

Since then, Moroun has said that until there is a tenant and a deal lined up to develop the property, he will not spend any significant money on preserving it or cleaning it up. For that reason, this once majestic landmark sits as an eerie, debris-strewn monument to Detroit’s decline and decay, 15 years after he bought the building. Other ideas, such as turning it into a casino or a hotel/office complex haven’t materialized either. Though in May 2009, he proposed leasing MCS to the federal government to redevelop into a possible Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection headquarters. So far, the government hasn’t taken him up on his offer.

“I hate being associated with that,” Moroun told the Detroit News in December 2008, said of MCS. “What the hell am I supposed to do with it? I can’t sell it, and I won’t give it away for a dollar. I can’t redevelop it. Who would want to go in there? Nobody. There’s no reason. That’s throwing money to the wind. Can’t tear it down, it’s an historic landmark.”

On April 7, 2009, the Detroit City Council passed a resolution requesting the emergency demolition of MCS at Moroun’s expense. Then-Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. had sought to use $3.6 million in federal economic stimulus money for the plan and then bill Moroun, but the plan was fraught with trouble over the building’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places and more dire needs for the money. Demolition experts also said it would cost $5 million to $10 million to demolish a building of its size and structural integrity. Even though it is privately owned, the city could have used a 1984 city ordinance on demolishing dangerous buildings to raze it. “I want it down now,” said then-Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins, who introduced the resolution. But “the city should have no obligation whatsoever to tear it down.”

Today, the monolith still stands as a towering, heartbreaking testament to the grandness of the time before the automobile – and the way American life changed after it. While it has been allowed to linger for more than twenty years, the time is coming when a decision must be made to save it or knock it down. The station has come to represent all that is the city of Detroit, a towering symbol of decay that cannot be swept under the rug and hidden from visitors. Seeing curious tourists snapping photos of the building is a regular occurrence. MCS is “the first stop for out-of-town journalists trying to get a whiff of Motown’s rusted gears,” Bill McGraw wrote in the Free Press in November 2009. Detroit’s inability to redevelop the depot “reflects its inability to control its image and destiny,” a cracked mirror that Detroiters don’t want to look into. Put simply, if Michigan Central Station cannot be the centerpiece of the city’s rebirth, it should not stand solely as a testament to its decline.

Conversely, if it were to be restored, it would be making a bold statement about the city’s future and preservation of its past. And it’s not like other grand train stations — such as Union Station Kansas City and the Nashville Union Station in Tennessee — have not been resuscitated from abandoned eyesores to gleaming city treasures. But finding the will and the hundreds of millions of dollars such a resurrection would require are formidable challenges in a city with Detroit’s economic and social challenges.

Still, the Moroun family has spent a decent chunk of change in recent years cleaning the depot up, doing asbestos remediation and adding landscaping and architectural lighting. Seeing it lit up at night is truly a breathtaking sight. It instills hope for both the city, and for saving this architectural marvel.

“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,” Free Press editorial writer Jeff Gerritt said in April 2009. “Maybe we need this rotting relic to remind us how far we have fallen, and how far we must travel together.”