For several decades, millions passed through Motor City’s majestic rail station which served as a portal to America’s heartland. But as the auto-industry slumped and the local economy collapsed, the station saw less and less traffic. Since the last train left in 1988, the once-regal station has come to symbolise Detroit’s economic woes and has become a favourite canvas for graffiti artists. But mysterious plans are now in the works to renovate the building, starting with the replacement of over 1,000 blown-out windows.
Standing at 18-stories tall and with all of its windows blown out, the gigantic Michigan Central Station has come to represent Detroit’s rise to industrial greatness and long, painful fall into economic depression. “No other building exemplifies just how much the automobile gave to the city of Detroit – and how much it took away,” writes Dan Austin in his book Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins. Today it is one of Detroit’s most prominent eyesores, and a barbed-wire fence has been erected to keep out the vandals and scrappers that plagued the building in the decades since it closed.
For many people seeking a new life and fortune in the region’s booming manufacturing sector, these marble archways were amongst their first sights upon arriving from points east. The building opened in late 1913 and acted as a gateway to America’s industrial heartland. “Looking south-east from main waiting room toward ticket lobby,” reads text printed on the back of this photograph. “Huge arches that make up ceiling of waiting room are Guastavino type. They were formed by system developed by Rafael Guastavino, a Catalan engineer who modernized traditional tile vaulting. The arches are shell constructions of thin tile and strong mortar. Circa 1916,”
Signs advertising the various train services offered by the station – the Ambassador, the Detroiter, the Empire State Express, Canadian Pacific summer vacation – hung above people queuing to board trains in this undated photograph. For many travellers, these gates were the last barrier to cross before being whisked away on holiday. For many others, these wrought-iron fences were an important threshold between home and the battlefield. The need to transport soldiers during World War II brought an increase in ticket sales, which were needed after budgets for luxurious train travel were cut during the Great Depression, writes Michelle Kruz in Detroit and Rome: Building on the Past.
In this crooked photograph, cars wait to take dealers from the station to the Chalmers Motor Company sales convention in November 1915. The automobile industry is synonymous with Detroit, and brought the city tremendous wealth for the first half of the 20th Century. However, as the appeal of train travel gave way to the desire for the open road – largely behind the wheel of a car manufactured in this very city – the station began to see a long steady decline.
By the middle of the century, people in the Detroit area enjoyed a higher rate of home ownership and a higher median income than residents in any other major US city. But over the next few decades, the automotive industry began to collapse and drag the region down with it. At the station, the grand waiting room – seen above being used to store boxes – was closed for several years beginning in 1967 and the benches were sold for as little as $25 USD (£16.11), according to Mr Austin. The energy crisis of the 1970s and the economic recession in the 1980s only served to further weaken the automobile industry and send the local economy into a tailspin. Train 353, bound for Chicago, left the station at 11:30 a.m. on 5 January 1988 – marking the last voyage from the soon-abandoned building.
For more than two decades since its closing, the Michigan Central Station was vulnerable to trespassers, scrappers and vandals. Almost all of the windows have been punched out and shattered. Ironically, the station’s dereliction has caught the eye of several filmmakers, who have used it as a dilapidated backdrop for films like Transformers and 8 Mile. As one of the most dramatic reminders of Detroit’s collapse, Michigan Central Station raised eyebrows when, in 2013, a handful of seemingly-randomly selected windows – seen above – were replaced with no explanation given. Residents have been teased for years by developers and officials with plans and promises to renovate the building. At times they have been told that it would be turned into a casino or a trade centre, only to never see the ideas materialise.
Despite all the setbacks, new hope has been given to this behemoth station. In recent days, the wealthy and private Moroun Family, who own the station, announced plans to replace the windows. While the ultimate goal for the building is not publicly known, optimists believe the improvements could be a concrete step towards restoration of the building.