Sunday, July 14, 2013

Michigan Central Station

A Beautiful Detroit Treasure

Ravaged by Time and Neglect but Solid

This has been a building that has remained standing although the wear of the years of abandonment and neglect are visible, even from the outside facade. The Michigan Central Station was built in the early 1900's and designed by the same architects of the celebrated, and still operational, Grand Central Station in New York. The Michigan Central Station is a monument to a different time, when trains were the primary mode of transportation and commerce.

One of the windows that flanks the main entrance, chains are attached to open them up for cooling the lobby.

Michigan Central Station Facade
I have always had an interest in this building that probably borders on obsession. In the mid 1990's I was going to school at Wayne State University, pursuing a degree in fine arts, and took some friends up on the offer to tour the building when we should have been attending our drawing class. Apparently it was a rite of passage, according to the professor when he asked us where we were the next day, to skip class and tour the train station. it was accepted and celebrated, as were playing hooky to go to the DIA or some other place to admire objects of beauty.

Michigan Central Station Lobby, facing Southwest.
In those days, it was easier to get into the train station as there wasn't any security and there wasn't a fence of barbed wire surrounding the structure. We simply walked in, not knowing or fully appreciating that in the future things would not be so easy. Even in those days, I wouldn't go as far as to say it was safe but it was an adventure and we were young and carefree. It was a hot day and the air inside the building was stuffy and overbearing. There were remanants of grander days still evident at that time. If you went up to the 7th floor or above, you could still see panels of thick marble lining the walls. Phones still stood in the bay of telephone booths in the lobby and the benches still stood as sentries. However, neglect and abandonment were apparent. Water had already damaged the plaster and tiles from the soaring ceilings, leaving piles of the materials on the floor among the puddles. Evidence of fires were found on many of the floors, from little fires folks had made to stay warm while they took shelter here. Lower levels were stripped of anything of value.

All that is left of the marble that used to line the halls,
intricately pieced together to form this shape.

Climbing up the roof was a long process with 18 flights of stairs and you couldn't help but feel winded once you reached the top. I remember we discovered a control room in the top of a tower and old train tickets. The stairs were rickety and I recall standing on the very edge, feeling more than slightly precariously balanced, and marveling at the city below my feet. Standing at that precipice was a celebration of the past and the future.

My friends returned to the Train Station often so I guess my obsession was not quite on par with some of my classmates. They explored the basement at all its levels and even slept on the roof one night to watch the fireworks on the Detroit River. Apparently I was not as adventurous. I had seen the building and loved it but did not have a need to return day after day as there were other things to explore and experience.

From inside the ticket booth, looking east.
In the mid 90's Raves were the late night parties of choice. Often held in abandoned buildings they Bankle Building on Woodward often, and other sites across Detroit, including one infamous night in a meat packing plant in Eastern Market. These events were promoted in an underground fashion, by word of mouth, and took place in the early hours of the morning. We would start out the evening in places like St. Andrews and the State Theater (now the Filmore) and then find out where the rave would be later that night. We used to go to the Then in 1993 a Rave was scheduled to happen in the actual train station and the news went viral . . . rumors flew, MTV would be there, it was expected to be a huge event, etc. etc. Sadly the Fire Marshall shut it down almost immediately and I never did get to visit the train station with the bright lights and strobes. that would have smoothed out the scars of the neglect and abuse.

Fast forward a few years. I went to grad school, got a real job, got married and started the pretenses of an adult life. It had been years since I was able to devote multiple hours to art and I wanted to return to it, in some form of media, if not metalsmithing which had been my passion (replace with "devotion") in college. I began exploring more digital forms of photography and took a course at the local community college and discovered a new means of expression. I traded in my old SLR camera for a new digital camera and learned Photoshop.

Of course, venues to photograph came up. The train station was mentioned but now it was a little more difficult to get in as a fence surrounded the property but it was not impossible. However, there were horror stories of camera being taken at gunpoint and I wasn't sure I could justify at that point in my life doing things like that even if I wanted to return.

The building itself seemed to have a renaissance if not a restoration. There remained interest in the building by many and every so often I would find an old print of the building or a book that spoke of its former grandeur. I was not the only one that thought of the building as a beautiful monolith as evidenced by those who became urban explorers who braved the challenges to take images of the ruins. It was celebrated when it became a backdrop for a chase scene in the Transformers movie. 

The building remained visible and prominent in both traveling by on the way to or back from other adventures, as well as in my mind. I wanted to go back but it was not possible. Until more recently. . .

Every year we drag our kids to some destination and take a bunch of photos for the annual Christmas card. Yes, I partake in that tradition and it started years ago when the kids were both small. Yes, I know there are a lot of people that do it and it's kind of lame but it's a once a year thing and is a milestone every year. We try very hard to make the photos a little different and pick a new place every year. There has been the local train station in our own hometown, a vintage truck, and the kids sitting on Santa's lap warped and superimposed on our own ornament hanging off our Christmas tree one year. One day I plan on taking all of the images and putting them together in a multi panel frame as it really marks a definitive passage of time and growth. For Christmas 2012, we went to Michigan Central Station and while you couldn't get in, the facade itself held promise. Tall grass had been planted across the street and made for a beautiful foreground while Christmas lights in the shape of snowflakes hung in the large windows.

Inside, looking out, main entrance.
I must have mentioned it in passing but I verbalized to my husband that I wanted to go inside. He had heard about the train station for years and my adventures but I think it might have been the first time that I said I was going to try and figure out how to get in there again. It wasn't totally out of left field, as photography had become an important hobby for me and we had traveled both near and far for images in the past few years, including many local jaunts to Detroit to capture shots that included neglect and abandonment. In any event, I say a lot of things and I can't recall exactly.

My husband apparently heard me and worked to make the my "dream come true". A photo from our Christmas card shoot was hanging framed in his office and one of the guys my husband does business with mentioned that he was working on the restoration of the building. Long story short, my husband coordinated with this individual to get me into the train station one day this summer. "Coordination" probably doesn't cut it as it really was a few people that worked together to make that happen. It was a spur of the moment thing after it was arranged and I met the contractors by the station and was allowed past the barbed wire.

Facing East, to the right is where you would catch the train.
I thought that I would only be permitted to view the lobby and was grateful for this opportunity whatever the limits and boundaries. I was given a hard hat and a reflective construction vest (what a sight to see - I'm glad there are no pictures for blackmail) and started snapping away. I think they must have wondered about me, laying on the floor for better angles, switching lenses and hauling that backpack. . . Then one of the gentleman I was with asked me if I would like to have a tour.

I did not anticipate that they would explore the whole building with me, all the way up the top level of the main part of the building (the office towers have stairs that are too rickety to travel at this point). It was a HOT day, and the air does not circulate in the building. By the time we made it to the top floor of the main part of the structure we were all soaking with sweat but it was worth it.

Signs of Work
To rebuild sometimes you have to destroy, or in this sense at least do some demolition. I recently read a book which mentioned the Indian deity of Shiva, who creates rebirth through tearing things down to rebuild in a purer form.  Everywhere there were signs of the work that was being accomplished. Shovels and cords, ladders and workmen. From what I understand they are clearing floor by floor, shoving debris down a chute that leads to the basement and then it is hauled away. In many ways the building looked to be less damaged that it had almost twenty years ago as the debris was cleared away and a bare structure was often visible with promise of things to come. Bright light streamed though the gaping holes that once held windows and the floors were often bare, devoid of the years of damage that once fell upon them. While the scars were clearly visible it looked cleaner than it had in the past and the foundation to rebuild was there. A blank canvas ready to be redecorated and repurposed. There was talk of restoration, an art gallery, restaurants and living spaces.
Evidence of Rebirth
I fully appreciated the views this time. I completely took in what I was given as a gift to see. While this might seem overly dramatic it's the truth. I savored every minute of my time there and took over 280 shots so I wouldn't miss anything. From these images I edited over 50 of them to mark this day and this time. My hope is one day Michigan Central Station will be completely restored and return to it's former glory, and my photos will serve as a reminder of how things can be saved. I am also hoping it will be a lesson that we must treasure our history and set a policy to care for things before they fall into ruin.

Window framing the Ambassador Bridge to Canada and St. Anne's, looking south.
There are so many interesting articles about Michigan Central Station that can provide you with more information and photos of how it used to look in its heyday.

For more of my photos of my day there please visit my Flckr page.


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    1. Hello Anon
      Thank you for reading my post. There are many articles online about the depot. Unfortunately now a year or do layer it seems work to restore the depot had halted and this gem has again been left to rot.