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It was 27 years ago today that the final train pulled out of Michigan Central Station in Detroit. In the years that followed, the once-proud symbol of Detroit's grandeur became one of its most notorious symbols of decay.
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 train steamed in.
The depot's size, location on the outskirts of downtown -- and more importantly, the rise of the automobile and plane travel and the decline in the city's population -- had worked against the station's survival. It has been owned by billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge, since 1995.
But long before becoming a scrapper's meal ticket or a vandal's canvas, the grand depot was the tallest train station in the world when it opened, and it was a proud, towering symbol of the city's progress. It was Detroit's Ellis Island, where many generations of Detroiters first stepped foot into the city for factory jobs. And for 75 years, the depot shipped Detroiters off to war, brought them home, took them on vacation and sent them off to visit Grandma.
So where did the depot's story begin? Well, I chronicled its history for the landmark's 100th birthday back in December 2013. You can read the whole story here, but here are the Cliff's Notes:
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 two firms had teamed up on the Grand Central Terminal in New York.
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 Michigan Central 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 Detroit 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."
It was proof that nothing stops Detroit.
But that doesn't mean nothing couldn't stop the depot.
After the depot closed in 1988, it quickly fell prey to vandals and thieves, and its dearest features were yanked out, including the chandeliers, brass fixtures, decorative balcony railings, elevator ornaments and the great clock once mounted over the ticket windows. Urban explorers poured in to venture through the massive interior and snap photos to post online. It became the poster child of urban decay in Detroit -- if not the country.
Yet engineers have deemed the station's underlying structure to be intact.
Many ideas have been floated on what to do with the old hulk, including a 2001 proposal by Moroun to make the station an international trade and customs center and a 2003 plan by then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for the building to become the new Detroit police headquarters.
None of the ideas panned out. The sticking point is always the estimated price for such a massive redevelopment. And the price range is as sizable as those estimates: $100 million to $300 million.
The market currently won't support the high rents that would be required to recoup the renovation costs. Even in the building's glory years, there were not enough tenants to completely fill an office tower of its size in that part of town. But there is no shortage of folks clamoring for the depot to be spared the wrecking ball.
The Morouns say they have been tidying up the depot the last few years, removing asbestos, installing windows and securing it from trespass. They say they're going to restore power to part of the building and install a freight elevator, presumably to aid in the installation of windows.
The goal is to spruce-up the landmark and to protect what's left for the day when redevelopment is possible.
Will that day ever arrive? That remains to be seen, but a number of Detroit's other sleeping architectural giants have been awakened in recent years -- the Broderick Tower, David Whitney Building, Book-Cadillac and Fort Shelby hotels, among them.
It is proof that Detroit's historical architecture is an asset as the city stages its latest comeback. The question is whether we can find a way to match that will.
This article first appeared on www.freep.com
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