Detroit’s Michigan Central Railroad Station

Detroit’s beautiful Michigan Central Station is in the local news again suggesting the building may be renovated and re-opened.  According to WJR-AM Radio, the Chamberlain Glass and Metal Company of St. Clair, MI has been contracted to replace the over 1,000 windows in building.  Electricity is back on in parts of the building and an elevator has been repaired or replaced.

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.”