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Friday, May 22, 2009

Michigan Central Station

UPDATE, March 6, 2010:  The New York Times today has another article with some beautiful photographs of the station.  Debate continues about the fate of this historic building which is slated for the wrecking ball if no one comes up with an alternate use. I found it interesting that the station has over 15,000 fans on some Facebook pages. I hope it survives.

I literally stumbled upon (via Stumble) some achingly beautiful photography by Kevin Bauman. The image below is one of his photos of the Michigan Central Railroad station in downtown Detroit. You can see others at the Behance Network and it is well worth a visit.



The images made me curious about this grand old railroad station. Wikipedia has a nice write-up on it here. The station was built in 1913 by the same architectural firms that built Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The main waiting area was designed to replicate a Roman bath house with grand ceilings and walls of marble. It was built some distance from the (then) Detroit downtown to encourage building out to meet the station. Two things happened to defeat those plans. First, the station was built for an era when passengers came and left the station by trolley and interurban electric cars. The station had very limited parking for automobiles. Second, Detroit expanded northward and not towards the station, leaving it marooned in the less trafficked part of the city.

Railroad passenger trains are virtually gone now except in the Northeast Corridor. The last Amtrak train left the Michigan Central Station on January 6, 1988 and the building was closed that same afternoon. During the 1990's, the station was heavily vandalized and was gutted by thieves looking for materials to sell. It is now owned by the same company that owns Detroit's Ambassador Bridge. Virtually every plan to restore the station has fallen through and just within the last month, the Detroit City Council asked for emergency funds of $3.6 million, not to preserve the building but to tear the old station down (even though it was placed on the National Historic Building registry in 1975). A gentleman in Detroit sued the city to block the demolition of the building and that is where things stand at the moment.

I can't help but think of the contrast between the fate of this beautiful old station and the busy and prosperous Grand Central Station. The comparison is as stark as the comparison between Detroit and New York City. Detroit was built by the automobile. Ford's town. General Motors and Chrysler, too. With all the terrible automotive news of late, a betting person probably wouldn't put much money on the revival of the auto industry...or Detroit.

Another interesting look at the station just before it started to go downhill can be seen on this YouTube video taken in 1987. It gives you some idea of how beautiful the station was even late in its active life.



Time passes and technology changes. The architecture that served that technology passes with it. Still, there is beauty in the past and perhaps a way will yet be found to save the old station. We can hope.

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