Detroit's beautiful "Michigan Central Station" ruins "night photography" "art photography"

Alleys & Ruins no. 95, Central Station (2006, Detroit, MI, 12:15am)

Alleys & Ruins no. 95, Central Station (2006, Detroit, MI, 12:15am)

 

Michigan Central Station, built in 1913, was Detroit’s passenger rail terminal until the last train pulled out in 1988. Restoration plans have existed ever since, but none have come close to fruition. In a city as broke as Detroit, it is too expensive to renovate and (luckily) also too costly to demolish.

This beaux-arts classical style building was designed by the same team that designed New York City's Grand Central Terminal. The massive main waiting room on the main floor was modeled after an ancient Roman bathhouse with walls of marble and a high vaulted ceiling. It was and still is a gorgeous building.

I had come to explore this monolith several times with my camera, circling the perimeter looking for a way in, past the fencing that surrounds it. Each time I was seen by police and was told each time to leave, once being asked if I was out of my fucking mind coming here at night. On my fourth attempt, I went with my friend Toko. This tiny Japanese girl was my bodyguard; I managed to squeeze my camera lens through a crack in the fence surrounding the building, and took the shot.

And then it gets ridiculous.

One of my worst faults is my insanely bad memory. After all the effort I make to get this photograph, I forget about the undeveloped negatives sitting at the photo lab, and then I almost lose them forever.

After this night of shooting, I drop the film off to be processed - this one roll of film contained three different locations in Detroit, plus all the work I had done in Nashville a week before (see Alley 93). In the weeks that follow, I continue shooting other night images, dropping those rolls off at the lab, and later picking them up. But this roll is never returned to me, and since I start forgetting I ever shot this stuff, I never ask the lab about it.

Months later I'm in the process of moving to California with Pam. We've shipped most of our stuff, including her car. We load up my van and get in to drive across the country - I just have to drop by the photo lab one last time to pick up my latest roll of film. We have just started our 2500 mile journey when I give the clerk my stub and he comes back with two rolls.

"I found this other roll with your name on it, I guess its your's," he tells me. "I think its been here a while, you might wanna take it."

I open up the package and I see the prints of Central Station and Nashville for the first time, months after having shot them. I groan and want to hit my head with a mallet, but I'm also thrilled - I can't believe my eyes!

 

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Happy Update!

 

In 2018 Ford purchase the building for redevelopment into a mixed use facility. After traffic at Michigan Central Station halted for good in 1988, numerous plans for what could fill the space appeared. However, no ideas for the hulking building in Detroit’s Corktown came to fruition until Ford Motor Co. purchased the former train depot in 2018 and got to work on a project. So many dreams had come and gone over the years with this building, but thankfully Ford has proved itself to be very serious!

Ford took on a massive project when it purchased the iconic, but derelict, Michigan Central Station. The enormous building had been vacant for decades leading to massive structural damage. The first phase of the project saw Ford waterproof the building to prevent water from gaining access to the interior while draining huge amounts of water that had flooded the basements of the building. They then went through every sqaure inch with a fine tooth comb to prepare for the next steps of renovation and reconstruction. They have even started building plaster reproductions to replace all the damaged architectural details. The massive project has a budget of $740 million. Ford sees the campus as integral to its future and to its commitment to Detroit. For now, the facility is set to open in 2023!

The long-derelict train station, once a symbol of the city's downfall, is becoming Detroit's premier revitalization project.

While the station’s revival is becoming more of a reality, for decades its future was uncertain.

The station was still in operation when the main waiting room was closed in April of 1967. Amtrak would later take over the station in 1971, reopen the waiting room and pour more than $1 million into renovating MCS. This renovation included the addition of a bus terminal.

However, train travel was declining, and even the addition of buses couldn’t save the struggling station. It closed on Jan. 5, 1988.

Real estate developer Mark Longton Jr. purchased the building in 1989 with plans to open a casino, however the plan never materialized.

In 1996, Controlled Terminals Inc. bought the station. By this point, it had already been gutted by scrappers.

Then billionaire businessman Manuel Moroun acquired the building, and several ideas were proposed, including a trade processing center, a casino, a new Detroit Police headquarters and a new Michigan State Police headquarters. Again, everything went nowhere.

Moroun also proposed making MCS the Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection headquarters.

The train station almost met its demise in 2009 when the Detroit City Council ordered an emergency demolition of the building. However, it is on the National Register of Historic Places, which it was added to in 1975, and bringing down the building would have cost millions. Thus, thankfully the building remained standing long enough for real plans to finally come to fuition.

 

More info from Ford

Video of future plans

 

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