In hindsight, I should’ve rented a Mustang and photographed it in front of the imposing, monolithic and long-shuttered Michigan Central Station. I didn’t see this coming, though: Ford purchasing a Detroit landmark that has been closed since 1988.
It’s been a long and tortuous journey for the preservation of this landmark, situated in the Corktown neighborhood just outside of downtown Detroit. In 2009, the city council passed a resolution to demolish MCS even though it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
It was spared from the wrecking ball but fans of this stunning Beaux Arts building have continued to be disappointed as plans for its restoration and repurposing have fizzled out, and all the while the building has continued to be stripped and vandalised. Over the years, it’s been mooted as a new police headquarters, a casino, a convention center and a processing center. None of these plans ever eventuated but now, with Ford’s purchase, the station looks set to be returned to its former glory.
Michigan Central Station will be the anchor in a new 1.2 million square-foot campus in Corktown, reaching all the way to another heritage building Ford has purchased, The Factory. The terminal itself will be a mixed-use facility comprising offices, restaurants, shops, and potentially even apartments; floors that have never seen tenants in the building’s history will finally have offices. Ford intends to have 2,500 employees working in the Corktown campus by 2022, primarily in the areas of mobility and autonomous driving. Corktown will serve as one point along a “mobility corridor”, stretching to Ford’s main Dearborn campus and to Ann Arbor.
Ford’s even planning to re-open the main waiting room to the public, a breathtaking space designed to resemble a Roman bathhouse with its vaulted ceilings, extensive use of marble, and imposing columns.
The terminal’s most recent owner, Controlled Terminals, acquired the building in 1996. This company was run by Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge. Under Moroun’s ownership, various improvements were made such as the return of electricity in 2012, and the draining of the flooded basement and the installation of windows in 2015. For the most part, though, the building has been kept in a state of arrested decay.
I first visited MCS in 2012, before windows had been installed. It’s hard to capture in photos just how imposing this 18-story building is. At the time of its opening in 1914, it was the tallest train station in the world. There are no buildings anywhere near as tall for several blocks, thus making MCS look like a bluff monolith jutting out of the relatively flat landscape of Corktown.
As a lover of Detroit and its fabulous architecture, I can’t tell you how much joy it brings me to hear about Ford’s purchase. It’s even greater news for the city of Detroit, a city that seems to have put its worst days behind it. More and more companies are making the Motor City their home and downtown is buzzing with activity, construction and renovation work happening everywhere. Ford is investing heavily in the new Corktown campus and restoring one of the city’s most famous buildings is an awe-inspiring gesture. I look forward to watching the progress of Ford’s restoration work. Empty for years, the building will soon be bustling with people. Once a hub for trains, this grand old building will become a hub for a new generation of transportation.
Bold move, Ford.
This puts me in mind of a similar looking building on the outskirts of downtown Memphis. That building was a Memphis landmark that at some point (or was purpose built) as a warehouse for SEARS.
Hard to believe that this station was built so large, yet had no tenants for it’s upper floors. And I assumed any nearby buildings were just slightly smaller and had been demolished.
This station was built quite a ways from downtown due to the location of the existing tracks and specifically the railroad tunnel to Canada. I suspect they assumed that the central city would grow in that direction, but it didn’t, leaving the station as a lonely giant much like the one in Buffalo NY mentioned below.
I’m not sure if they expected commercial tenants to fill the top floors, or if the empty space was for additional railroad offices in case of future growth that didn’t happen.
A bolder move would be for Ford to figure out how to sell a Corolla or Camry competitor.
Like the Focus or the Fusion?
They’re obviously not selling all that well, eh?
He didn’t say “make”.
Toyota’s having trouble selling the genuine articles. Why bother copying them?
Well, lets see the other side of the coin: was a bold move to give up trying to figure out.
Thanks for this update. This is a fascinating building and sort of a microcosm of Detroit as a whole. Detroit rose as pretty much a one-industry town and prospered for maybe 60 years, and then began a slow decline that seemed to accelerate.
I am happy to hear that Detroit is experiencing the beginnings of a comeback. Ford stepped up as a leading partner of the RenCen a generation or more ago (as I recall) and is now stepping up again with the station. It would be great to see the company grow into it and make it a bustling place of business again.
Back in 1998, I got stranded at the airport in Detroit for about 8 hours when my connecting flight back to Portland got cancelled due to lack of enough passengers. The place was a dump, the few people there were scary, and the bathrooms were full of used needles. But this was pre-9-11, and you could go anywhere, and they had lots of auto industry things on display to see, even Fords dancing magnetic particle logo. Glad to see Detroit making a comeback. But when you hit bottom, you can only go up.
Airlines don’t cancel flights due to “lack of passengers”. Think about it — they still have to fly the plane to Portland anyway, because they were planning to use it to operate some subsequent flight out of Portland.
Regarding the Detroit airport, I’ve heard it was one of the words places to connect at that time. But in the early 2000s Northwest Airlines built a brand new terminal and now it’s probably the nicest airport in the country.
DTW was somewhat seedy in the 90’s, but it’s a very nice airport now.
Sorry, but when I was still flying, back before 9/11, airlines did occasionally cancel…..or if you prefer, consolidate flights when there were not enough passengers. I experienced it at least once.
I hope this all works out for Ford. I’m not terribly optimistic about Ford’s longer-term future, and the stock market seems to think the same way. But then predicting the future is a fool’s errand, so I hope I’m wrong.
Nice to see this building get a second chance.
Ford, the company which bragged about not taking federal bailouts during the 2008 recession, is getting a huge tax break to renovate this building. But kudos to Ford for tackling this monster. Local media has stated that it will take a year to seal up the building and dry it out prior to any construction. Thus the target completion date of 2022.
From my perspective, every time Ford seems to have it made, the downward spiral returns to haunt them even worse. It usually seems as though they were clueless, and then they get it together and soar. All the talk about Ford and “mobility solutions” is a brave new world compared to the business of designing, making, and selling cars. I wish them all well.
Great news! I hope they follow through and are able to restore it and make profitable use of it.
I remember your original story, it was great. I’ve never been there, but still have long had a strange fascination with the town.
I have deep roots in this building going back to 1928 when my father started working in the baggage department. He quickly went upstairs to become a clerk and watched the completion of the Ambassador Bridge. (He rose to middle management). I rode many trains to and from this station.
Despite the Ford cynicism, I am so grateful, I would almost purchase a Ford vehicle.
That’s really cool about your father. Better hurry on buying a Ford if you want a sedan!
Pleased to see this landmark to be rejuvenated especially for the boost it will give Detroit in general. Now, if Ford would apply a similar action and energy to reviving Lincoln.
Buffalo still has its Central Terminal in similar condition, any corporate sponsors want to take it on?
I saw this in the news a few days ago and thought about the irony of an auto company being the savior of a train station.
Having watched this story play out for about 30 years now, I am cautious, but optimistic.
This plan does seem to have more behind it than any of the previous ones, so fingers crossed that I’ll get to set foot in a restored MC station eventually.
Nice post. However how does some Australian guy post about the D? Where is our local guys?
Ahh what ever.
Another lost masterpiece was around the corner: Tiger/Briggs Stadium. I was lucky to catch a game there the year before the Tigers moved across town. There have been a few web sites and books (Lost Detroit) tabulating all the beautiful, crumbling buildings so long ignored in Detroit. Here’s one of them:
Even if I have never been in Detroit, the train station is no strange to me since I have watched many videos about it.
One of my passions is to spot and take pictures of old buildings, they are just fascinating.
I would love to see this one renovated back to its glory and another reason for me to buy a Mustang.
This just posted on FM today. CC karma strikes again. 1950s watercolour.
Correction – FB (facebook). Sorry for the typo. The painting is by Paul Adams.