As of today, it has been just over three, short weeks since the annual Curbside Classic meetup was held in the greater Detroit area. Despite never having met any fellow readers or contributors in person prior to the meetup, more than a few seemed instantly familiar, and I found it fun to match the faces, voices and live personalities of other Curbsiders with some of the posts and comments I had remembered reading.
Being a Michigan native, myself, having grown up about an hour north in Flint, it was important to me to also spend some time alone in the Motor City, which has quickly become one of my favorite cities in the entire United States. With this month’s meetup being my third trip to Detroit in exactly six months, I wanted to take time to see sites I hadn’t before, as well as hitting some of my favorite spots from previous visits. My very first trek into the Michigan Building falls into the former category.
Last February, I had spotted, photographed and written briefly about a ’70 Chevy Monte Carlo I had spotted on Grand River at Bagley, just outside the entrance to this garage. After writing that post and admiring the life-sized, toy-like qualities of that car, I started wondering why I hadn’t budgeted any time to actually go into the Michigan Building. To give you the “Cliffs Notes” version of the story of this magnificent structure, it opened in 1926 and housed both the gorgeous Michigan Theater auditorium and office suites.
The theater featured both “moving pictures” and live entertainment and was successful for decades, but closed in 1976, paralleling Detroit’s fortunes which had been in decline for years by then due to numerous socioeconomic factors. When the Michigan Building’s office tenants had threatened to move out due to an inadequate and unsatisfactory parking situation, the theater was then gutted and a parking garage was constructed inside, leaving an ornate ceiling and some other, neoclassic architectural features in plain view. This structure also happened to be built on the site of the garage where Henry Ford’s car-building legacy had begun.
We CC’ers had visited the Greenfield Village tourist attraction the day before, which is part of the campus of The Henry Ford museum complex in nearby Dearborn, so the Michigan Building was on the brain when I got up the next morning. I had expected to pay maybe five dollars to park there and then photograph away until I got bored (which didn’t happen – I had to force myself to leave this garage to see more of the city), but there was a Tigers home game on this particular Saturday afternoon, so parking cost an extra five. No big whoop. The attendant told me to park anywhere I liked, so I chose the convenience of the bottom floor. It wasn’t hard to navigate the stairwells to get to the top of the parking structure with its superior views of that gorgeous ceiling.
Before I had left Chicago for the weekend, and while buying things for the trip, I had spotted this toy, 1:24-scale, ’69 Charger in the toy aisle for ten bucks. Sold. I’m usually not such a sucker for impulse purchases like this, but with Detroit Fever already pulsing through my veins, I had figured I’d purchase the car and then get some trompe l’oeil (French for “trick of the eye”) shots of the Charger in some unique, Detroit-specific environment.
Once I reached the top floor beneath the auditorium’s still-stunning, plaster ceiling, what I saw took my breath away. The vast, imposing appearance of its broken-yet-beautiful overhead view struck me as previously had a late-night, country sky with myriad constellations twinkling brightly and silently above. Here at the theater was a moment when I remember turning around several times to take it all in. It took me probably five minutes before I realized I wasn’t quite alone up there. There was a white minivan parked up there with some friendly youth in it who were likely headed to the nearby game. When I started going about my business of photographing my model car, they were nice as they walked toward the exit door by the stairwell, as one of them said, smiling, “I see what you’re doing, Man… you’re taking pictures of that like it’s a real car”. Bingo.
I was imagining what being up here might have been like in, say, 1980, when this Charger would have been eleven years old. Would Mopar muscle like this have been toward the top of my shopping list if I was a young, working adult at that time? Probably not. Gas was expensive, inflation was ridiculous, and downtown Detroit was then, from multiple accounts I’ve read, a pretty scary place to spend time. None of that matters right now. When my imagination is at work, I can be just as fantastical in my head as I want to be. Welcome to my daydream…
It was hard while up here not to think about what it must have been like to dress up and see a show here, dressed in black tie as the light refracting through the crystals of the overhead chandeliers glimmered in all different, prismatic colors. Even some ninety years after opening night, and in its current state of frozen decay and destruction (there are tatters of the burgundy stage curtains still in plain view), the auditorium of the Michigan Building still exhibits a certain, regal pride that’s as appropriate, obvious and apparent as could be only in a resurging city like Detroit, with its long and hard-fought history, legacy, and steadily-building comeback.
For just a few minutes while crawling on my belly on the dusty, dirty floor of this garage with my camera, I actually had the keys to this blue Charger, the color of which matched that of my own, pretend, metaphorical collar. Its 375-hp 440 six pack positively roared through its dual exhausts in this giant, cavernous vault of a room, as I revved it in neutral. And I heard a symphony.
Downtown Detroit, Michigan.
Saturday, June 3, 2017.
- From J.P. Cavanaugh: CC Detroit Meetup – A Recap (But Not By Firestone); and
- From me: Miniature CC Capsule: Matchbox Cars – The Gateway Drug.