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.
My buddy Jason and I almost went into the Michigan Building parking lot while we were exploring downtown but didn’t end up going inside. I’d seen it on Detroit 1-8-7, a rather average cop show that I nevertheless loved because it filmed on location in Detroit.
It’s a city I’ve read extensively about and have now visited twice. And even in just 5 years, downtown is even more vibrant than it was before. Construction and renovations seem to be on every block and the new light rail is quite popular. Not to mention, downtown really feels quite safe and very clean.
It’s the neighbourhoods betwixt downtown and the ‘burbs that are sketchy, but even then I wasn’t too scared. Most of those neighbourhoods are so bereft of people, sometimes with only a few houses left standing on a city block, that you don’t feel like anyone would jump you. And the houses that are still occupied, many of them are well-maintained and occupied by happy, hard-working families who like to chill on their porches in the evening–even if across the street, there’s a burnt out or boarded up house.
Detroit never ceases to fascinate me. It has so much character and a rich past, so I absolutely understand why it’s one of your favourite cities in the US. It’s one of mine too.
Great selfie, by the way.
I did actually want to branch out and see different areas outside the immediate downtown area, but was working with some time constraints, including an overnight trip back to Flint. I definitely want to try to hit Baker’s Keyboard Lounge near 8 Mile the next time, which is billed as the world’s oldest operating jazz club. Detroit has such a rich musical history. I’m always surprised to discover that another recent, old-school jazz discovery hailed from Detroit
Most cities that sprang up in the 20th century have bland architecture, but Detroit built tons of gorgeous structures in that time frame. And, yes, Detroit is much older than that, but the majority of what you see came along with the rise of the car business.
Gorgeous building presented beautifully through the lens of Joseph. Yet to add this blue Charger to my collection. Love that Supremes tune.
Thank you for the good words, friend!
Great piece of urban car-chaeology, Joe. Here’s the latest piece in my miniature MoPaR fantasy garage. It’s a 1/18th scale 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance.
Gene, that D’Elegance is a beauty. I would have loved to take some B&W shots of that one in some cool locale!
Thanx, Joe. The good news is it’s still available….
….and (as you probably know) the full sized car still exists and has been known to make occasional appearances at various concours’.
A ’69 Charger always looks good, but the parking garage (likely the most ornate in North America?) does tend to upstage this terrific Dodge. The repurposing aspect appeals to me greatly.
It’s good to see Detroit on the rebound. A story I’ve told, but was hesitant to broadcast too much while at the meet up, was about my last trip to the Renaissance Center area in 2000 and the prior in 1997. Gunshots, prostitutes being arrested, being passed by a cab driving about 35 mph on the sidewalk, and another cab driver who had been shot – much has changed since then, and it’s greatly toward the good.
With many years of cities sprawling outward in much of this country, with the old parts often left to decay, it’s good to see fortunes turning and from what I saw Detroit exemplifies that.
Joe, thanks for this – it was a great read.
I actually stayed at the Marriott at the Ren Cen for the meetup, and I have nothing but great things to say about the experience. There was a street festival in the park next to the complex (I think the Armenian American festival), and everybody seemed very friendly and festive – a 180 from the sordid scene you described from about 20 years ago.
To be clear, though, when I went to the Detroit Auto Show in 2000, I remember it seeming much more like what you described. Thanks for providing some historical, firsthand perspective in terms of how far things have come.
I agree with both of you – things have improved a lot over the years in Detroit. My sister went to Wayne State and lived in an apartment building on E. Jefferson between the tunnel and Belle Isle in the early 90s. I remember the streets being deserted in the day, and gunshots at night. One thing she learned early on is to leave her car doors unlocked – that way, no damage is caused when it’s inevitably broken into!
I drove through downtown after the Saturday dinner that weekend (and was apparently spotted by Mr Dennis 🙂 ) and I was very impressed. It has been a few years since I’ve been down there, and don’t remember ever seeing that many people, who clearly were in Detroit because they wanted to be there.
Joseph, I like the photos a lot. An interesting trick for that sort of shot is to use a lens with a pinhole aperture. This gives an almost infinite depth of field, so the miniature and the real background are all in focus.
Dan, I did indeed see you in your Chrysler driving past Campus Martius Park when I was exploring the area Saturday night! I was kicking myself for not bringing my actual camera in that night, as when you drove by, I saw frame after frame I could have snapped and sent to you.
I did, actually, try to get some shots of the Charger in Aperture-priority mode – lighting wasn’t great in there, and I had the caffeine jitters. :).
Goosebumps. Fantastic. ‘Nuff said.
Thank you so much, MTN.
A great read, Joe! It is a shame there was not time to get so so many of the great places in Detroit-proper. Oh well, I guess I’m not that far away, am I.
This is one place I did not know about, so thanks for telling its story.
Thanks, JP. I may be in your neck of the woods in the next couple of weeks to tour the Studebaker Museum, if I can just “pull the trigger” and commit to join the group that’s going. 🙂
You do need to go see that, it is a very nice museum. You will be surprised by the scope of their collection of horse-drawn vehicles, some of which are really impressive. If you have time there is also the Oliver Mansion right behind it, which is the family home of the inventor of the Oliver Chilled Steel Plow. It is a real time capsule of a turn of the 20th century mansion, complete with furnishings.
A good read, and really cool photography. You definitely have an eye for the right background and the skills to pull off the shots.
I wouldn’t have passed up that model either. A Charger in blue? Sold! Especially since it has Cragars on it rather than cheesy gaudy blinged out replica dubs. Ive passed on more than one otherwise awesome model car just because ugly/incorrect wheels kill the visual appeal for me…whether on a model or the real thing, the same principle holds true.
Thanks, MoparRocker74 – I will say that the period-correct Cragars were the icing on the cake. I’m not sure if it comes through in the photos, but the blue paint is actually metallic-flecked. Just a really vibrant-looking hue. IIRC, it’s part of the Maisto “Premiere” series (?). Great bang for the buck.
Love the photography and the imagination expressed here, Joe! I now wish I had remembered the Michigan building from your previous post and paid a visit myself to see the elaborate architectural detailing in a “mere” parking garage.
I too spent some time downtown on Sunday afternoon after the meetup and was very impressed with the vitality and vigor on display. The contrast to my previous visit on a bitterly cold morning in January 2009 could not have been greater, and not just because of the weather: things have really turned around from the recessionary low.
This time, I met a group of young German tourists for whom Detroit was the highlight of their 3-week U.S. visit. They asked directions to the iconic Packard factory, which is a staple of so many urban “ruins porn” photos that I was able to readily identify the building and find it on Google maps for them.
Thanks, William! This one was fun to photograph and write. It almost didn’t happen, as I was on the fence about doing a “side project” the weekend of the meetup.
An acquaintance just returned from Detroit, and she was gushing about what an amazing time she had. It seems the Motor City is definitely roaring back. It makes me happy to read about people’s great experiences in an area that has been through such tough times.
I was really hoping to be able to catch up to the crew on Saturday. Sadly, wasn’t able to figure out what the plans were after the Heritage Museum fell through.
Maybe next time…
I do hope at least some of us have a chance to meet again in Detroit. The Motor City just seems like such a perfect place for a car-based group like CC.
As always, great pictures Joseph and it was nice to see the magic man behind the camera step out in front of it for a change. Another Detroit “classic” looking cool with the times!?
Thanks, Bill! I figured that since I was already in the group shot from the meetup, people now know what I look like, so I shouldn’t have any issues with including that selfie. 🙂
Interesting post Joseph, I knew about the story behind this and saw the outside of the building a few years back, but did not realise the car park was public! Perhaps next time if there ever is one…
thank you for this informative and well written/photographed article ! .
i hope to one day make a motor city meet & greet .