Tag Archives: Train Station

Detroit: The Train Station

4 Dec

michigan central 185 (1)

Finally…. For years Kris has avoided taking photos of Michigan Central station. It wasn’t that he didn’t love the building, the architecture, the history; he has fond memories of this place. The family vacation to Colorado in ’72, the Freedom Train in ’76, remembering the beautiful castle-like space from his childhood. But it had become the symbol of the death of the city, the ruin porn capitol, an iconic image of Detroit’s decline. Time after time we’d pass by watching the cars with Illinois, Ohio, Ontario license plates snapping photos and selfies out front, propagating the image of Detroit as the graveyard of skyscrapers… Kris, ever the contrarian, was having no part of the cliche’. Today all of that changes, today we’re going inside and for all the right reasons; the station will live again!!

michigan central 003 (1)

michigan central 007 (1)

michigan central 009 (1)

It’s Friday evening Kris and I have the unique opportunity to see a film inside Michigan Central Station (aka the old train station) in Detroit. Ford, History and the Freep Film Fest are hosting a special screening of Detroit: Comeback City inside the building that inspired the film.  The film explores the rise, fall and epic re-birth through a single building; Michigan Central Station. Detroit, once one of America’s richest city’s is now America’s comeback city. After the film we have about 45 minutes for a self-guided tour. I’ve never set foot in the building, I’m so excited!

michigan central 098 (1)

michigan central 183 (1)

michigan central 074 (1)

The temperature tonight is below average–it’s downright cold, an email suggests we bring blankets so I do. Standing in front of the building I am awestruck by the sheer size and grandeur; it’s beautiful. I have never been this close before, walking with my head tipped back I have to be mindful of where I’m stepping, Kris competes with other tourists taking photos. We pass through that grand arch, a smile plastered to my face, we sign waivers and are given packages of hand warmers, I only half-pay attention, the building and the exotic lighting are captivating. Rows of folding chairs are set up in front of a large screen, we sit in the back, there’s no escaping the frigid breeze that blows through giant window openings; I’m glad I brought a blanket. As I wait for the film to start I gaze at my surroundings, all of the rubble from years of decay and vandalism have been removed, a net clings to the ceiling in case a random brick comes loose, architectural details are highlighted by cool LED lighting. The film begins. Sit back and enjoy Kris’s photos while I tell you about MCS.

michigan central 164 (1)

michigan central 100 (1)

michigan central 180 (1)

Michigan Central Station opened in 1913. It was put into service before it was finished; the old train station caught fire, trains were rushed over to the new station where they came and went until 1988. Designed in the Beaux Arts Classical style it was the tallest train station in the world at that time. The main waiting room stretches the length of the building, it was modeled after the public baths of ancient Rome with walls of marble, vaulted ceilings, bronze chandeliers and massive Doric columns. A large hall called an arcade housed a cigar shop, newsstand, pharmacy, barber shop, telephone booths, baths and an info booth. Brick walls and a copper skylight surrounded the concourse, a restaurant was at the far end. Detroit was a thriving city, an industrial powerhouse; this is where it greeted its visitors and new residents.  I’ve looked at a ton of vintage photos; the massive main waiting room, broad coffered arches, the reading room with potted palms, leather chairs and wood-beamed ceiling, white table cloths in the restaurant, light streaming through the grand Palladian window. It made a statement about the city; when you stepped into MCS you knew you were someplace great.

michigan central 043 (1)

michigan central 061 (1)

michigan central 056 (1)

michigan central 150 (1)

Soldiers heading off to forts, boot camps, WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam left from these tracks.   At the beginning of WWI more than 200 trains left the station daily, in the 1940’s more than 4,000 passengers a day passed through its doors. Whatever was going on in the city or the world the activity centered around MCS. Think about it, at one time the majority of autombiles came from Detroit, trains delivered them across the country. When the factories needed workers, trains brought a huge influx of men from the south. Presidents, movie stars, industrialists arrived in the Motor City by train. We were the Arsenal of Democracy, the capital of innovation, the Silicone Valley of the early 20th Century; from the Model T to music there was a feeling there wasn’t anything Detroit couldn’t do. And then it changed. Here we are today; after decades of decline the city not only survived bankruptcy, it’s thriving. It’s only fitting that MCS, which has become a major symbol for the city through both good and bad times will be restored to its original glory.  Ford Motor Company plans to move 2,500 employees into the building which will be Ford’s research campus for autonomous vehicle development and deployment. The main floor will be public space with shops and cafes.

michigan central 069 (1)

michigan central 068 (1)

michigan central 156 (1)michigan central 153 (1)

With my blanket wrapped around my shoulders I follow Kris’s lead through the main floor of the building, I feel minuscule in the space. Historic photos explain what we are seeing, for the most part each area is still defined; the arcade with its inset spaces, the ticket windows, the restaurant. Much of the detail remains, surprising considering rain, snow, explorers and vandals have trespassed the building for 3 decades. The roof over the concourse has been removed, yesterdays rain lays in puddles on the floor, the brick walls are intact.  Volunteers are positioned throughout to answer questions, I enjoy listening to people telling their stories about the building; coming to see the Freedom Train, the trips they took or coming to pick up a relative, there are great emotional ties to the building. I stand off to the side to take it all in, just seeing the people here tonight it’s easy to imagine excited travelers arriving and departing. When it was announced that Ford purchased the building an anonymous caller told them where they could find the iconic clock that he had been ‘safekeeping’, there have been more than 2 dozen calls offering the return of a historic fountain, a plaster medallion and light fixtures, no questions asked. It’s a weird thing, somehow we Detroiters feel like the building belongs to all of us.

michigan central 089 (1)

michigan central 093 (1)michigan central 082 (2)

michigan central 024 (1)

We’re having dinner at Rocco’s Italian Deli in the Cass Corridor. The red-brick building has a parking lot on the side, very convenient. The interior is one big open space in white with concrete floors, open ceiling, retro lighting and table or counter seating. A pantry area features dry pasta, canned tomatoes, vinegar, oils and crackers. Refrigerated cases are filled with cured meats, cheeses and olives, the chalkboard menu is filled with delicious sounding sandwiches and salads. We sit at the counter and place our order, I’m having a glass of the house red wine to help warm me up. The chicken noodle soup is set in front of me, there’s nothing like a good bowl of soup! Kris digs into the Chop Chop Salad; cubes of cucumber, tomato, beet, garbanzo’s and carrot tossed in house balsamic, the veggies have a nice crunch, it’s delicious. The Breast Chicken Parm sandwich is a fried chicken cutlet topped with tasty marinara, mozzarella and grated parm on the perfect Italian bread, it’s so good. Easy parking, fast and friendly service and excellent food, a nice addition to the city.

michigan central 201 (2)

michigan central 197 (1)

michigan central 191 (1)

Willis Show Bar opened on the corner of Willis and Third in 1949. The facade of the building is burgundy and pink with a great curved entrance. It opened in the glitzy show bar era of live entertainment and Jazz, it was a Detroit hot-spot. Same old story; neighborhood declined, bar turned seedy, padlocked in 1978. Investors from California partnered with the Detroit Optimist Society to breathe new life into the old building. Upon our arrival we are greeted by the official doorman, the entryway is a wood-paneled circular space with a terrazzo floor, a big “W” sits in the middle. The waiting area is closed off from the main space by a thick velvet curtain, we pay our $7 cover charge, get handed glasses of champagne and are led into the bar. I love it.

michigan central 228 (1)

michigan central 210 (1)

michigan central 208 (2)

The only thing left of the original interior was the curved Art Moderne ceiling which has been completely restored, the new bar follows the same curves as the ceiling, the elevated main stage rests snugly behind the bar. One long banquette runs nearly the length of the bar with tables pulled up in front, a second level of booths sit against the back wall; every seat faces the stage. The band starts their set and suddenly it’s 1949 again; the decor, the music, the craft cocktails, the burlesque dancer. Waiters wear matching suits, service is top-notch, no detail has been left out.  Wills Show Bar is reborn.

michigan central 207 (1)

michigan central 223 (1)

michigan central 217 (1)

When the city of Detroit burned to the ground in 1805 Father Gabriel Richard said: Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus. We hope for better things, it shall arise from the ashes. It seems that is the story of Detroit, a testament to the resilience of Detroiters. We rise, we fall and we get back up again.