The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:1579] Preserving Michigan Central Station

United States

“Our architecture reflects truly as a mirror”

- Louis Henri Sullivan

Detroit suffers no lack of abandoned structures. Yet, some of them carry more value and importance than others. In particular, the 18-story Michigan Central Depot is among the most iconic, most loved, and most hated. Opened in 1913, the Beaux-Arts Neoclassical replaced the previous station that was destroyed by fire. After the last train left the station in 1988 for lack of use, the building has been ravaged by time and opportunists for more than two decades. Stripped of fixtures and finishes, left exposed to many brittle Michigan winters, the station is a windowless steel and masonry skeleton. Although on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, in April of this year Detroit City Council voted for an “emergency demolition” of the building, citing it as a hazard and eyesore. At the time of this writing, the Council’s myopia may have been temporarily forestalled by the State government, prodded by local activism.

Social and cultural relevance/ context

Detroit’s national identity is long and varied. Detroit has been known as the “Paris of the Midwest”, the “first urban domino to fall”, “third-world city”, Motown, the Motor City, the “City on a Hill”, the home of Devil’s Night, the Arsenal of Democracy, and home of the Big Three. From the fur trade to Ford, Detroit’s national identity has continually evolved. So follows our architecture. When Warren and Whetmore were commissioned to build the Michigan Central Depot, Detroit was an inspiration to other cities around the nation, and the construction of a majestic train station was meet and right. It was engineered and constructed to serve the public for many years of daily use. It was great source of civic pride and inspiration for all. 7000 tons of structural steel, over 8 million bricks, and 20,000 cubic yards of concrete with 500 tons of reinforcing steel went in to building what would be the tallest train station in the United States. * As it stands today, it is a different kind of inspiration. To some it is still a source of pride. Some see a beautiful hulking relic of days gone by, looking with a sad beautiful poeticism. In many it inspires opportunity; that of urban spelunking, graffiti art, or more devious endeavors. No one with a camera can pass by and not take a photo. To others still it inspires anger and frustration. Metaphors abound regarding the train station as rusting symbol of Detroit; Detroit’s tombstone among them.

Its current state is no accident or oversight, but in fact the culmination of cultural factors beginning from the day it first opened, leading to the present. Also in the year the station opened, Henry Ford was across town at the Highland Park Plant perfecting the assembly line in his new facility. In 1913 this streamlining allowed the plant to produce the Model T eight times faster. By 1920 he was producing one million units per year.* That same year is reported to by the zenith of passenger train travel nationwide, with 1.2 billion passengers.* Ford in fact planned to build a business center near the Depot, but was maligned by the Great Depression and other large investment projects. Additionally, train travel began to decline after World War II, through the forties and fifties. In 1957 Detroit Metropolitan Airport was built, putting Detroit on the map again, this time for yet another mode of travel. (Detroit Metropolitan Airport continues to be one of the busiest airports in the country). With more nails in the proverbial coffin, Michigan Central Depot was put up for sale in the sixties, with a mere five million dollar price tag. No one found this to be a bargain. Amtrak invested in MCS in the 70’s but the million dollars in improvements could not spur an increase in train travel. Indeed by 1970, over 70 percent of passenger travel nationwide was carried by the airlines.* The eighties saw the station change ownership multiple times. In 1988 the MCS closed down and coasted to a silent stop. In one of the transactions the property sold for less than $ 80,000. (I paid more for my 1,200 square foot 1930’s wood frame bungalow, which carries no historic designation.)

The Program

Ideas for the Michigan Central Depot make the press from time to time, and have all been tossed aside, either by circumstance or lack of depth (reality). Among the proposed re-uses have been Headquarters for the Detroit Police Department, a casino / hotel, and trade processing center. What all these ideas have in common is lack of a holistic approach. Further, all have failed to recognize the scale and potential for the building. No single use or occupier could feasibly sustain (or renovate) such a building. The history of the building itself is a clear indication of such. The top five floors were never used the first time around.

A proper public relations campaign would need to be put in place to get a more accurate idea of how to utilize the space. After speaking with a handful of local residents and business owners (and conducting and an informal email survey,) I created a list of potential uses and functions, and began to develop a program. The director of a local CDC gave me a great piece of advice as well. Essential he said to think of what is common in most thriving communities, and then think of what is missing in this one. The goal was to create a solution that was grounded specifically in the locale. For example, there is no need to locate a post office in the building, when there is already one down the street. A coffee shop is nice, but many people in the community cannot afford a three-dollar coffee, and so on.

Dividing the tower into zones from the top down; residential, office, institutional, and retail/public on the lowest levels. The upper floors offer an uninterrupted view of the city in all directions. The Depot is situated about 1 mile outside of the downtown cluster and the only rival tower nearby is the Motor City Casino. These premium vistas should be taken full advantage of, and not just relegated to administrative offices as in the past. The upper floors could contain several units of residential space, with a range from many lofts, to a few premium apartments, to a small number of penthouse or luxury living on the very top. Because of the massive amount of room, these can be built in phases and adjusted in number and type as the market demand changes and/or is fully determined.

A few floors lower, private offices and other kinds of tenants would still have a dynamic view. The rectangular layout of the floors is suitable for multiple users, or individual tenancy. Below this, the floors transition to less private and more public uses. A major anchor tenant could be a university with the need to create a library and research center related to urban studies. Part of this may involve preserving part of the building (an entire floor) as it is today, as sort of a modern fossil or record of decay. Additionally, the State Police could use a new crime lab in the city, as last year the City of Detroit shut their own lab down, and now send everything to the State Police for processing. This presence adds an element of safety and more users in the building at more times of day.

The ground floors logically hold the most public uses - thought of as three mini districts: community, mercantile, and transit related. A free public IT community resource center, a Secretary of State office, as well as medical and dental clinics, are among the services needed in the surrounding neighborhoods (Mexican-town, Southwest, Corktown , and Woodbridge). Retail that responds to the population, like a urban garden supply, D.I.Y. supplies, bicycle service and rental, restaurant supply, and a music store are among possible uses. Tourism retail, a simple grocer, a coney island, and inexpensive food options, both prepared and store bought could serve tenants and travelers alike.

Travelers?

The Michigan Central Depot is in fact still connected to a long line of tracks, and there has been some rumblings of possible connectivity to the M1 Light Rail Project, now beginning to come to fruition. A Stop at MCS would not only be novel, but could generate wealth and opportunity for the surrounding community. Mexican-town, for example, is known for having several restaurants, a half mile away from the station. The Michigan Avenue business district in Corktown could continue to prosper and create a positive market response, in turn benefitting the people and surrounds.

Cost?

Many people I spoke kept talking about the cost of renovation. As I developed a program, I compiled the information into a spreadsheet, considering approximate square footages, potential tenants, parking, public amenities, security, and the like. Renovation estimates have ranged from 80 million dollars to over two-hundred. A savvy entrepreneur could take advantage of public programs, including NSP dollars, and use of the port authority to issue bonds, and be solvent within 15 years, based on an average of $2 per square foot leasing, if reaching 80% capacity by five years into the project (allowing for phase-oriented approach).

Worth

And the MCS would serve another important function.

Much of the building’s visual impact (for better or worse) its due to its location: isolated on the site, a prominent landmark in the district. It rises up against modest Roosevelt Park, obscuring the low elevations of Mexican-town behind it. Whether as phoenix or hulking relic, it owns the skyline in that locale. This aspect should be capitalized upon. The Great Detroit Fire of 1805 destroyed all but one building in the city. The city’s motto “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus” ("We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes") was no doubt thusly inspired, and is on the city’s flag. The flag depicts two women; one looking toward a scene of burning Detroit, the other towards the future rebuilt townscape. As this city attempts to reposition itself in years to come, we would be wise to consider our heritage, preserve it, and let it remind us of not only our heyday, but also our hardship. To destroy this building will not erase history, only what we could learn from it. We need to be vigilant. To destroy this building would doom us to repeat the past. It should remain in our collective foreground, whether a symbol of former glory, or a sentinel watching over our future; just as the figure on our flag. Michigan Central Depot is not ironic. It is exactly the opposite. It is exactly what it appears to be. It is truth, though some would rather not see. Let one building again be spared from tragedy. The Michigan Central Depot could be the greatest renovation project in the history of the U.S. It could again be a great source of civic pride and inspiration for all, at the local as well as national level. Once again the country could look to Detroit for inspiration, rather than with pity or fear.

Sources cited :

Duke University Digital Library: library duke.edu “Brief History of the U.S. Passenger Rail Industry”

Forgotten Detroit / MCS / History at Forgotten Detroit.com

History of the Ford Motor Company, at en.wikipedia.com

“The Station that Looks like a Hotel”, Garnet Cousins, Paul Maximuke,Trains , Magazine of Railroading, August 1978

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