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Detroit's Michigan Central Station


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Gutted grandeur: Plaster piles, marred marble overrun Detroit's once-glorious rail station

September 5, 2003



It's been 15 years since the last train pulled out of the old Michigan Central Depot. Since then, Detroit's grandest train station -- stripped, vandalized and damaged by the elements -- has become a ruin.

Holes gape where thieves stole marble and metal fittings for their salvage value. Chunks of plaster and piles of dust lie everywhere. Graffiti mars most surfaces within easy reach. Seemingly every window has been broken.

But a rare tour of the depot by a Free Press reporter and photographer on Thursday showed the promise as well as the problems. The City of Detroit is thinking seriously of renovating the old depot and using it as its new police headquarters. If that happens, the vaulted waiting lobby, cleaned up and restored to its earlier glory, could once again stand as one of Detroit's greatest public rooms.

No decision has been made, but several development insiders say that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick may be close to making up his mind to go ahead with the renovation. The mayor has dropped several hints during public appearances that he intends to do just that soon.

Even in its forlorn state, the depot remains impressive. The huge vaulted ceiling in the waiting room retains some of its grandeur, even if much of its plaster decoration has been pulled down, revealing the brick underneath. Shards of marble lie about where vandals or scavengers smashed walls. In one corner of the first floor, small trees grow up from the floor.

Multicolored graffiti, much of it obscene or racist, covers the walls. Plastic tops for spray-paint cans lie amid the rubble. Wind whistles through the structure from the broken windows. Pigeons flap their wings and fly about.

Just outside, near the southeast exterior wall, a gaping hole in the concrete shows where a vandal dropped a toilet from an upper floor, exploding the porcelain commode like a bomb. Evidently, even the 7-foot razor-wire-topped security fence didn't keep everyone out.

Rebuilding buzz

As woeful as it is today, the depot could still be renovated as long as its basic structure is sound. The Book-Cadillac Hotel, another derelict Detroit landmark, is undergoing a cleanup and renovation after deteriorating even more than the depot.

Asked about the likelihood of a new police headquarters in the depot, Mickey Blashfield, a spokesman for the depot's owner, Grosse Pointe businessman Manuel Moroun, would say only that negotiations with the city are continuing.

But even the possibility that the old depot -- probably Detroit's worst eyesore -- could find new life has civic leaders in southwest Detroit delighted.

"It's exactly what that area needs, an infusion of people and new interest," said Karen Kavanaugh, director of public policy for the Southwest Detroit Business Association. "The more people we can bring down, the easier it is to revitalize, the easier it is to get new investors interested, the easier it is to get existing businesses to invest and expand."

Fans of historic preservation are also ready to celebrate if and when the mayor gives his blessing to the project.

"I think if you looked at the historic buildings in the city, this has to rank pretty close to the top, both in terms of who the architect was and the importance of the building to all the people who came to Detroit," said Steve Vogel, dean of architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy.

The depot was designed by the two firms Warren & Wetmore, which also created New York's Grand Central Terminal, and Reed & Stem.

Among the famous passengers who passed through the building over the years were actor Charlie Chaplin, inventor Thomas Edison and former Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The depot remains central to many Detroiters' earliest memories. There, soldiers, sailors and Marines left for war in the 1940s. There, thousands arrived in Detroit to work in auto factories.

"Everybody that I've talked to has an emotional connection with this building," said Blashfield, head of government relations for Moroun's company CenTra Inc.

Case in point: Jack Teatsorth, a security staffer who led the Free Press team through the building, said his parents first met at the terminal in 1945 and got engaged there.

"If walls could talk," he said.

The possibility of turning the derelict depot into a spanking-new police headquarters first arose in February. Eleven bidders responded to the city's request for proposals to replace the current headquarters at 1300 Beaubien. Among them was Moroun, who owns the depot as well as the nearby Ambassador Bridge and a far-flung network of trucking companies. He offered the depot as a historic renovation project.

Something old, something new

Over the past several months, Kilpatrick has focused more and more on the depot as the site he wants, say several people familiar with the city's search. Development insiders say choosing the depot would allow Kilpatrick to accomplish two things at once -- get a new headquarters and rescue a historic building from ruin.

Kilpatrick has yet to give the go-ahead. But he has dropped several hints in recent speeches that he intends to do so soon. Although anything can happen in complex development deals like this, people familiar with the negotiations say a decision could be announced within weeks.

How much a renovation of the depot would cost is unclear, but certainly the tab would run tens of millions of dollars. If chosen, Moroun would bear the cost of renovation, and the city would become a long-term tenant in the building.

The depot opened in 1913 at a cost of $2.5 million. Adjusted for inflation, that translates into about $45 million in today's dollars -- an incredible bargain, since today's higher construction costs would swell the price of building the depot from scratch to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The architects gave the entrance building a monumental Beaux Arts neoclassical style in contrast to the more utilitarian high-rise office tower behind it. The tower rises 17 stories -- 13 stories of office floors atop three mezzanine levels and the waiting rooms.

The station was built 2 miles west of downtown because that's where a train tunnel under the Detroit River to Canada emerged. But in an age when horse-drawn carriages still rivaled automobiles, this distance proved even more of an inconvenience than it later would.

But the depot's isolation from the business center prompted designers to include some of its most notable features. Included were public and private bathing and changing rooms, where it was said a lady could freshen up before taking a carriage ride to her hotel.

The decline of the depot began in the early 1960s as alternative means of transportation took passengers away from the railroads. Many of the services once offered at the depot, including the barber shop, flower stand and conference rooms, disappeared. Amtrak finally abandoned the station in 1988, and Moroun gained control of the structure a few years later.

A few years after the station opened, Roosevelt Park was built in front of it. The park was conceived in the then-current city beautiful thinking that held that, as demonstrated in Paris and Washington, D.C., grand public buildings should rise at the end of dramatic vistas, either in parks or along major radial streets like Michigan Avenue.


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Detroit police chief, staff get depot tour

Oliver looks beyond grime to find new headquarters

September 16, 2003



Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver and his leadership team toured the old Michigan Central Depot, another possible sign that the eyesore may be rehabilitated as police headquarters.

"It's massive," Oliver said Monday during the tour. "Clearly, it was a special building in its heyday."

Oliver also marveled at the view of the city from a broken window of the building's 10th floor after he and about 15 members of his staff cautiously trudged up worn-down steps to look at possible office space.

Oliver said no decision has been made, but he wanted to give his staff an idea of the building's layout.

"It's clearly got great possibilities," he said. "The question still remains is whether that's the best place for a police headquarters. Something definitely has to happen to that building."

But development insiders told the Free Press in July that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick leans toward renovating the dilapidated station and its adjoining office tower into the city's center of police operations. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the selection process.

Oliver said Monday he has been told that the building could be ready for occupancy in 18 months if the city agrees to the move.

Mickey Blashfield, a spokesman for the depot's owner, Grosse Pointe businessman Manuel Moroun, led Monday's hour-long tour. He said other non-law enforcement tenants would help fill the building, but wouldn't reveal their identities, adding that negotiations with the city are continuing.

Renovation costs are unclear. If the depot is chosen, Moroun would bear the costs, and the city would become a long-term tenant in the building.

The current police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien was built in 1923 and designed by architect Albert Kahn. Police officials have complained for years that the building is antiquated, poorly ventilated and full of vermin.

In 2001, the department closed its decrepit lockups for men and women on the eighth and ninth floors. In April 2002, Oliver ordered 70 police employees to evacuate part of the seventh floor due to health concerns. Those employees were permanently relocated.

"At this point, Detroit's finest is housed in perhaps Detroit's worst," Oliver said of the headquarters building. "No matter what decisions are made, it's clear that we'll have to leave this property and leave it soon."

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