Michigan Central Depot, Detroit

2405 West Vernor overlooking Roosevelt Park, near the intersection of West Vernor and
Michigan Avenue in Detroit, just southwest of downtown

Shortly after the 1960s, President Eisenhower's National Defense Highway system provided multi-lane interstate highways that made it easy to drive across the nation. In 1958, jet planes, for the first time, began flying domestic routes in the United States, and shortly thereafter they made it cheap, fast and safe to fly distances of 500 miles or more. Passenger travel by rail—except for commuters—declined rapidly and the railroads were pleased to shed their money-losing trains. For the most part, they had, b y that time, lost profitable contracts for hauling mail to trucks. For the preceding century, trains provided transportation. In most cities, one or more impressive railway stations were built—massive structures that emphasized the importance of the city, and the financial dominance of the rail firms. They provided travelers with all the amenities they wished, including restaurants, hotels and shopping. So far as I know, there is no airport in the United States with the artistic and architectural significance of Grand Central Station in New York, Union Stations in Washington or Chicago or the Penn Stations in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Newark.

The Michigan Central Railroad was the state's dominant line providing connections to most points in Michigan, to the East Coast and to Chicago where travelers changed trains to go West. The Michigan Central contracted with two architectural firms, Warren and Wetmore of New York and Reed and Stem of St. Paul to design a magnificent building that would remind travelers of the importance of Detroit and the success of the Michigan Central Railroad. Warren and Wetmore had designed beautiful Grand Central Station—completed in 1911—that now serves thousands of New York rail commuters every day. It is still a tremendous thrill to walk through Grand Central, observing the recently refurbished magnificent structure with its truly grand waiting room. For Detroit, these firms designed a Beaux Arts classical building with Roman magnificence in the vaulted arch waiting room. If you think about the current Penn Station in New York which sits on the site of the original magnificent structure, you realize that every passenger embarking on a journey or disembarking from a train must walk up or down one or two flights of stairs. This is a slow process. Reed and Stem recognized the need for a much faster way to move people off or onto their trains when there was a crowd. Thus, they innovated the use of ramps such as those you still might use in Grand Central Station if you were to get on a Metro North train to New Haven. Ramps were included in the design for the Michigan Central Depot that was completed in 1913. Borrowing from the 1809 plan of Judge Woodward, Roosevelt Park was created in front of the station. Originally, plans called for extending this park with its impressive boulevard to the New Center area, but those ideas were never fulfilled.

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt controlled the New York Central Railroad and had a substantial financial interest in the Michigan Central Railroad dating from 1876. Indeed, he controlled the Michigan Central from that date, but the formal merger of the New York Central Railroad with the Michigan Central did not occur until 1931. As an inert corporate entity, the Michigan Central continued to exist until the early 1960s. The New York Central Railroad and its successor, the Penn Central operated trains from the Michigan Central Depot to Chicago and New York City until April 30, 1971, when federally funded Amtrak took over most of the nation's intercity passenger trains. Amtrak operated trains from the Michigan Central Depot from 1971 through 1988. For a brief period they operated one train each day to New York, but then they cut back their service to three trains daily to Chicago. By 1988, the impressive but dilapidated Michigan Central Depot was vacant. For several years after 1988, Amtrak trains continued to use a small nearby structure - no larger that a house trailer -until their new depot at the corner of Woodward and Baltimore was completed in 1993.

There have been many plans to revitalize this impressive and important building that appears to many of us as a reminder of the greatness of Detroit and the importance of rail travel, but to others, it is an obnoxious eyesore. For preservationists, this is one of the city's most significant buildings. For a brief period in the 1980s, there was a proposal to use the Michigan Central Depot as an international trade center. During Kwarme Kilpatrick's term as mayor, there was a much discussed proposal to use this depot as a new headquarters for the city's Police Department. Plans called for a $90 million renovation of the building but the Kilpatrick administration could not raise those funds.

In 1978, the heirs of the individual who played the key role in financing the Ambassador Bridge were forced to sell his estate. Two very prosperous individuals bid to purchase the Ambassador Bridge, Warren Buffet of Omaha and Emanual Moroun, a Detroit entrepreneur who earned his fortune in the trucking industry. Moroun submitted the winning bid. He then purchased very much property in southwest Detroit including the abandoned Michigan Central Depot. Many have castigated Mr. Moroun. He is one of the richest men in the nation but has done nothing to maintain the Michigan Central Depot or convert it into a profit generating structure.

For twenty years or more, there has been discussion of building a second bridge across the Detroit River at Detroit. When the economy boomed, in the last 1990s and the first few years of this century, traffic increased substantially on the Ambassador Bridge. Many auto parts are shipped across the international boundary here and many of the trucks conveying them cannot use the tunnel so the Ambassador Bridge is often busy. Mr. Maroun announced plans to build a second bridge parallel to the one he owns. He ran into many challenges since many Canadians did not want more truck traffic in the neighborhoods near a new bridge. Mr. Maroun began building a new bridge and you can see an arch of it from West Fort Street. Federal courts stopped him since he apparently lacked the requsite permits from several Canadien and United States agencies.

Mr. Maroun is well known for the substantial contributions he has made to political candidates at many levels in Michigan. He appears to have considerable influence in the legislature in Lansing. Rick Snyder was elected governor of Michigan in 2010. Once in office he announced that he strongly supported the construction of a new bridge at Detroit but strongly opposed the plans of Mr. Maroun. Governor Snyder argued that the governments of Canada and the United States would back bonds that would eventually be paid by tolls. Mr. Maroun hired public relations staff to very strongly and frequently argue that he should build and own the new bridge and that the governments of the two nations were about to destroy his investment.

Mr. Maroun has never been portrayed warmly in the press but, when challenged about a possible government-owned bridge, made several announcements about his foundation's generosity. In May, 2011; the Maroun enterprise announced that, for the first time, they would made a substantial investment in the Michigan Central Depot. They hired an Ann Arbor architectural firm that specilizes in historic restoration to replace the roof and the windows in the structure. That work began in July, 2011. No plans have been announced for any uses for the station but its appearance may be substantially improved. This area of Detroit is the home to one of the city's new and highly successful restaurants: Slows Bar-be-Que. There are also artists, creative individuals and non-traditional entrepreneurs who find this area attractive. Not surprisingly by 2011, there was an organization promoting the revival of the potentially beautiful Roosevelt Park that adjoins the Michigan Central Depot

 

Architectural Class: Beaux Arts
Architects: Charles Warren and Charles Wetmore; Allen Stem and Charles Reed
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
Website for Roosevelt Park restoration: http://rooseveltparkrevival.org/
Michigan Historical Register: Listed September 17, 1974
National Historical Register: Listed April 16, 1975
Description updated: July, 2011


 

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