In the 1940s, Detroit was home to one of the most prosperous train stations in the nation — the Michigan Central Depot — with more than 4,000 people each day entering the iconic building that served as a gateway to Chicago, New York and the greater Midwest. Despite it’s current rundown and abandoned state, an Ann Arbor architecture firm is trying to restore its historical charm.
The station, which served its last travelers 23 years ago, is expected to receive its first renovation in years from the Ann Arbor-based company, Quinn Evans Architecture. QEA has also worked on several projects and restorations in Ann Arbor and on campus, including the restoration of Hill Auditorium.
Even before the last train left for Chicago in 1988, the building stood as a victim of neglect. The vandalism that ensued cemented the station’s reputation as a symbol of the decline of Detroit through its broken windows, untamed weeds, graffiti, weather damage and vandalism.
Elisabeth Knibbe, a principal architect for QEA, said the renovations to the Depot are meant to protect the building from further weather damage by installing new roofs and windows, adding that rehabilitation of the station will benefit Detroit and Southeast Michigan.
This historic building almost faced total destruction in April 2009, when the Detroit City Council voted for its demolition. According to the Michigan Central Station Preservation Society’s website, discussions with the owner of the station and members of the community ultimately led to its preservation.
John Mohyi, president and founder of the Michigan Central Station Preservation Society, said that though his group was not directly involved in the conversations that brought the renovations to fruition, they were “definitely part of the puzzle” and played a role in encouraging owners to pursue preservation.
Though the renovations will not return the station to a fully operational train depot, Mohyi said he would like this to become an initiative of the city since the station has been symbolic of the Detroit area. Despite not returning the station to full functionality, Mohyi said he is glad to see an effort to restore historical landmarks in Detroit.
“By replacing just the windows and the roof right now, you’re really taking care of a bulk of the station,” Mohyi said.
He added that he once heard banging on the station gates and came out to a find a man desperate to enter. The man said he was born outside of the U.S. and exactly 50 years ago on that day he arrived in Detroit for the first time through the Depot. Mohyi said this story is one of many and is indicative of the cultural significance that this building has to Detroit.
“The Michigan Central (Depot) means something different to everyone,” Mohyi said.