Mini Stories: Volume 6

Main Hall of the Michigan Central Train Station, image by Albert Duce (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Thief of Time by Kurt Kohlstedt

Clock wrapped and left, image via Ford

Last year, the Ford Motor Company announced that they’d be renovating Michigan Central Station. This huge, century-old building had been abandoned for years. Ford’s plan to buy and restore it was pretty big news in Detroit. In the lead-up to the company’s big press conference about the plan, someone anonymously approached the Ford Museum with an unexpected gift: a big round clock that used to hang prominently on a wall of the train station.

Almost nothing is known about the person who returned the clock. Perhaps they took it to keep it safe. Perhaps they weren’t even the thief, and they just bought it or found it or inherited it. But whoever they are, they carefully wrapped up the clock and told folks at the Ford Museum where to find it, presumably inspired by the renovation plan.

And it’s easy to see why they would be inspired — this massive Beaux-Arts structure was designed by the same architects as Grand Central Terminal in New York. The idea is that it would be the Grand Central of the Midwest, handling tons of passenger and freight traffic. Inside, it featured marble walls and vaulted ceilings and copper skylights over the concourse. It’s an impressive eighteen stories tall, built to house restaurants and shops down below and office spaces up above.

Michigan Central Station Detroit floor plan.

Gradually, though, as more people moved out to the suburbs, the city struggled and the station fell into disuse. At first, the offices cleared out; then the shops and restaurants started to close. Finally, in the eighties, the ticket booths shut down, too.

Main Hall of the Michigan Central Train Station, image by Albert Duce (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There was talk about tearing it down, but its status as a landmark helped protect the building from demolition. And various parties came up with plans over the years to reuse it, such as turning it into a police station or a convention center, or even a casino. But none of those panned out, so the building kept changing hands. The last owners (before Ford) did do some work on it, though, draining the flooded basement, adding new windows and putting up a security fence. Lots of people have visited the abandoned station over the years just to explore and take photos; some took artifacts, too.

Rooftop view by Emily Flores (CC BY-ND 2.0)

But the returning of the clock started something larger as Ford put out a public call for more of these historical artifacts. They told people that they weren’t going to ask questions or get anyone in trouble. Since then, dozens of people have come forward with things like fountains, plaster medallions, and light fixtures. Ford also has a wishlist of things including ticket window grills, elevator transom panels and other key artifacts.

Some of these will presumably wind up back in the renovated structure; others will go to museums. Others will be used to make models and molds to replicate fixtures, architectural details and decor. In the end, the revived station will be the heart of Ford’s Corktown Campus, an urban hub for developing autonomous vehicles and other road-related vehicles. If all goes to plan: the lower floors will again host restaurants and retail, while the upper floors will be filled out with offices and condos — all bringing the building back to life.


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