Mini Stories: Volume 6

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.


  1. Kevin

    Loved the segment on alleys in NY. Reminded me of this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake:

    “Chicago is a better city than New York because Chicago has alleys. The garbage doesn’t pile up on the sidewalks. Delivery vehicles don’t block main thoroughfares.”

  2. I remember walking narrow streets from my way to Tribeca to Chinatown.. Thought and still it is an alley.

    Now a friend of a friend film in NY and the alley parts were filmed in Lubbock TX alleys. I guess this makes sense now.

  3. Alison

    My grandparents lived about 4 or 5km from Point Roberts and one of my earliest memories is going across the border to get gas and groceries with them, without a passport or letter from my parents, and having no problem at all getting across. Just a verbal confirmation and a have a nice day.

  4. Daniel Grossberg

    re “Beautiful Downtown (your city here)”

    Made popular by the ground-breaking variety show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” from “Beautiful Downtown Burbank”.

  5. Budislav Basovic

    In Kotor, Montenegro, there is a tradition very similar to Zozobra – traditional annual Carnival ends with the “Burning of the Carneval”, where a large effigy of a villain figure, representing (and blamed for) all the bad things that happened in the previous year, is burned on the waterfront. Earliest records of the Carneval date back to 1508.

  6. Adam

    Great story about Point Roberts, Sharif! I lived in Tsawwassen when I was a kid in the 90s, and you’re absolutely right about the primary uses being package pickup and cheap gas. But other frequent usage included picking up cheap beer (or so my Dad tells me now), going out on friends’ boats (less expensive to dock in the states), and for the NHL Vancouver Canucks’ non-Canadian hockey players: maintaining a residence to avoid Canadian income tax. But it would be remiss of me to not point out that Tsawwassen is pronounced “Ta-wass-in”!

  7. Judd

    I immediately thought of the alley where Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed. I had assumed it was filmed in NYC—maybe Allen Ginsburg dressed as a Hasidic Jew gave me that impression—but no! It was apparently filmed in London.

  8. Lane

    I’m on vacation in NYC, and I remembered this story, so I had to go see Cortlandt Alley myself. It’s not even a real alley! It has sidewalks, curbs, street signs at either end, and painted traffic directions.

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