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Detroit, Michigan

Michigan Central Station

A Beaux-Arts triumph temporarily saved from demolition, but with an uncertain future. 

Possibly the most photographed abandoned building in Detroit, the massive Beaux-Arts train station known as Michigan Central Station (MCS) has stood empty now for more than 20 years.

Once a popular and bustling business hub, the abandoned shell has become a symbol of Detroit’s economic problems. The station was designed at the turn of the last century, part of the popular “City Beautiful” urban planning movement inspired by Chicago’s 1894 World’s Columbian Exposition and its romantic, neoclassical White City. The movement focused on beautifying urban spaces and erecting monumental grand buildings, and was particularly prevalent in Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, DC. The elegant new building was designed by the same team of architects responsible for New York’s Grand Central Station — Warren & Wetmore of New York and Reed & Stem of St. Paul, Minnesota.

The massive new station was scheduled to open in January 1914, but on December 28, 1913, a fire broke out and destroyed the old city station. The next day local newspapers recorded not only the building’s spectacular interior, but also the marvel of its opening a month early on “a half hour’s notice.” The huge building contained the tracks and station along with services like shops, lounges, and restaurants, and the tower held 500 offices for the railroad’s business.

For the first 20 years of its life, MCS was a source of civic pride, and an elegant example of the growing city’s potential. Hundreds of trains passed through the station each day at its peak before World War II. Beginning in the middle of the century, however, rail travel began to fall off.

By the 1950s business was struggling, and in 1968 the parent railway company went bankrupt. As train travel declined in general and automobile traffic expanded (especially in Motor City), fewer and fewer trains passed through. Efforts by Amtrak and the US government extended the building’s life through the 1970s, but by the mid-1980s only a handful of trains came and left from the vast station.

On January 5, 1988, the last train left the station and the building began its second life as a symbol of the decline of Detroit, open to passersby and looters until 1995 when a fence was finally erected, a somewhat effective deterrent.

Despite its status on the National Register of Historic Places, the building’s future has been uncertain. In April of 2009, the Detroit city council passed a motion ordering the building demolished. The protests of hundreds of local citizens and organizations like the Michigan Central Station Preservation Society have thus far staved off demolition, but as of this writing there are no concrete plans in place for its preservation.

In June of 2014 the owners of the station reported that they are going to carry out some rehabilitation work on the building. 

Know Before You Go

As of 2017, there are many construction workers inside and around the building so sneaking inside is high risk. There are some weaknesses in the fence around but if you are caught you could receive a fine