A Crumbling Masterpiece in Detroit

A few miles south of downtown Detroit, I found myself in an industrial zone, warehouses and defunct factories on each corner. A row of semi trucks took wide turns onto the street in front of me. Except for a few pedestrians ambling towards a lunch spot, most of central Detroit was just as still and lifeless as the area I was in now. Buildings were shuttered, windows were broken. Detroit was hard not to pity.

I kept driving south, finding the beautiful Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church with some shabby, dilapidated red brick buildings around it. One stately house’s doors had paint peeling away, there were bullet-sized holes in the glass. I later found out Ste. Anne’s was the first building in Detroit –the original church was built in 1701 (the current building dates to 1887).

I drove past a neighborhood of single-level homes, most of which were occupied, here and there a guy working on a car in the driveway. And then in the distance, a regal building towered far above anything around it. I had to get closer.

It was beautiful – tall, at least 20 stories I thought but it looked taller because there was nothing around it, but also big and regal – it looked like the Venetian Casino tower in Las Vegas, except this was Detroit. It was broad, at least a couple hundred feet wide and a good bit deep too. A double-floor appeared at the top, a hallmark of the original skyscrapers built in Chicago and St. Louis, housing their pumps and elevator machinery and such. I had no idea what it was, but I was drawn in and I drove closer to it.

A crumbling stone wall circled the back of the structure and I drove along it, turning into a dark tunnel and escaping into the light on the other side. I was along the side of the building now and saw it rise straight into the air next to me, only a fence and an unmaintained yard in between. The windows were almost all broken, the walls were peeling and crumbling. The lowest level had tall arched windows that reminded me of Yale, with pale stone walls while the rest of the tower was of a yellowish brick. I drove over to the front where behind a barbed wire topped fence a guard sat in a chair in front of this decrepit masterpiece. Its lowest level had tall arched entryways framed by Roman columns. The scene was surreal and yet it made perfect sense in this shell of a city.

I later found out that this was the old Michigan Central Station, built as a grand train depot (by the same people who did New York’s Grand Central Terminal, in fact). It was nearly a hundred years old, built in 1913, and has been empty since 1988. Various proposals to renovate it and use it for a different purpose have languished and the Detroit City Council voted to demolish it in 2009 but a week later resident Stanley Christmas sued the city under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (issued after the demolition of the old Penn Station in New York) and the building still stands.

There used to be a Detroit where this building used to belong. Families arrived in front, likely in a Ford Model T, hopped out and headed to catch an old steam train maybe to California, maybe to New York. They walked through those tall archways into a grand concourse, awed like we are when we step into Grand Central in New York. People came to work here, entering an iron-frame elevator, latching the doors shut as they passed each floor on the way to their offices.

I turned away, turned onto the street, got onto the highway and headed back east.

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