Exactly 100 years ago today, the first train pulled into Detroit's Michigan Central Station — the tallest train station in the world at the time and a proud, towering symbol of the city's progress.
When travelers stepped off the train, they entered a building covered in fancy marble and hand-carved wood, soaring ceilings, intricate wrought-iron railings, gargantuan columns and famous Guastavino tile arches.
Now, 25 years after the last train left, the still-standing station may be more recognizable than it was in its heyday. But old age has been brutal and downright cruel. Today, the station's fame is not of luxury, but of notoriety.
— Time line: Key dates in the life of Michigan Central Station
Michigan Central Station is unquestionably one of the world's pre-eminent examples of urban ruin and spoiled grandeur.
The station exists in a purgatory-like state as its owner, billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun, resists calls to demolish it, but has no immediate plans to reopen it. Moroun has taken steps to prevent any further structural decay in case an opportunity for redevelopment presents itself.
"Everyone seems to have an affinity for this place, but not a lot of people know much more than the fact that it's this giant building and has been in a couple movies," said Ashton Parsons of the Michigan Central Station Preservation Society. "We're trying to raise awareness ... to help people understand the building and see where it came from and what it could be again."
Michigan Central consists of an ornate, three-story depot and an 18-story office tower and stands just south of Michigan Avenue, about a mile west of downtown. The station itself cost $2.5 million, in 1913 dollars, to build, and was designed by the same architectural firms responsible for New York's Grand Central Terminal.
The station's formal opening had been set for Jan. 4, 1914, but a fire at the railroad's old depot downtown the day after Christmas rushed its replacement into service early. A mere three hours after the blaze began, the first train left the new station for Saginaw and Bay City at 5:20 p.m. Dec. 26, 1913. An hour later, the first train arrived from Chicago.
The station contained its own restaurants, barbershop, newsstand and other amenities, and as many as 200 trains once departed from there each day in the years before interstate highways and commercial air travel. The centerpiece of the building was the waiting room, which with its marble floors and soaring 54 1/2 -foot ceilings echoed with the sound of a bustling city on the move.
"To a small child it was a very, very big space, probably the biggest space I'd ever been in," recalled William Worden, Detroit's retired director of historic designation, who visited the station as a boy in the 1950s. "Those stations were meant to elicit a reaction. Something a whole lot less expensive would have done the job. But there was a desire to make travel a very special experience that's probably missing now."
Vandals and thieves
For 75 years, the depot shipped Detroiters off to war, brought them home, took them on vacation and sent them off to visit Grandma. It was Detroit's Ellis Island, where many generations of Detroiters first stepped foot into the city for factory jobs. It was filled with the sounds of hellos and goodbyes, panting locomotives and screeching wheeled steel.
— Photo gallery: Current state of Michigan Central Station
— Photo gallery: Michigan Central Station in 1982
"Having known it in its heyday, it's pretty depressing to see it now," Worden said.
That's because for the last 25 years, it has been home to nothing but vandals, scrappers and thrill-seekers.
The station's fortunes declined with those of the railroads. The grand waiting room was eventually closed, and the station was taken over by Amtrak in 1971. The grandiose landmark continued to limp along until Jan. 5, 1988, when the last train left the station. Amtrak now operates out of a small depot on Woodward in New Center.