Michigan Central Station renovations: From blighted train depot to next chapter

Michigan Central Station's next chapter officially begins June 6, when the historic Detroit train depot opens after extensive renovations.

The building in Corktown has been empty since the last train left the depot in early 1988. 

When it reopens later this year, the depot will no longer serve as a train station. Instead, the building will house Ford Motor Co.'s autonomous vehicle teams, while the main area will be open to the public.

As the reopening nears, here's some history of the building:

Michigan Central opens to trains

The permits to build Michigan Central were pulled in May 1910 and construction began.

MCS was slated to open in 1914, but a fire at the previous train station forced it to open in late 1913. The first train headed from Detroit toward Saginaw Bay on Dec. 26, 1913. The first arrival was from Chicago that night.

Michigan Central was a bustling train station for years, and many people would pass through its grand lobby, including military members shipping off or getting home.

The concourse of Michigan Central Station in 1915. (Photo: Detroit Historical Society/Ford)

Train travel decline leads to closure

As train travel declined, Michigan Central suffered. 

The main waiting area closed in April 1967. It later reopened after Amtrak took over the station in 1971 and did more than $1 million in renovations. A bus terminal was also added during this work.

Michigan Central Station in 1955 (Photo: Detroit Historical Society/Ford)

Despite these upgrades, train travel continued to decrease until the last train left on Jan. 5, 1988.

Once great building falls victim to vandals, elements

After its closure, the train depot soon became a haven for scrappers, vandals, and thrill-seekers wanting to see inside. Graffiti covered the walls, while the wiring was stolen.

While humans were doing their damage, the elements were wreaking havoc and causing water damage. When Ford's renovations began, about 2.5 million gallons of water had to be pumped out of the basement

READ: Crews find sub-basement that wasn't on original Michigan Central plans

The train depot was purchased by a company owned by Manuel Moroun in 1996 but remained empty.

During this time, many plans were proposed for the space, but nothing came to be. Some suggested making it into a casino or a police headquarters. Others pushed to tear it down. However, it is on the National Register of Historic Places, so it stood, falling into disrepair more and more.

Eventually, new windows and an elevator were installed in 2015.

(Photo: Amber Ainsworth)

Ford buys Michigan Central

Michigan Central's next chapter began in 2018 when Ford announced that it had purchased the train depot. The announcement came with a large celebration as crews quickly got to work.

The train depot will serve as the anchor for a larger mobility campus Ford says is designed to connect neighborhoods and provide a variety of services. 

Another building Ford restored, the Book Depository near MCS, opened last spring. That building houses Newlab at Michigan Central, and is home to hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and dozens of prospective companies looking to study anything from vehicle automation and drone management to local air pollution monitoring.


Michigan Central milestone reached as restored Book Depository building reopens

Five years after the campus was purchased and almost 90 years after it was built, a new company will move into the historic building.

Michigan Central Station renovations

Renovations at the train station were completed in phases.

The first phase entailed winterizing the water-damaged building. It was also stabilized. 


Inside Michigan Central Station: Crews discover artifacts while restoring Detroit train depot

Pieces of history have been found inside Michigan Central Station as crews restore the former train depot in Detroit.

During phase two, the mechanical and electrical systems were replaced, and exterior masonry was restored. 

"We had to replace everything," said Rich Bardelli, the construction manager who oversaw the project. "When we got here, there was literally nothing left."

"Everything" includes wiring, duct work, and plumbing. He said more than 300 miles of new wiring and cable, more than 30 miles of new duct work, and about 6 miles of plumbing have been installed in the building.

More: Last capital stone installed on Michigan Central Station façade

Phase three, the final phase of the project, included finishing and restoring the interior of Michigan Central.

Ford worked closely with the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office and National Park Service throughout the project to make sure that the building retained its history while being revamped. 

The process included restoring original pieces when possible and replacing parts that weren't salvageable.

The unpainted 3D printed pieces

For instance, a 3D printer was used to recreate pieces that adorn the windows. New bricks were also matched to the original bricks to ensure they looked how they did when the train station was operational.

"When they’re painted, you can’t tell the difference between this and a cast iron piece," Bardelli said. "When you do that scan, it actually prints every nook and cranny that was in the scan that you had."

What's next for Michigan Central

The public will get the first glimpse into the former train station on June 6. Details about what Ford has planned haven't been revealed.

What to expect inside Michigan Central has been previously revealed.

Bardelli said there will be a coffee shop where drinks are served out of the old ticket windows. There will also be small shops.

In the concourse, there will be eating areas and space for education. Bardelli said this area could possibly include libraries. There will also be event space.