Quinn Evans restores Detroit’s Michigan Central Station to its original glory

Back in Business

Quinn Evans restores Detroit’s Michigan Central Station to its original glory

Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem designed the original Michigan Central Station, completed in 1913. (Courtesy Quinn Evans)

Michigan Central Station is back in business. The long abandoned Detroit landmark was restored by Quinn Evans Architects after Ford Motor Company purchased the building six years ago. Its buyer will use the 18-story complex as a one-of-kind mobility tech and cultural hub.

The historic building in Corktown offers a total 640,000 square feet of usable space. It has a palatial three-story train depot that sits beneath a 15 story tower; each tower floor occupies 25,500 square feet. In the future, a bevy of public offerings will be tucked into the former grand hall and waiting area, including creative spaces for startups, youth-serving organizations, and hospitality offerings.

“This project was a real emotional journey,” said Richard Hess, who led the design team at Quinn Evans. “At the opening, someone attended who rode the last train in 1988 from Chicago to Detroit into Michigan Central before Amtrak shut down service between the cities. Over the weekend, the first marriage proposal took place in the grand hall. This was all so special to see.”

Michigan Central Station at Roosevelt Park with the former book depository building by Albert Khan in the background (Jason Keen)

Quinn Evans was first brought onto the design team for Michigan Central in 2011 by the previous owner, the Maroun family, who eventually sold the estate to Ford in 2018 for $90 million. That year, Ford tapped Quinn Evans to reimagine Michigan Central Station, and Snøhetta was brought on the design team for overall campus planning.

In 2020, Ford rolled out a master plan by the New York office PAU for Roosevelt Park: The 30-acre site that’s home to both Michigan Central Station and a 1926 building by Albert Kahn formerly known as the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository. The plan posited a community-driven public space and design vision for the Station’s surroundings designed by the same firm behind other recent adaptive reuse projects like Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn. PAU served as the strategic planner for the overall site and Mikyoung Kim Design was the landscape architect for Michigan Central—the Boston firm redesigned the green area south of Station Park, and the gardens and plazas that frame Michigan Central.

Now, Michigan Central’s grand reopening—which was christened by a star-studded concert on June 7 with performances by Diana Ross, Eminem, Jack White, and Big Sean—marks the culmination of a long journey. “Certainly there were logistical issues we encountered,” Hess offered. “We orchestrated the work of over 60 designers, architects, engineers, and historians over the course of the last 6 years, 2 years of which were during a global pandemic.”

Moving forward, Michigan Central will soon connect with Joe Louis Greenway, a landscape project by Smith Group that will link the campus to neighborhoods throughout Detroit. Ford employees will occupy Michigan Central and Newlab, a tech incubator, will anchor the former book depository building by A. Kahn.

All in all, the site’s transformation is part of a broader effort to position Detroit as a catalyst for innovation in the mobility sector. The effort takes precedent from other recent projects in the Motor City that transformed historic structures for modern times, like ODA’s restoration of Detroit’s Book Tower.

Michigan Central Station Railyard circa 1940s (Courtesy Ford)
Michigan Central Station grand hall circa 1973 (Dave Jordano)

Michigan Central Station first opened in 1913 and was designed by Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem—the architecture team behind New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The building itself was made out of 8 million bricks which, if laid end to end, would stretch on for 883 miles.

By the 1940s, more than 4,000 passengers passed through its corridors daily. But due to extraneous circumstances, those numbers slowly dwindled. Detroit’s rise and fall is well known, a cataclysmic collapse that Michigan Central’s own history came to embody. Detroit was famously rocked by deindustrialization after World War II, when decrees like Right to Work were passed which sent thousands of union jobs from Michigan down south.

Michigan Central Station closed on January 6, 1988—that was the last day trains ran from Chicago to Detroit (service which Amtrak may restore). In 2009, Eminem famously, and somewhat ironically, shot his music video for Beautiful in the abandoned building, capturing its decay.

Michigan Central Terminal’s grand hall before restoration (James Haefner/Courtesy Michigan Central)

Ford Motor Company bought the building in 2018. The purchase was in vogue with recent trends, as corporations from McDonalds to General Electric relocate from suburban office parks to walkable city centers in order to attract young talent.

Before shovels broke ground, contractors had to pump 3.5 million gallons of water out of Michigan Central’s basement. Another 3,990 cubic yards of debris were removed from the site as well to make way for the renovation. “So much damage happened to the building from exposure. There was literally water pouring into the building almost every day for 30 years,” Hess said. “The foundations which are about three feet deep dried at a rate of one inch per month.”

The restoration eventually employed over 3,100 skilled-trade workers. In total, the Beaux Arts building’s transformation took 1.7 million combined hours to repair. Some of the building’s graffiti from its abandoned years was preserved, and art pieces by FELT, Dibo, and Sr. Diablo also abound in the reimagined complex. Ford Motor Company’s technology department recreated many features as well.

In total there are 29,000 Guastavino tiles (Jason Keen)

Once word got out in Detroit that Michigan Central was being restored, the phones at Quinn Evans started ringing, Hess said. For decades, ornament and fixtures from the building were stolen. Some fixtures like copper or scrap wire were sold off to underground buyers while more pricy items like the grand hall’s clock were kept as familial treasures. But once the building’s reopening was publicized, original ephemera from the 1913 design slowly matriculated back to the site.

original clock rehung
Objects taken from the building when it closed, like the original clock, were returned. (Jason Keen)

“One day someone called us and said that they had the station’s original clock,” Hess added. “He said, ‘I’m not going to tell you who I am or where I live, but I will leave the clock in this location.’ They eventually left the clock leaning up against the side of a barn for us covered in a blanket. They were really thoughtful and told us, when we handle it, to make sure to have it on the backside facing down because the paint is brittle. Clearly the clock had meant a lot to them, but they wanted to reintroduce it back to the train station.”

A new skylight was added, modernizing the otherwise historic interiors. (Jason Keen)

Not all of the features are original however: One of the Corinthian column capitals outside the main entry was recreated from scratch from a 21,000-pound block of limestone, an effort which took 450 hours to complete. To create a perfect match, designers used a handheld 3D scanner to match the exact profile of existing Corinthian columns on site.

To assure authenticity, the restoration team sourced stone for Michigan Central’s limestone exterior from the same Indiana quarry Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem sourced stone from over a century ago.

The Indiana quarry itself had been closed since the 1980s, but Michigan Central’s restoration allowed for the site to reopen. Cumulatively, the construction team mined over 600 tons of unique, striated limestone to bring the project across the finish line.

(Jason Keen)

Three massive chandeliers in the waiting room and grand hall were recreated as well. And last but not least: 29,000 Guastavino ceiling tiles were added; an equivalent of 8.6 miles of grout was used on that detail alone. Some brick striations were painted with a feather to blend the new and old stones.

The space that once functioned as a restaurant will now be used for public-facing functions. (Jason Keen)

Michigan Central Station’s transformation builds upon Quinn Evans’s demonstrated track record of adaptive reuse projects. In years past, the office renovated a former brewery into a workplace for a social services organization and transformed a taxi cab headquarters into apartments.

“It’s important to note how this building is a symbol of Detroit’s resilience and ingenuity,” Hess noted. “It was originally a reflection of the city as an industrial powerhouse. In the 1940s, Detroit was the center of the nation’s arsenal of democracy during World War II. It was really important to embrace this history. This project has resonance both for our team at Quinn Evans but also the city of Detroit, and Ford’s vision at the forefront of future mobility.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Mikyoung Kim Design was the landscape architect for all of Roosevelt Park. This is inaccurate: Mikyoung Kim Design was responsible for south of Station Park, and the gardens and that frame Michigan Central. The article was amended on June 12 to reflect this.

A previous version of this article also implied that Quinn Evans replaced Snøhetta as Michigan Central Station’s restoration architect in 2018. This is incorrect: Snøhetta stayed on the project to design the overall campus master plan through completion. The article was corrected on June 13 to correct this.