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Will the “tallest train station in the world” be part of the next automotive era?

Michigan Central Railroad Station, Detroit, Michigan in 2010

Renovating Detroit’s historic train station “is about inventing the future,” William C. Ford Jr., the great-grandson of the automaker’s founder.

The demolition of Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station in the early 1960s stands as one of the greatest architectural losses in the history of the United States. In fact, to this day historic photos of Penn Station’s grand hall are often used by preservation advocates in campaigns to help save historic buildings from being torn down. In the early 1990s, New York Senator Danial Patrick Moynihan floated the idea of re-purposing the James A. Farley Post Office Building across the street from the current station into a grand train hall that would, in some respects, mimic the grandeur of the demolished architectural jewel. In fact, the Farley building was designed by the same architects as the former Penn Station. After years of planning, at long last it looks like construction on the new station will begin soon.

In the early 20th century, rail yards in Washington, DC, the capital of the United States, cluttered the vast expanse west of the US Capitol Building. With the construction of Union Station in 1907, the removal of the rails (and placing them underground) opened up what became, under the McMillan Plan of 1910, the National Mall. But Union Station itself was an architectural masterpiece that has now been restored to its original design.

The expansion of railroads across the United States in the 19th century left an architectural legacy in addition to the landscape legacy of the rail lines themselves. Architecturally distinct passenger stations were built in major cities—New York’s Grand Central Station and Washington DC’s Union Station are notable examples. But railroad companies commissioned architects to build different kinds of stations in smaller cities and towns. Many of the styles were developed as a form of “corporate branding.”

For Detroit, its once grand railroad station was constructed by the Michigan Central Railroad in 1913. The new station differed from that of many others as it included an 18-story office tower. The decision to locate the new station some distance from downtown Detroit ultimately led to its decline as Henry Ford and others made the automobile an increasingly popular mode of travel and additional development around the railroad station never materialized.

In the shadow of the Great Recession near the close of the 21st century’s first decade, Detroit unfortunately became an international symbol of urban collapse as the city hemorrhaged population and abandoned buildings proliferated. Now, in what may seem an incongruous move, one of Detroit’s oldest corporations—the Ford Motor Company—has purchased the abandoned station with the intent of restoring it to its former architectural glory in order to house the new transportation industry that focuses on “self-driving cars, such as ride-hailing services and delivery companies.” (The 2010 photo of the train station by Albert duce is shared here under CC BY-SA 3.1).


Ford Aims to Revive a Detroit Train Station, and Itself

By Neal E. Boudette

The New York Tomes

June 17, 2018

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