What To Do With Old Train Stations?

Detroit’s City Council has voted to raze the old Michigan Central Station, Tuesday’s Detroit Free Press reported. (If you click on the link to read the Free Press story, be sure to look at the series of historical photos that accompany it.)

The last train pulled out of the station in 1988.


“I want it down now,” Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins, who introduced the resolution to raze the structure, told the Free Press. “It’s obviously a public hazard.”

I’ve never been inside the station, but I have driven by it a number of times. It’s pretty unbelievable – it looks almost apocalyptic. It is strange to see something so massive that is completely vacant and ruined, yet has a kind of haunting, sad beauty to it. It’s hard to explain. But I know I’m not the only person who feels this way. The site has been photographed by countless people looking to capture a symbol of the city’s decline. (Rust Wire had a post on some of these photos not too long ago.) It has also been used in several movies.

It’s hard to imagine the ruin we see now as anything else, but the waiting room had a spectacular 76 foot-high ceiling, massive arches, and marble columns, according to the Free Press. When it first opened, passengers could go to the barber shop, or cigar stand, a restaurant, a bath or go to dressing room or to the men’s reading room in the station.

There have been a number of schemes and ideas to reuse and reopen the station (including a suggestion by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to relocate police headquarters there) but none have come to fruition. But it is hard for me to imagine it actually being torn down. After all, it has been sitting there empty 20 years.

The city of Buffalo has a similar large and vacant old train station, the Buffalo Central Terminal. I actually have been inside this one, actually only a few weeks ago:


The last train left this station in 1979. There is actually talk of having the station be part of a state-wide high speed rail system.

Unfortunately, the station is isolated, as this recent Buffalo News editorial points out. It doesn’t make make much sense to pour money into the station, without someway of connecting it with the rest of the city.

“Yes, the Central Terminal is a legacy of the glory days, not only of Buffalo, but of rail travel in general,” the editorial states.

“Yes, it is a horrible shame to see it stand there, at the end of Paderewski Drive, with so little to do, despite the best efforts of Terminal lovers who have attracted successful community events and continually sing its praises.

But the point is to make Buffalo a more successful community by improving its connections to Albany and, via Albany, New York City. We would surely be derailing that effort if we deposited these hasty visitors in a building, historic though it may be, that sits in the middle of a snarl of railroad tracks, in a lonely neighborhood that misses passenger rail even more than the Terminal does, without a quick way to move them, just as quickly, into downtown Buffalo or the other places they might be bound for.”

It will be interesting to see what both of these cities decide to do with their respective stations.



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8 responses to “What To Do With Old Train Stations?

  1. Anthony Bylewski

    The Buffalo Terminal is not isolated. It is Centrally located. The entire region and the City’s Eastside would benefit by reusing this building’s location. This is a regional destination and there is a need to look beyond the City of Buffalo. Travelers coming to the area do not just head downtown. The surrounding towns all need easy access to a terminal like this. You can reach easily travel to the affluent third ring suburbs and their many small businesses in under 20 minutes from this site.

  2. tonyg

    Train stations if in the event that passenger service was actually to be scheduled at times we might be awake, then the locations of such need to be related to planes and autos. i.e. train stations, plane stations (airports) auto rental locations must be intergrated. Restoration of buildings no longer in the right location make no sense. Sorry; blow em up and start over!

  3. Paz

    Every time I leave DC to go back home, I pass through Union Station and I see a glimpse of what the age of rail used to look like (hell, it usually looks busier than Pittsburgh International). And every time I get off the train at the crappy station in Pittsburgh, I’m reminded of what train travel has been relegated to.

    That being said, I am glad that the old train station has been converted into some of the nicest apartments in the Golden Triangle (people were living down there before it was the hip thing to do). The Pennsylvanian was actually where I went to my first homecoming, and I fell in love with the majesty of the building. I think that converting Michigan Central into a mixed use complex has doubtless been talked about already, but it’s something that merits consideration.

  4. Jim

    I think it would be good idea to hang on to and maintain the buildings for a while. The vehicle miles of automobiles are in steady decline and have been since 2007. This is in spite of the dramatic drop in gas prices since last year. With the scope of the recession and environmental concerns, a return to rail freight and passenger rail travel is beginning to look beneficial, and timely.

    The domestic automobile industry is on the point of collapse. Conversion to the production of hybrids doesn’t look likely to save them. Even with cheap gas, people are still traveling less and less. It’s time for the auto industry to start looking ahead. Building vehicles that could complement a rail system, rather than seek to replace it, offers some hope. The industry workers are perfectly capable of doing that. The companies’ management would need some retraining, to put it charitably, but most of them could manage too.

    As Anthony points out, the Buffalo terminal can serve much more than downtown area. It seems heedless to neglect that potential.

    In a recession of this magnitude, public works projects that focus on the highways are welcome, in a narrow sense, but they’re doing nothing to prepare for an economic future.

  5. Erin

    We know that in Ohio there is a serious effort to build an effective rail system linking “the three C’s” and there’s reason to hope that system would extend to Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh etc.

    There is significant funding both from the State of Ohio and the national stimulus to make passenger rail travel a reality.

    If the rail plan comes to be then there is reason to renovate the station. This particular location is well within reach of the Detroit Airport and could be connected easily by a light rail.

    I hear the comment “blow ’em up and start over” and I think of the great cities both in this country and abroad wherethe demolition of such a structure would be unthinkable. I have the sense that to recreate these grand central stations requires funding, momentum and an architectural integrity that we will not be able to recapture.

  6. Pingback: GLUEspace » Blog Archive » Thursday Rust Wire Round-Up

  7. The idea of letting the building die over all these years is what’s shocking to me; not the blowing it up at this point when the big question is can Detroit itself be saved. There is a great slide show of pix from the station in 1973 contrasted with today at:

  8. Andy

    I love the terminal, but who wants to have to travel thru the rathole neighborhood it sits in the middle of? Especially after dark….. Maybe if they demolished everything within a mile surrounding it…….

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