For a while, whenever director Michael Bay wanted to show the worst that alien invaders could do to an American city or paint a cinematic picture of post-apocalyptic urban decay, he’d grab his camera, set the lens flare to maximum, and head to Michigan Central Depot.
The Transformer Megatron chased an AllSpark-snatching Sam Witwicky through the dilapidated, graffiti-filled train station in 2007. Two years before that, the world saw a climactic fight between Ewan McGregor and a Ewan McGregor clone in “The Island,” which is apparently a car chase away from the motor city.
The cinematic allure of the building, designed by the same people who designed New York’s Grand Central Station, is simple: Michigan Central Depot was once grand. Now it is decidedly not.
After the “No trespassing” signs were put up in 1988, the train station became another symbol of decay in a city that had more than enough. Infamously in Detroit, single-family homes were once sold for $1, and the NBA team with “Detroit” on its jersey spent four decades playing a half-hour from the city center.
But now Bay will have to find another symbol of a decaying America for his explosions and invasions.
Matthew Moroun, son of building owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, told the Associated Press on Monday that Ford Motor Co. has bought and will redevelop the 500,000-square-foot, 18-story former station that has been closed for two decades.
Ford is expected to disclose details about its redevelopment plan next week, the first successful one after years of failed discussions about what should happen to the property.
“These are exciting times for Ford and Detroit,” Ford said in a statement Monday, adding that a scheduled June 19 announcement of its plans for the building “will be a historic day for Detroit, the auto industry and the future of Ford.”
Ford hopes the Corktown Historic District just west of downtown Detroit and the former train station can give it urban credibility with young technology workers who might otherwise go to work in Silicon Valley or other attractive tech centers, the Detroit News reported.
Of course, having a soon-to-be-renovated train station compete with a region will be a difficult task.
State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D) may have unintentionally summed up the region’s love-hate relationship with the building in her statement to the News about the project, which managed to fit the word “excited” in the same sentence as the word “blight.”
“I am excited about this announcement that will bring an end to many decades of blight,” she said.
Still, Matthew Moroun was positive: “The depot will become a shiny symbol of Detroit’s progress and its success.”
That, of course, has been the plan since 1913.
It was designed by the Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem firms, the same people who brought the world New York’s Grand Central Station, according to the News.
The train station makes up the base of the building and is topped by an 18-story office tower. The main waiting room, the place Megatron crashed through in search of the AllSpark, is modeled after a Roman bathhouse.
The train station was built a dozen years after Henry Ford established his successful automobile company and shortly after the “Big Three” automakers first established companies in or near Detroit, according to the Detroit Historical Society.
By 1950, Detroit was America’s fourth-largest city, with 1.85 million people, many of whom owed their livelihoods to the success of the U.S. auto industry, according to the Week magazine.
But Detroit was beset by racial violence and riots in the 1960s. And an oil crisis in the next decade increased Americans’ desire for cheap, fuel-efficient foreign cars.
The Pistons left in 1978, although they returned last year.
The train station closed in 1988 and was tenantless for two decades — although not necessarily empty.
It became home to generations of homeless people, urban explorers and anybody who thought strips of copper or pieces of facade ripped off a century-old building would be valuable to scrap dealers or pawnbrokers. A homeless man who lived in the building once gave a profanity-filled tour of it to a camera crew but said even he was afraid to go in parts of the building’s basement.
The Morouns — they also own a bridge linking Detroit to Canada and bought the building in 1992 — became primarily known as the family that owned the decaying train station west of downtown.
They had gotten pitches about what to do with the space, Matthew Moroun said, but they were all far-fetched: aquariums, beer halls, vertical farming.
In 2009, the Detroit City Council passed a resolution that asked the Morouns to demolish the structure, the News reported. The family simply ignored the request.
Nearly a decade later, Matthew Moroun stood in front of the building and used his speech to take on the building’s detractors.
Although my father and I believed in this building and Detroit, many others did not. The New York Times labeled its iconic facade as an example of how far the city had fallen. The past Detroit City Council members in 2009 voted, resolved and ordered its demolition. At least one of our major Detroit newspapers published an editorial advocating for leveling it.
… The deal is complete. The future of the Depot is assured. The next steward of the building is the right one for its future.