Funded by Ford: Open House Announced for Detroit’s Historic Michigan Central Station

Cameron Neveu

The celebrated salvation of Detroit’s massive, long-abandoned Michigan Central Station can trace its abstract roots to the Great Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845 and lasted for eight years. Potato blight resulted in the death of a million people, and caused another two million to flee the country. Many came to America.

And many of those came to Detroit. A substantial percentage ended up in a neighborhood less than a mile southwest of downtown called Corktown, so named because many of the new residents migrated from the Irish county of Cork. One of those famine-era immigrants from Cork was 20-year-old William Ford, the father of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford. And yes, that’s important to our train station story.

Michigan Central was logically located in Corktown, the oldest surviving neighborhood in Detroit, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As with multiple neighborhoods in urban Detroit, Corktown has had its problems, perhaps with the most recognizable sign of distress being the 18-story eyesore Michigan Central had become.

The train station opened in 1914, designed by the same architects responsible for New York City’s Grand Central Station. As rail travel sagged, so did Michigan Central, until it finally closed in 1988, quickly becoming a larger-than-life example of how grim things had become in the city. Looters and vandals and the inevitable graffiti artists descended. “At one point there wasn’t a single unbroken window in the place, and water filled the basement,” said a story on Hagerty.com published in September 2022.

Bill Ford at Michigan Central Station
Bill Ford inside of Michigan CentralCredit: Ford

Now, Michigan Central will soon be a leading example of Detroit’s resurgence, thanks to Ford Motor Company in general and executive chairman Bill Ford in particular. In 2016, the company began buying property in Corktown, including vacant land, a book depository, and a former factory. Within two years that factory became the home of Ford’s electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle business teams, signaling the plans Bill Ford had for a high-tech, 30-acre Corktown campus called the Michigan Central Innovation District.

In June 2018, Ford Motor Company announced the purchase of Michigan Central for $90 million, perhaps a tenth of what Ford has reportedly spent on a total renovation of the station in the past six years. It will include 640,000 square feet of retail, hospitality, community, and office space when work is completed.

Michigan Central Station entrance
Cameron Neveu

It has been a labor of love. For years, Bill Ford drove past the decaying Michigan Central on his way to work. “I kept staring at the train station thinking, ‘What if? Wouldn’t that be amazing?’” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. “If all we did was to restore this fabulous building and make it sparkle, that would be great. But we’re going to do much more than that. It’s really about creating the future of transportation. And doing it in Corktown.”

Michigan Central Station sunset
Flickr/Geoff Llerena

From June 6 to 16, an event called “Michigan Central Open” will welcome the public to celebrate the rebirth of the Michigan Central, including an opening night concert featuring “iconic Detroit performers,” followed by a 10-day open house to tour the first floor of the revitalized landmark.

“This is a milestone we can all celebrate,” Bill Ford said. “Michigan Central Station was once a symbol of Detroit’s decline, and now it is going to represent its renewal and bright future.”

William Ford, who died in 1905, two years after his son founded Ford Motor Company, would be proud.

For more information, log onto VisitDetroit.com.

Michigan Central Station corner vertical
Cameron Neveu

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Comments

    I know this is a help to Detroit but it is only one small step. Detroit needs to really change their political system to do much as they need to bring people and companies in and not rely on the just Ford and GM to try to upgrade the city.

    Good people all over the city are doing their part. Small businesses, entrepreneurs, artists, university students, builders, etc. Detroiters of all stripes are making a difference. Watch “Bargain Block” for starters if you want to see regular people doing good things for the city.

    Isn’t that what Henry Ford II tried to do when he built the renaissance Center in downtown Detroit?

    One clarification on the great potato famine. At that time in the 19th century, the English ruled Ireland cruely. Early in the century, the English began to eat more meat, thus fueling a huge demand for grain, to feed the increased livestock demand. The English forced Irish farmers to grow grain and exported all grain grown in Ireland back to England. Since livestick do not find potatoes to their liking, the Irish were left with the potato as their primary source of calories. When disease hit the potatoes, the English blindly allowed the Irish starvation, not releasing any grain to save the population.

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