In its much-photographed desolation, Detroit’s Michigan Central Station could be called America’s Ruin, while New York’s restored Grand Central Terminal more than ever lives up to its title as America’s Piazza San Marco.
Grand Central was one of New York’s first buildings to be targeted for landmark designation, sparing it from demolition to become one of the nation’s most celebrated urban icons and the world’s sixth-ranking tourist attraction. Michigan Central’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places protects it only from federally-funded demolition. It has survived a 2009 appeal by Detroit’s mayor for federal stimulus funds to pay for its removal and a City Council resolution that year calling on the Station’s owner to demolish it with his own money. Michigan Central lacks the landmark designation that would give it the protection it deserves, including oversight of alterations or restoration. Political realities often drive preservation decisions and may explain how the Station remains unprotected.
The case for Michigan Central’s landmark status seems obvious: America’s preservation movement was born of the 1963 demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and proven in a battle for the preservation of Grand Central Terminal, Beaux-Arts train stations in the mold of Michigan Central.
Just how closely Michigan Central is related to Grand Central hasn’t received due attention; it’s often observed that they were designed by the same architects, but this only scratches the surface of their bond. The designers of both stations were a contentious team of two firms, Reed & Stem of St. Paul and Warren & Wetmore of New York. They were forced together by the New York Central Railroad, owner of the Michigan Central Railroad, in a shotgun-marriage of a partnership called the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal, the name by which they also designed Michigan Central. The stations were their only large-scale collaborations and were designed almost at once for effectively the same client.
Renderings of Michigan Central Station with its defining tower (left) and Grand Central Terminal with its unbuilt one (right) show how similar they were in concept. Their trios of monumental arches, each flanked by paired columns and alternating with smaller openings, reveal a more specific level of similarity. Both opened in 1913; Grand Central in February and Michigan Central in December. Michigan Central’s distinctive tower made it the world’s tallest train station, and owes to the idea of one conceived for Grand Central. In both renderings, America’s signature architectural innovation – the skyscraper – grows from a train station modeled on an ancient Roman bath. This duality reflects an underlying battle for the soul of American architecture then led by two Chicago architects: Louis Sullivan, “father of the skyscraper” and “prophet of modernism,” and Daniel Burnham, the “father of the City Beautiful” who made classicism the era’s national style. Beyond their juxtaposition of skyscraper and Roman bath, the stations are permeated by a mix of the historic and futuristic, giving them unique architectural depth.
The shock of Michigan Central’s abandoned grandeur distracts from its oddly conjoined building types and isolation from other large buildings. Grand Central is only the most immediate key to making sense of Detroit’s Station. Its full explanation leads from ancient Rome through Paris and Chicago to New York at its most futuristic. (more…)