Thousands turn out to catch glimpse of Detroit train depot

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Detroit — They came. They saw. They took photos, a lot of photos.

Like the days of yore, Michigan Central Depot teemed with people Friday, the first day of an open house that will now last through Monday as part of Ford Motor Co.'s public celebration of its recent building purchase.

Tony Bartolomeo of Warren and his wife, Chary, sit in the grand hall of the Michigan Central Depot during a public tour on Friday.

Hundreds of people milled about the long-closed train depot. Hundreds of others waited several hours in line. In all, 4,000 people attended the unveiling.

Amid the chipped bricks and graffiti-spewing walls, the heavy turnout coupled with Ford’s plans to make it part of a corporate campus conjured images of an aging behemoth rumbling back to life. Sound familiar, Detroit?

“It’s going to rise again, like the city,” said one visitor, Jeff Panetta of Detroit.

Once the province of urban spelunkers, the depot’s image as 20 stories of broken windows seemed like a long time ago Friday, said visitors.

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It had gone from magnificence to squalor and now, residents hoped, would return to happier times.

“It means a lot,” another visitor, Miriam Flanagan of Bloomfield Hills, said about the possible resurgence. “If it can happen here, it gives hope to the rest of the city.”

Friday's open house brought light and life to the building, filling it with dozens of lights that illuminated its columns, arches and vaulted ceiling.

With photos, paintings and self-guided tours, it felt like a museum, one where the building was the main event.

While the photos showed the depot in days past, a Ford film showed the future, with the company envisioning the site as a hub for the making of self-driving cars.

Most visitors brought cameras, trying to capture every nook and cranny of the building. Some came for the memories.

Photographer Ulysses Freeman of Detroit snaps hundreds of images of the concourse inside the Michigan Central Depot as Ford Motor Co. hosted tours of the station during an open house on Friday.

As they walked through the concourse and four-story waiting room, a surprising number of people remembered when trains still stopped at the building. The 104-year-old building has been closed since 1988.

Dave Donovan of Taylor gave his son, Pat, a personal tour of the environs.

“This is where we used to go down to the train,” Dave Donovan, 67, said as the duo walked through the ticket lobby.

Dave Donovan said he couldn’t wait to see what Ford would do with the place. But, given the size and age of the building, he knew it wouldn’t be accomplished anytime soon.

“We’ll have to wait three or four years and see what happens,” he said.

Nancy West of Clawson recalled frequently visiting her dad at the depot, where he worked as a stenographer in one of the upper-level offices.

What she remembers most are sounds: her shoes clacking on the tiled floor and the massive roar of the trains.

Wearing a navy T-shirt with an image of the depot, she was heartened by all the interest in the open house.

“Just look at how many people are here today,” she marveled. 

One of the first people in line was Elizabeth Danko of Livonia.

It was her birthday, and she told her husband, Jim, she wanted to celebrate the special day by seeing the depot.

"There was no way I was going to miss this," she said.

She has a plethora of memories about the station, including taking a train to see her brother in Minnesota in the 1980s.

She was so happy about the proposed renovation that, when she learned about Ford's plans, she cried.

"I just love the building," she said. "It's an icon."

One of the modern touches to the opening house was a computer that allowed visitors to write a message, and then have it projected on the ceiling of the waiting room.

The computer asked visitors to finish the following sentence: My dream for the future Detroit is ...

“Never forget your roots,” wrote Jennifer Simmons of Detroit.

Simmons then swiped the computer screen, which moved her message onto the ceiling. She then, of course, took a photo of it.

Twitter: @francisXdonnell

Staff writer Maureen Feighan contributed.