Why Ford’s New Train Station Is More Than Just a Model Refresh

a large room with people and chandeliers
Ford’s Train Station Is More Than Just a RefreshTom Murphy

Those of us who have spent our lives in Metro Detroit have been waiting many, many years for the day when the Michigan Central Station, a massive train depot that opened in 1913 and later was abandoned and became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Detroit, would someday find new life.

Miraculously, that day has come, thanks to the passion of William Clay Ford Jr., who decided this eyesore—with more than a little work and polish—could become a technology incubator and research hub for his family company, the Ford Motor Co.

The executive chairman—great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford—committed $90 million to buy the three-story Beaux Arts train depot and 18-story tower in 2018, then another $1 billion to rebuild it and restore its old-world grandeur.


The work continues on the upper floors of this massive structure, but the exterior is finished, as is the sprawling Roosevelt Park in front of the building, where Bill Ford and company hosted an event in 2018 announcing the train station project and then another star-studded spectacle last week to reveal the nearly finished product.

The station in Detroit's resurging Corktown neighborhood is now open for ground-level tours, and visitors find themselves misty eyes when entering the Grand Hall, the first space visitors will see once the main doors on the north side of the building are open.

The original marble floors have been sanded, patched, coated and shined; plaster has been replaced; tiles and bricks have been meticulously removed, cleaned, and replaced; chandeliers have been recreated via digital modeling; rich walnut paneling and trim now looks brand new; and Corinthian columns and marble pillars have been fully restored.

Ornamental trim such as the plaster rosettes and filigrees were recreated with the help of 3D scanning; six new "smart elevators" will take you only to the floor you are authorized to visit; and a new, free parking structure a few blocks away is connected by a dedicated walkway with historical placards to set the stage for visitors before they even step foot in the station.

And nowhere on the building will you see the blue Ford Oval. An argument could be made that Ford's investment would justify a prominent placement for the logo, but this building is now an enormous source of civic pride that transcends corporate legacies and loyalties.

Some of the intended research and product development—for instance, autonomous and battery-electric vehicles—might find their way into future Ford vehicles. But much of the output from companies and startups on this campus (with more surrounding buildings planned) will likely extend well beyond Ford to impact mobility much more broadly.

As the resurrected train depot is celebrated, there's still plenty of cleanup work to be done on the south side of the building, where all the tracks converged and a few still remain—so the suggestion a few years ago that train service could be restored between Michigan Central Station and Ann Arbor seems increasingly possible. The last train left the station 36 years ago.

Restaurants and shops are being planned for the ground floors, and there's talk of a hotel. The first wedding to be hosted at Michigan Central will be one to remember, although the happy couple will likely find their guests wildly distracted by their surroundings. Already, in the last few days, a marriage proposal happened at the station. She accepted!

Have you been inside Michigan Central Station in the past, or will you plan to visit it after the renovation? Please comment below.