Friday, November 02, 2007

Fantastical ruin is the result of fantastical thinking. Pierre Berton wrote in Klondike that at the start of the twentieth century, some velo-optimists were so bold as to think that the wars of the future would be fought on bicycles. The fantastical thinking of the early twentieth century, now absurdly comical, can provide a wonderful insight into how the world in which we live might have been. The military industrial complex, for example, might have developed fighter bicycles instead of fighter jets.

Consider, as another example, Michigan Central Station in Detroit. It is an extravagant, ornate, 18-storey building that cost $15 million in 1913 (roughly $300 million today). By way of comparison, consider that the great baseball stadiums of that era, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, cost less than a million dollars combined. Tiger Stadium, just a few blocks away, cost $250,000.

It is not at all unreasonable to ask just why anyone anywhere would construct an 18-storey train station. Such, however, was the grandeur of Michigan Central Station. Louis Van Winkle writes: "The top five floors never had the interiors completed. The reasons for [having a] building so large are unclear." The space was only ever used by Michigan Central Railroad.

Reality might have been compromised in the construction of Michigan Central, which in retrospect was dependent on three factors, none of which materialized. Beauty, however, was not. The interior of the train station has "76-foot high ceilings, huge arches, carved plaster decoration and marble columns." The viability of the train station depended on: the prevalence of train travel over the automobile, a spread of prosperity westwards as Michigan Central was not downtown, of course, the use of the tower for any meaningful purpose. In the event, Detroit became as dominated by the automobile as any city in the world while Michigan Central did not even have a parking lot, no westward expansion ever happened and the city eventually crumbled and, of course, the tower was barely used.

Today, Michigan Central stands as an ominous hulk over the rest of Detroit, far from the other decrepit towers downtown. It is arguably the first sight greeting visitors to the United States from the Ambassador Bridge. There may be no more appropriate ambassador for Detroit: every single one of its windows seems to be gone and Michigan Central stands in a mournful, filthy beauty as a monument to the folly of the past.

Photos, courtesy of Metropolis Magazine:

Pillars and graffiti, once the ticketing area
The barren lobby
There technically is some glass left

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