Exploring the Rust Belt is bound to turn up myriad faded treasures. The boom times of manufacturing led to unparalleled prosperity in America’s industrial cities, with the creation of lavish buildings during the Roaring Twenties rendered eerily abandoned by more recent economic decline.
Detroit was once the great manufacturing city that gave the world cars and Motown. But when the bubble burst, the proud Motor City was left to fall into near total decay. The grand buildings are like a glance back in time to America’s Gilded Age, when Detroit was alive and Robocop wasn’t even a glimmer on the horizon.
When Detroit’s awe-inspiring Michigan Central Station was built in 1913, it was the tallest railway station in the world. Abandoned in January 1988, its redevelopment was considered crucial to Detroit’s enconomic regeneration although plans never made it beyond negotiations. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 but Detroit City Council passed a resolution in 2009 calling for the Michigan Central Station’s expodited demolition. In response, Detroit resident Stanley Christmas sued the city to stop the demolition, citing the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
Abandoned swimming pools are another strange reminder of places designed purely for recreation and enjoyment that have since fallen into the shadows. Like theme parks, we’re so used to seeing them teeming with life that an empty one seems strangely off-kilter in the grand scheme of things. The pool above looks as though a good clean and refill would put it back in business, but the swimmers have long gone.
The Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church was designed by Sidney Bagley and built in 1911. This small wonder of Gothic Revival architecture fell into abandonment in the 1980s, but remains remarkably intact inside. Hundreds of people each week once filled these empty pews, while the pipe organ is a silent reminder of the hymns that reverberated around its walls.
The Art Deco apartment building Lee Plaza, built in 1929 and located at 2240 West Grand Boulevard, is yet another Detroit building registered as a historic landmark. Once the address to possess, economic woes saw Lee Plaza converted into a retirement complex before closing in the early 1990s. From the outside, the building looks like a gutted shell, but there is a surprise in beyond the door.
Venturing deep into Lee Plaza, we stumble across various relics of a bygone age that will both fire the imagination and send shivers down the spine. The clothes still hanging in the cupboard and the child’s doll on the floor give the eerie sensation that not all the residents have left, while the grand piano in the equally grand dining room remind us that Lee Plaza was designed to rival Detroit’s finest hotels, like the Book Cadillac and the Statler – a one thousand room hotel demolished in 2005 in time for the Super Bowl.
An interesting paradox about Detroit is that for all its lost grandeur, many of its gilded buildings still stand. Theatres are a prime example. Many, like the Michigan Theatre, have been turned into car parks, their internals gutted and a large entrance smashed through their sides. The picture above shows the intricate remains of the auditorium ceiling, facing what was once the stage.
The Michigan Theatre was built in 1926 and has become a symbol of Detroit’s decline for some historians. It’s hard to reconcile the present day scene with the grand theatre of the past. Ironically, the theatre is built on the site of a small garage where Henry Ford built his first car, proving that what comes around really does go around. From cars you came and to cars you will return.
Perhaps the most enduring image of forgotten Detroit – and the Rust Belt in general – is the abandoned steel mill, that omnipresent vestige of dereliction that symbolises a lost industry. While manufacturing has returned to the region, humans are required to shoulder an increasingly small amount of the workload.
When the jobs go, the infrastructure crumbles, communities disperse and buildings are left to rot. The image above (top left) is a former theatre, which closed due to dwindling business when the mills and warehouses of Detroit fell silent. These pictures highlight the constant battle between humans and nature, with no quarter given by the elements once people have moved out. The former Globe Trading warehouse is a decaying shell, while the Erie City Iron Works badge has an almost symbolically rustiness to it.
And of course, when communities move on, homes are abandoned. This is the last sorry step in a process that has left some areas of America’s North East and Midwest in ruins, and crying out for redevelopment. Read more about abandoned Detroit here.
No road trip through the Rust Belt would be complete without stopping off at Gary, Indiana, a city with a bizarre feeling of abandonment in the downtown despite a population of around 100,000 residents. Starting out life as an affluent steel town, the grandeur of many of Gary’s buildings is at curious odds with their severe state of decay. The railway station that once provided visitors with a grand entry into the city stands as an empty reminder of better times.
Gary Methodist Church is without doubt one of the city’s most fascinating and photographed abandonments, remarkably well preserved on the outside but a rather different story within. Built for a sizable congregation, the church fell into disuse during the 1970s due to the dwindling congregation.
It’s been a long time since this roof was raised by the sound of music, although nature and the local vandals are giving it a run for its money. The roof is caving in, the windows are smashed and wind whistles eerily through the cold shell, but it’s still possible to imagine the days when the Gary Methodist Church was home to a vibrant congregation. Maybe one day, if the city is redeveloped, it will be again.
Roadside signs like the one above are staples of the great American road trip, and this Rust Belt example advertising Don & Pete’s Point View Bar has become something of a landmark. The sign may linger on, but whether Don or Pete still do remains to be seen.
There’s nothing like black and white photography to bring out the gloominess of an abandoned factory. This old plant has fallen into dereliction like so many across the region, despite an upsurge in specialist manufacturing that has essentially replaced man with machine. Read more about Gary, Indiana here.
Buffalo, New York
The Buffalo State Insane Asylum, later the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, opened in 1880, the product of architect Henry Hobson Richardson who is considered to have been the first of the three greatest American architects. After more than a hundred years in operation, the foreboding sandstone hospital was finally closed in 1994.
Buffalo Central Terminal, opened in 1929 for the New York Central Railroad, is one of those rare former railway stations that is empty but not abandoned (anymore at least), and as a result appears frozen in time. Built to cope with more than 3,200 passengers every hour, Buffalo Central Terminal boasts a 225-foot-long domed concourse, a 15 storey office tower with observation deck, and a 450-foot-long train concourse equipped with 14 high-level platforms. With the last train leaving in 1971, the only thing that saved the station from being decimated was the cost of demolition – estimated at $12 million. Fortunately, the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation paid $1 for the station and are working to secure its future. Read more about Buffalo Central Terminal here.