Most of us are familiar with the lost city of Atlantis myth, but explore closer to home and you’ll find the lost city of Detroit. The city was once a boom town accounting for one of the largest collections of architecturally inspired buildings in America – impressive structures that still stand today, albeit gutted skeletons of their former selves.
(Image by Detroit Public Library; public domain)
In the late nineteenth century Detroit emerged as a major transportation hub along the Great Lakes. Gilded Age mansions and other grand buildings spawned the city’s nickname “Paris of the West”, while Henry Ford – prompted by a thriving carriage trade – founded the Ford Motor Company in a rented workshop on Mack Avenue.
Other automotive pioneers like Walter Chrysler and the Dodge brothers followed suit, and the industry that became Detroit’s enduring legacy was born. Tens of thousands of Europeans flocked to work in the shipbuilding, automotive and other manufacturing plants, and Detroit grew into the nation’s fourth largest city.
Fueled by “Motor City’s” roaring industry, the construction boom of the 1920s saw Art Deco skyscrapers and neogothic masterpieces rising on Detroit’s skyline. The city would eventually boast one of the largest collections of nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings in the United States, an accolade it retains today in a far more eerie form. (Above: Park Avenue Hotel (left) and Eddystone Hotel.)
The gasoline crises of the 1970s impacted heavily on the car industry, while racial tensions and increasing drug-fuelled crime spurred the beginning of the end for Detroit’s industrial supremacy. As the city descended into high unemployment, many of its finest buildings, including theatres, hotels, offices and apartments, fell into ruin. (Above: the Detroit Free Press building.)
Some structures were demolished to deter drug addicts, while others have become vast skeletal reminders of their former incarnations. As a result, and somewhat paradoxically, downtown Detroit still boasts some of the finest buildings in America, in part due to the cost of demolition and little market for replacements. (Above: Cass Technical High School and the Grande Ballroom.)
Examples include the famous Michigan Central Terminal, abandoned in 1988, the Michigan Theatre, the United Artists Theatre building and Lee Plaza. Like many grand railway stations, Central Terminal – the tallest station in the world when it was built in 1913 – was a bold statement to anyone arriving into the city by train. But by 1988 it was abandoned and narrowly avoided demolition.
The Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church is another eerie and interesting place – a 1911 Gothic Revival building hauntingly devoid of life. But this spiral of urban decay does have its upside: In many cities grand theatres are a thing of the past, but Detroit’s theatre district survived the late twentieth century cull largely because there was no economic benefit to demolishing it.
While some have been bulldozed and others restored, the 1926 Michigan Theatre was – bizarrely, or creatively, depending on your view point – turned into a car park. The auditorium was gutted after 1976 and a large entrance smashed through the side. Some historians see Michigan Theatre as a symbol of Detroit’s decline, as cars – the city’s legacy – sit silently beneath the forgotten remains of the grand masterpieces they financed.
Ironically, the Michigan Theatre stands on the site of the small rented workshop on Mack Avenue where Henry Ford built his first car. If this is a case of what goes around comes around, can we expect Detroit’s silent architectural masterpieces to awaken? Happily, there is precedent: The Book-Cadillac Hotel (above, with derelict United Artists Theatre building), abandoned and vandalised for 20 years, defied the odds to reopened as a Westin Hotel in 2008.
Explore more impressive industrial abandonments on our Rust Belt Road Trip.