Crumbling Elegance: The Towering Ruins of Detroit, Michigan

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.

(Images: Detroit Publishing Company; Burton, Stocking & Miller; Andrew Jameson; Albert Duce (CC-SA-3.0)

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.

(Images 1 & 2 by Andrew Jameson; licensed under CC-SA-3.0)

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.)

(Image by jodelli; licensed under CC-2.0)

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.)

(Images 1 & 2 by Albert Duce; licensed under CC-SA-3.0)

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.)

(Images by Josh Walker, CC-2.0; Andrew Jameson, CC-SA-3.0; Rick Harris, CC-SA-2.0)

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.

(Image by Rick Harris; licensed under CC-SA-2.0)

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.

(Images by grabadonut, CC-SA-2.0; and via Gsgeorge, CC-SA-3.0)

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.

(Images by Sk8terjacob (public domain) and Mikerussell, CC-SA-3.0)

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.

 

Around the web

  • http://www.specialimages.co.uk/blog/ Corporate photographer London

    Amazing Detroit buildings, sadly signifying the decline of the once great Motor City.

  • http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com Tom

    You’re absolutely right Grant. I met up with a friend the other day from the Detroit area and he pretty much confirmed that the pictures are a fair representation. What a pity…

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  • Kjell Fredrik Wirum

    Lived 2 years in the US in the eighties,based in Detroit. Liked NY & LA and lots in between, but I loved Detroit the best. I am convinced “The Lady OF The Rustbelt” shall rise again.
    It has the grittiest people and the most beautiful architecture in America.
    Ever seen the lobby of the old Guardian Building? Made me horny.
    Kjell Fredrik Wirum, London UK.

  • Kjell Fredrik Wirum

    Lived 2 years in the US in the eighties,based in Detroit. Liked NY & LA and lots in between, but I loved Detroit the best. I am convinced “The Lady OF The Rustbelt” shall rise again.
    It has the grittiest people and the most beautiful architecture in America.
    Ever seen the lobby of the old Guardian Building? Made me horny.
    Kjell Fredrik Wirum, London UK.

  • Kjell Fredrik Wirum

    Lived 2 years in the US in the eighties,based in Detroit. Liked NY & LA and lots in between, but I loved Detroit the best. I am convinced “The Lady OF The Rustbelt” shall rise again.
    It has the grittiest people and the most beautiful architecture in America.
    Ever seen the lobby of the old Guardian Building? Made me horny.
    Kjell Fredrik Wirum, London UK.

  • kenspiker

    50+ years of rule by Democrats.

 
 
 
 
 
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