Detroit’s Michigan Theater: The Most Beautiful Parking Garage on Earth

(Image: Bob Jagendorf, cc-3.0)

Arguably the world’s most magnificent parking garage, Detroit’s former Michigan Theater must surely be the only Italian Renaissance-style car lot on the planet. When a decision was taken not to demolish the building after it was abandoned in the 1970s, an entrance hole was smashed through the wall allowing Detroiters to park their cars in the former auditorium. Ironically, the theatre was built on the site of Henry Ford’s first automobile workshop, and has in a way returned to its original use.

(Image: Gsgeorge, cc-sa-3.0)

When it opened in 1926 at a cost of $5 million, the Michigan Theater was one of the largest in the state, seating over 4,000 people.  Serving as a traditional theatre, concert hall and movie house, the venue boasted 10-foot crystal chandeliers, mezzanine seating for black tie guests only, and a magnificent gilded lobby, four storeys high and covering 1,000 square feet.  Suffice to say, the Michigan was a marvel of the entertainment world and symbol of Detroit’s manufacturing preeminence.

(Image: Jim Garrett, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission)

“It is not merely a theatre for Detroit,” owner John H. Kunsky told The Detroiter in August 1926. “It is a theatre for the whole world. It is designed to be the great showplace of the middle west.”  The Detroit Free Press agreed: “It is beyond the dreams of loveliness; entering, you pass into another world.”  But dwindling profits mirroring Detroit’s industrial decline marked the beginning of the end for the theatre.

(Image: dustindwyer, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission)

Used to screen Red Wings ice hockey games for those who could not attend the nearby stadium in the 1960s, and as a rock venue during the ’70s, the theatre was eventually abandoned and partially demolished in 1976.  Heralding the end of an era, plans to completely demolish the Michigan fell through when studies determined it would destabilise the adjoining office building.

(Image: Jim Garrett, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission)

As a solution, the auditorium was gutted, a gaping hole smashed through the wall and three levels of car parking installed.  The former Michigan Theater is an odd sight today, with cars parked several storeys below the gilded ceiling, watched over by cherubs that flank the former stage. Even the torn remains of red velvet curtains hang amid peeling plaster, while several steps of a still-carpeted staircase can be seen rising to the abandoned balcony.

(Images: Jim Garrett, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission)

WebUrbanist wrote that “one of the factors that forced the closure of the opulent theater was a lack of parking”. So, it opened on the site of a garage, closed in part due to a lack of car parking space, and was then adapted for use as a garage. And the circle is complete.

This is one urban abandonment among Detroit’s modern ruins that isn’t off limits to urban explorers – all they need is a car and valid parking ticket.  As for Detroit’s other abandoned theatres and music halls, the Michigan joins a long list that includes the Vanity Ballroom and the notorious Grande, among others.

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