A Visit To A Very Different Michigan Central Station

Yesterday I wrote about the possible loss of Michigan Central Station in Detroit, which I considered a tragedy. Citizens of Detroit disagreed, saying that there was no money, there were other greater needs, and that it was too far gone to be saved. Coincidentally, last night I found myself 110 miles down the track in another abandoned and deteriorated Michigan Central Railroad Station, in another economically depressed town, St. Thomas, Ontario, that is following a very different trajectory.

History of Canada Southern Railway and Michigan Central Railway

The shortest distance between New York and Chicago runs on the north side of Lake Erie, so the Canada Southern Railway was built in 1872, was bankrupt in 1874, and sold to the Vanderbilts who owned the Michigan Central. The station was the headquarters of the company, and the second floor served as their head offices. The three hundred acres surrounding it were their main shops and yards, making the railroad the economic lifeblood of St. Thomas. Post WWII the MCRR started packing up, was merged into Penn Central, sold off the St. Thomas facilities to Canadian Pacific and Canadian National who abandoned the station, and it started falling apart, a victim of vandals and pigeons.

Between 1996 and 2001 the railways tried to unload it; I was working in real estate development at the time and visited the station but considered it and St. Thomas, which had lost all the railroad work that was its raison d'etre, hopeless.

But in 2001 local activists interested in railway history got control of it, "with the intention of developing a formal business plan for the restoration and the operation of the the property as a community tourist attraction." They incorporated as the North America Railway Hall of Fame and got to work.

Fixing the Building

The process of saving a building is straightforward: first you fix the roof and keep the water out and seal the building. If the exterior is weathertight you can take years raising money and picking away at it.

Had I photographed the station in the nineties, the pictures would be indistinguishable from Detroit: boarded or broken windows, garbage and junk everywhere, a total loss. The pictures I took yesterday still show a lot of rotted plaster, but it is clean as a whistle. And bright, because their first job was to fix the windows.

Through government retraining programs, they have taught over forty formerly unemployed local people how to fix a window, rehang the sash, make it weathertight. They got so good at it that they now export this expertise and are restoring the windows in a post office in Petrolia.

Other trainees are refinishing the brackets from the exterior.


Raising the Money

Through aggressive and creative fundraising, they sold those windows, putting on a brass plaque before they even put on the paint. (not efficient, but cost-effective.)

They will put a plaque on anything, from a brick to a bracket to an office.

OK, it is just a two storey building. They only need about eight million bucks to finish the job. It is a lot smaller than Michigan Central Station in Detroit. But it was in not much better shape, in a community that was also devastated by the loss of its major employers. But it had committed volunteers and higher levels of government who were willing to put up the money to train people to fix it rather than knock it down.

Those Detroit City Councillors who think that such buildings cannot be saved should get in their cars and drive two hours east; they will find a model they can emulate. The federal government is writing checks for this kind of thing. Detroit wants to put the money into dynamite; think about how much more money they might get if they tried to put it into jobs.

More on the building at North America Railway Hall of Fame

I interview Laurence Grant, Historian responsible for the restoration.

More on Demolition, Green Jobs, and Detroit:
Michigan Central Station To Be Demolished With Stimulus Money
In Hard Times It's Time For Renovation and Preservation
The Greenest Brick is the One That's Already in the Wall
Big Steps in Building: Ban Demolition
How to Get Green Jobs and Beat the Recession Blues

Tags: Ban Demolition | Demolition | Detroit | Energy Efficiency | Green Building | Green Jobs