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'It's stunning': Awestruck visitors get first look at restored Michigan Central Station

Visitors check out the Grand Ballroom inside Michigan Central Station during the first day of public tours inside the renovated former rail depot.
Breana Noble Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The first members of the public got a look inside the restored Michigan Central Station on Friday, and they were suitably awestruck by the transformation of the towering landmark that's been rescued from ruin.

It was the entrance into the Grand Hall when the emotion hit most guests, with gawkers mouthing "wow" as they gazed up at the Guastavino tile ceilings and down at the shiny marble floors.

Rita Martuscelli, 90, of Troy was first through the station's side doors. She couldn't help but get emotional as she entered the Grand Hall, hand over her agape mouth with eyes wide as she took in the replaced soaring windows and recreated light fixtures.

"It's stunning," she said. "They're finally realizing something like this is worth saving."

In a throwback to the station's glory days, when travelers passing through wore their Sunday best, many attendees dressed up in their fanciest attire for photographic moments. Others displayed Detroit pride in Lions jerseys, vintage automotive apparel or Corktown hoodies. 

Gasps could be heard as visitors entered the Grand Hall, and as they gazed at the white marble clock looming over the restored ticket booths. 

Clark Haddock, 70, was nearly brought to tears seeing the clock at the end of the east entrance hallway. 

The first public visitors to the renovated Michigan Central Station take in the grandeur of the Great Hall, including a sculptural timeline of shared moments of triumph, adversity, innovation and resilience.

"It makes me think of my Grandpa Harry, who was a jeweler here in Detroit who would take the 7 p.m. train every Christmas Eve, and we would wait for him in Kalamazoo," said Haddock, who lives in Oakland County's Beverly Hills. "I don’t think you really understand what’s possible until you see this."

Mario Muscat, a lifelong resident of Corktown who uses a wheelchair, said the tour brought back memories from his youth. 

"I can see this station from my porch. I went to school at St. Vincent's, and we used to hang here quite a bit, even as a teen. We would sneak out of class and smoke cigarettes in the tunnel way. We were young and dumb. It brings me back," said Muscat, 65. "It’s finally happened ... that’s the main thing. I’m glad to see it wasn’t torn down."

His hope is to see trains roll into the station once more, as they did from its opening in 1913 until Amtrak ended service in 1988. "We used to jump on the train to Chicago in the '70s two to three times a year ... a time when we were young, and we took care of ourselves. I'd like to see that happen again."

Visitors on Friday worked their way through a circular layout on a self-guided tour, starting with a video overviewing the history of the station on a 5-foot-by-15-foot LED cube in the former women's waiting room. They applauded as it promised a bright future for Corktown and the city.

Rita Martuscelli, in wheelchair, reacts to seeing the restored Grand Hall in Michigan Central Station with Gloria Nastas, John Martuscelli and Doug Langs.

Looking over a long, sculpture timeline of the train station's history in the Grand Hall, attendees shared memories, and noted Detroit-centric facts like Houdini's death in 1926 or that the Davison Freeway was the first urban, below-grade expressway in the United States when it opened in 1942. 

The attention many visitors paid to the timeline was important to Michigan Central CEO Joshua Sirefman.

"It's moving," he said, to see the building start to come alive with the community. "We asked, 'How do we add things and tell the story without taking away from the glory of the building itself?' It's humbling."

'The revitalization of Detroit'

About 60,000 people claimed free tickets for 10 days of public tours of the 1913-built depot that closed in 1988 and has undergone a six-year renovation as a part of a nearly $1 billion investment Ford Motor Co. is making in Corktown to create a 30-acre advanced mobility technology hub. It's the first time the public has had the opportunity to visit the fixed-up station.

Visitors started arriving outside the station more than an hour ahead of the ticketed tours. Some passersby asked if there were day-of passes available.

Martuscelli came with sisters Gloria Nastas of Troy and Patricia Langs of Plymouth. The sisters were there in honor of their late aunt, Gloria Rey, who had worked in the station coordinating social activities. She died in November. Martuscelli was Rey's friend.

"We are here to honor her memory," Nastas said about her aunt.

Nastas recalled how the sisters would visit their aunt, who would sit them at a large desk with trays pulled out so they could color and draw on them.

Langs' husband, Doug, recalled taking the train from the station to Albion College in the 1970s.

"It was always bustling and very active when you'd catch the train on a Sunday or a Friday night. It was a real gem," he said, looking around as people once again bumbled around the depot. "This is the revitalization of Detroit."

The sisters said their aunt told them stories about looking to see who was coming on and off the train.

"She told her boss once she was going down to meet friends," Nastas said. "She was in the paper the next day meeting Piper Laurie and Tab Hunter. He told her, 'I didn't know you were friends with Hollywood celebrities.'"

Patrick Barnard, 59, of Royal Oak always heard stories from his parents about "what a magical place Detroit was." Seeing the renovated depot was like experiencing that.

"I've got chills looking at it," he said after lying on the floor inside the station to take a photo from the perfect angle. "Detroit is so underrated. It's so great to see the city renovating the gems that once were."

Ahead of his tour, Steven Flum, 53, described the change in his neighborhood around the former rail depot. He likened the activity now seen to when he moved to Corktown in 1984 when the team at nearby Tiger Stadium won the World Series and trains still came in and out of the station. Flum, an architect, was involved in plans when the station was considered for a world trade center location.

He described the vacant station as the "biggest urban windchime in the world" with wind billowing through its broken windows and recalled people riding their bikes on the roof. Friday will be his first time in the station since 1989.

"It's a new dawn," Flum said. "I get a kick out of seeing all the young people walking around with their kids and strollers. It's nice to be able to be in a real, true walkable neighborhood.

A portrait of Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, a driving force behind the renovation of Michigan Central Station, is on view for the facility's first public visitors.

"I'm just thankful for Bill Ford and his family for not only investing in my neighborhood but the city of Detroit."

Patricia Langs expressed a similar sentiment as she took in the grandeur of the renovated Great Hall: "Bill Ford should be very proud."

Ford, the automaker's executive chairman, envisions the station, with Roosevelt Park sprawling before it and a future greenway connected to its south, will be a hub of activity for the community and an anchor for the innovation campus with new ideas spouting from occupants of its 18-story tower.

"Restoring Michigan Central is much more than a trip down memory lane," reads a giant letter to visitors from Ford displayed in the Grand Hall. "This is a place where we will help create the future and ensure Detroit and the region remains the center of mobility."

It's not quite there yet, though.

Work on the station will continue through the summer to ready space for retail, restaurants, art installations and tower tenants, but the public will be able to access the main floor on Friday evenings and Saturdays from June 21 through August without an appointment.

'Much nicer and cleaner'

For now, tour visitors can experience the LED installation, a 1,000-foot sculptural timeline in the Grand Hall, artificial intelligence-enabled interactives and an archive with photos from the restoration, artifacts, posters and other memorabilia. Additionally, guests can hear the voices of people recounting their memories of the station in a portrait gallery and then contribute their own stories and hopes in the historic reading room, with those recordings being preserved in a time capsule.

A children's zone also includes a poster of Michigan Central to color, a scavenger hunt through the space and a Lego model of the depot.

Photos of what the spaces looked like prior to the renovations help illustrate the dramatic change. Mostly gone are the artificial drop ceilings, broken tile and graffitied walls, though moments of that vacant chapter are preserved in a hallway, a corner or signs of deterioration on a column. Now, hidden arches of the old restaurant have been revealed, the former ticket counter's clock has been recreated and the Grand Hall's Guastavino ceiling tile has been restored. Visitors can download an app for a narrated tour.

Muscat said the station looks "better than I remember," noting that it used to have plaster falling, closed-off areas, graffiti and other signs of age.

"It's beautiful," he said. "It's much nicer and cleaner." 

Dan Kosmowski, 43, of Birmingham, and David Kohrman, 44, of Kalamazoo, called themselves urban explorers in the '90s when they checked out the station. That experience inspired Kohrman to go into preservation work while studying architecture.

"Even then, I thought this place would be torn down," he said. "This only could've happened with the federal government or something like Ford. Thank God it did. I feel like I've stepped back in time into those old black-and-white pictures."

"We never thought we'd see this day come," added Kosmowski.

He went into automotive engineering, but when the recession hit in 2008, he stepped away, tired of working in a "boring glass box" in the suburbs. He's now an attorney.

Part of Bill Ford's goal behind the station is to attract and retain innovative talent.

"If there had been this vision 20 years ago," Kosmowski said, "I don't know that I would have left."

Guests don't have access to the building's tower, which once housed offices for railroad workers. Most of the floors are white-boxed in preparation for tenants. Alphabet Inc.'s Google Code Next program will be its first occupant as early as this month with a lab to teach computer science to high school students.

Within the first year, 1,000 Ford employees working in its Model e electric vehicle division and software services team move into three floors of the building, starting in the third quarter. By 2028, the automaker will have 2,500 employees working in the building and another 2,500 are expected to come from startups, suppliers and other partners on the campus.

Not all of the occupants have been shared. Ford has said it's down to a few finalists for a hotel it hopes will occupy the top floors of the building, pending zoning approval by the city. Nonprofits focused on Detroit youth that will be supported by the Michigan Central Station Children's Endowment Campaign, a project from Bill Ford; his wife, Lisa; and the Children's Foundation, will also have drop-in space.

The festivities kicking off the opening of Michigan Central began Thursday night with people snapping up all 20,000 free tickets to a concert held in front of the station produced by Eminem featuring Diana Ross, Jack White, Big Sean and other acts.

Alexandria Hairston, 27, of West Bloomfield Township, a food and lifestyle influencer on TikTok and Instagram under Luxuriouslyalex, attended the concert and was back Friday to see the station.

"It's good to see everything being built up," she said. "There's a lot of buzz."