Ford begins first phase of renovating Michigan Central Station.

In early December, Ford began renovation of 105-year-old Michigan Central Station in the historic Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. In revitalizing this landmark into the centerpiece of a new campus, Ford said it seeks to shape the future of transportation.

The three-phase project began with winterization of the massive building to dry it out from extensive water damage it sustained over the years and stabilizing the structure. Phase two involves replacing mechanical and electrical systems and restoring exterior masonry. The final phase entails finishing and restoring the interior. Ford plans to return the grand hall of the station to its original grandeur and attract local shops and restaurants in support of “a vibrant, inclusive public space for all.”

During a 10-day Winter Festival in January, Ford used advanced 3D projection-mapping technology with the 18-story Michigan Central Station as a canvas to re-create its glory days, its revitalization, and its future as the centerpiece of a new 1.2-million-square-foot Corktown campus.

“We’re excited to start construction on this transformational project,” said Mary Culler, Detroit development director, Ford Motor Company. “The building has been open to the elements for years, so the work being done first is mainly internal, weatherizing and making the building stable. Come spring, things will become more visible to the community. And it’s not just physical construction happening; behind the scenes we are designing and planning an urban ecosystem built around the future of mobility.”

In June 2018, Ford acquired the iconic train station with plans to transform it and surrounding properties into a 1.2 million-square-foot innovation campus where Ford and its partners will work on autonomous and electric vehicle businesses and design urban mobility services and solutions. The project will bring approximately 2,500 Ford employees to Corktown, most from the company’s mobility team, and an additional 2,500 jobs with Ford’s partners and suppliers.

As part of its effort to create a thriving work-live-play community in Corktown, Ford engaged Urban Land Institute (, a nonprofit urban planning and real estate education and research institution, to provide strategic advice on the project’s development. An Urban Land Institute team toured sites in Corktown, including Michigan Central Station, and conducted in-depth interviews with a range of stakeholders from Ford, the City of Detroit, local businesses, civic organizations, and residents.

An essential first step

Abandoned in 1988, Michigan Central Station has sustained decades of damage from rain and freeze-thaw effect, which expanded cracks and holes in the masonry. The structure soaked up tons of water over the years and steps must be taken to dry out the building, assess the damage, and plan for repairs and restoration. Leaving the building exposed through another winter would accelerate damage to walls, floors, ceilings, and the structure’s historic fabric.

A combination of plywood and tarpaulin is being used to cover open windows and exterior holes on the roof of the 600,000-square-foot structure to prevent more rain and inclement weather damage. A series of pumps will be installed in the basement to prevent further flooding and fans will be placed to circulate air through the building. Using natural ventilation and evaporation is the best way to dry out the building, rather than rapid heating systems, which could cause irreparable harm to historic features.

“The building is very lucky Ford stepped in when it did,” said Ronald D. Staley, executive director of the Christman-Brinker joint venture selected as the construction manager for the project. “It would have been a lot more difficult, maybe impossible, five to 10 years down the road to salvage. The first year is going to be primarily about doing core and shell work, getting the building stabilized, concrete and steel fixed, and the building enclosed.”

Once the building is dried out — a process that will take about six months for most of the structure — the construction team will move on to the second phase, which includes replacing mechanical and electrical systems and restoring the exterior masonry. The train station is comprised of eight acres of masonry, and certain aspects of repair and restoration can only be done in good weather.

A new exhibition curated by the Detroit Historical Society will give the public an opportunity to see a growing collection of Michigan Central Station artifacts such as these cast iron elevator buttons. Ford plans to use 3D printing to create molds and mockups that will be required to replicate many historic elements that have deteriorated or are missing.

The final phase will focus on finishing the interior, returning the waiting room to its original grandeur, and restoring plaster and other decorative pieces. Ford plans to use 3D printing to create the various molds and mockups that will be required in replicating the many historic elements that have deteriorated over the years or are missing.

The final phase also includes creating new office space, new areas for public interaction, and new retail space.

More visible signs of the building’s transformation will begin next summer when an extensive scaffolding system goes up and an exterior construction lift is added to the east end of the station. The masonry work is expected to take three summers.

Ford taps urban planning and development experts

While Ford has its own real estate arm in Ford Land, the company is gathering additional insights and industry-leading knowledge from a variety of experts, including Urban Land Institute, to provide independent views that will inform its planning and design process and help create a thriving community in Corktown.

Urban Land Institute’s land use and urban planning experts will provide independent and unbiased recommendations through an advisory services panel process on how to connect various pieces of the development project — the train station and other buildings — to create a holistic ecosystem in Corktown.

“For them to come in and share their knowledge, with experts from all over the world who have worked on similar projects, is really beneficial for us,” Culler said. “We’re anxious to hear what they have to say. They’re a renowned organization that can help us think through strategic parts of this momentous four-year project.”

Ford’s partnership with Urban Land Institute underscores its commitment to work with the City of Detroit and Corktown residents and businesses to ensure its development efforts align with the historic nature of the community and complement other planned developments in the area.

Michigan Central Station Timeline

1912 — Construction begins on Michigan Central Station (MCS), designed by Warren & Wetmore, architects of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

1913 — MCS opens in December, a year early, due to a fire at Michigan Central’s old depot.

1920s — Henry Ford begins buying land around the station, but the Great Depression squelches plans.

1940s — At its peak, MCS serves more than 4,000 travelers a day and houses 3,000 office workers.

1956 — Passenger traffic begins its steady decline, leading to service cuts; a $5 million sale of the station falls through.

1975 — MCS is added to the National Register of Historic Places; waiting room is reopened.

1988 — Jan 5 at 11:30 a.m., 74 years after the first train steamed in, Train No. 353 to Chicago becomes the last train out of MCS.

1995 — Matty Moroun-owned Controlled Terminals Inc. acquires MCS, unveiling a restoration plan that never happens.

2009 — Detroit City Council votes to demolish MCS, but an election, budget constraints, and a lawsuit arguing for its historic merit prevail.

2015 — In a compromise with the city of Detroit, the Moroun family commits to replacing windows at MCS.

2018 — Ford announces plans for reconstruction of the MCS as a new hub for mobility capital of the world.

2022 — Ford plans to open doors to the newly renovated MCS.

Information provided by Ford Motor Company (