Detroit: The Capital of Elegant Ruins

Abandoned buildings lure risk-takers and soul-preservers

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Lucas McGrail walks into the front lobby of Detroit’s Michigan Central Depot and steps over a sandstone wall panel lying in pieces on the floor. Pigeons flee their perches, their wingflaps echoing loudly through the huge empty room. McGrail picks up a bottle of water and squirts it onto the grimy floor.

“There’s beauty still, under this crap,” he says, rubbing his foot in the muddy spot, revealing marble under the dirt.

McGrail looks at the faded remnants of a mural on one wall, bricks, broken glass, and dust everywhere. “Yeah, it’s messy. Yeah, it’s filthy. But guys like me look at it and say, ‘It could come back.’”

McGrail is part of a daredevil Detroit underground compelled to sneak into abandoned buildings to explore the fading grandeur of the city’s past. Some seek adventure, others are curious about the architecture, and some see themselves as historians.

The extremes that shaped Detroit in the 20th century have made it especially fascinating for trespassing explorers. The auto industry’s immense wealth created one of the country’s largest collections of pre-Depression skyscrapers, and the stunning abandonment of the city has left many of them empty—gray monuments to lost promise.

“Anyone who’s into ruins recognizes Detroit as the foremost capital of elegant ruins [in the country],” says local artist Lowell Boileau, who operates the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit Web site.

Central Depot is undoubtedly Detroit’s most-visited abandoned building. Eighteen stories tall, it is impossible to ignore in the daytime, looming and ghostly at night. Though the train depot was closed in 1988, many have found ways to trespass. It attracts curiosity seekers, paintballers, skinheads, gang members, vandals, and homeless people. It has hosted an underground rave, an art exhibit, and fashion shoots.

David Kohrman, a history major at Western Michigan University, regularly comes from Kalamazoo to explore the city’s old hotels and theaters. He’s visited the abandoned 33-story Book-Cadillac Hotel, enjoying the view from the roof and finding fully stocked wine cellars—as well as foul-smelling beer—and food-storage areas full of 15-year-old oranges and olives. He’s seen the ballroom, with its two-story arched windows, plasterwork decorations, and giant chandeliers. A few blocks away, he’s admired the United Artists Theater’s Spanish Gothic design and Indian maiden statues, arms stretched to hold up the ceiling.

The buildings are decaying; many have water-damaged walls. Acoustic ceiling tiles and ventilation litter the floors. Kohrman takes pictures for his Web site, Forgotten Detroit, which he uses to call attention to the abandoned structures. “My motivation is to help people remember forgotten buildings, to remember the history of these buildings . . . [to] expose what’s happened to them, all the vandalism, the theft, the carelessness of the owners.”

Kohrman and the other explorers say they won’t break into sealed buildings. Most say they won’t take anything except paper items, such as old stationery. But in the past few years vandals have stripped the Book-Cadillac’s chandeliers of their crystals and destroyed four of the Indian maidens at the UA Theater. Metal scavengers have ripped pipes out of walls and taken apart elevator motors for the copper inside.

“I just can’t believe that someone would be so stupid,” Kohrman says. “Not only are you stealing something from the building’s owner . . . you’re reducing the building’s chance of being renovated. You played a role in denying future generations the enjoyment of that building.” Others share Kohrman’s respect and concern for the buildings, but different impulses motivate their explorations. For McGrail, it’s the challenge: “I have kind of an adventurous nature,” he says.

Detroit’s dying buildings seem to inspire artists, photographers, and musicians, notes Boileau. “There’s something magical about finding someplace that was very active, very elegantly appointed architecturally, and to see it in decay,” Boileau says. “There’s some sort of bizarre appeal to it.”

On the depot’s fifth level, the floor of one old office is almost impassable, covered with building debris. Some wall panels in the hallway have been smashed and knocked to the floor, shattering the marble into rough shards. Urban adventure does have its dangers, and injuries are on the explorers’ minds.

“I’ve seen people whack their heads because they weren’t wearing hard hats,” McGrail says. “At the United Artists Theater, one piece of steel was hanging at an odd angle. I cut myself along the hairline and started to bleed. . . . I’m always worried in a building that I’ll find a body or something.”

“I don’t recommend that anybody do this,” says Josh Kahl, a pizza deliveryman and explorer. “The people who do it, we’re all nuts. There’s something wrong with us.”

Once, climbing through a building, Kahl had to stop every few floors and breathe out a window. “You’re breathing in stagnant foul air that in some cases hasn’t been circulated in 10 years,” he says. There’s also the danger of breathing in asbestos. After exploring the Book-Cadillac’s roof once, Kohrman found that his boots were caked with it.

And, yes, there’s the risk of getting caught. Kohrman has heard of police doling out tickets to people found in the depot; Detroit Police Lieutenant Thomas Walton says people caught entering a building illegally can be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by fines and jail time. Properties Management of Warren, which manages the depot, presses charges against trespassers when police catch them, says Todd White, a company representative. The company used to allow photography groups and architecture students into the building, but not anymore; some visitors abused their access to the depot, he says.

Even if explorers aren’t worried about cops, they’re still wary of those they might meet. Homeless people, who probably develop most entrances into buildings, generally leave explorers alone. More worrisome is the risk of running into people who put bullet holes in the depot. McGrail saw spent shell casings from a dozen kinds of ammunition, including ammo from an AK-47, left by people who have used the depot as a shooting gallery.

“I don’t care for the idea of people going into places for adventure, especially downtown buildings, because I don’t think it’s that much of an adventure. It is just a building,” Kohrman says. “You’re walking from room to room looking around.”

But he sees his own explorations and his Web site as his true work, more than his part-time jobs. He wants a career in historic preservation, and he considers it his calling to publicize the troubled state of Detroit’s architectural heritage.

“Some people like to be soldiers or cops,” he says. “I like historic buildings. I have a particular interest in ones that are closed up. I want to do whatever it takes to bring their history and their present plight to people’s attention.”

On the fifth floor of the train depot, Lucas McGrail walks carefully through the marble shards. He’s wearing a hard hat, a heavy coat, gloves, and boots—and he’s talking about the curiosity seekers he’s seen in shorts and sandals.

“Some people think it’s fun, not dangerous,” he says. “I’m afraid someone’s going to take something in the head and die. One person gets killed, it’s going to ruin it for the rest of us.”

From Detroit Metro Times (Feb. 9, 2000). Subscriptions: $70/yr. (52 issues) from 733 St. Antoine, Detroit, MI 48226.