Detroit: The Capital of Elegant Ruins

Abandoned buildings lure risk-takers and soul-preservers


| July-August 2000



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.