By CLARA HENDRICKSON, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT (AP) – The last time Joe England walked the halls of Michigan Central Station was in 1945. His train had just entered the station, bringing him back safe and sound from World War II.
More than 75 years later, England found itself in the train hall on September 25 for a different kind of homecoming. Wearing a helmet and neon safety vest, the 97-year-old from Westland marveled at the ornate tiles and the vaulted ceiling through a scaffolding canvas.
Ford Motor Co. has spent the past few years restoring the century-old, once-abandoned station, seeking to turn it into a centerpiece of its new innovation campus in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
For England, Michigan Central Station is its “icon”, “landmark” and “old friend”.
He grew up in the Tre-Way Apartments, which once stood on 14th Street across from the train depot. The building caught fire in January 1989, according to a Free Press article published that year, and a parking lot is now on the old site.
The station opened in 1913, on Boxing Day. A little over 74 years after the first train arrived at the station, the last train left in January 1988. In the decades that followed, the train depot remained empty and became a symbol of the city’s decline. .
In a letter thanking Ford ahead of the Sept. 25 tour, England wrote that the company had “the foresight to see more in an aging Detroit, Michigan building … but rather to see the real potential it represents. today and in the future. “
“And that falls into place as we stand here and talk about it and it makes me happy,” England said after browsing the site on the tour.
“If they had demolished this building, it would have been part of my heart. It sounds silly to say this about a building, but it’s true, ”he said.
The father from England, who was self-employed and a skilled electrical and plumbing worker who could build a house from scratch, struggled to find work after the stock market crash of 1929.
England said her parents were lucky enough to cross paths with the owner of the Tre-Way Apartments. Her father started working as a caretaker, maintaining the 100 units in the building, and her mother helped manage the property, collecting rent from tenants. This is how they started to live there. “It was a godsend after the Great Depression,” England said.
From his family’s apartment in Tre-Way, England, Michigan Central, the world’s tallest train station, could be seen when it opened.
“I loved this building,” he says. “You cannot ignore it.”
When he was growing up England said there was no playground in the area so he played on the sandy hills next to the station.
And that was the station where England, then 18, boarded a train for the first time, leaving to serve in the United States Army in 1943.
Before arriving in Europe, England said he spent several months in combat training and medical training.
In June 1944, England worked in the aftermath of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, alongside a small team of medics. There, England said, he witnessed horrific injuries as he helped transport hundreds of bloody soldiers to operation tents. A man had half of his face missing, he said.
“I don’t want to be seen as a hero,” England said. “I was just doing my job like any doctor.”
When the war ended in 1945, the private first class came home the same way it left – on a train.
He was one of the many American soldiers who left through the station. Others never returned.
Richard Bardelli, the construction manager at Ford who led the tour, said he was moved by the stories of England about WWII and the people he knew who never made it home, including his best friend.
“You get chills thinking about this,” Bardelli said. “That’s what this building does for people. It reminds me of when they came and when they left.
When England returned from the war, his family had moved from Tre-Way. Michigan Central Station was no longer part of his daily life. But he still calls the station “home”.
After the war, England said he took a two-year course under the GI Bill and attended electronics school near the Fox Theater.
“It saved my whole future,” he said. “I now had a trade.”
He then worked for the University of Michigan at Willow Run, where he had an exciting career as an electronics technician.
A few years ago, England and his wife, Lucille, who died in June, drove past Michigan Central Station after spending the day in Belle Isle with church friend Kathy Giles, 63, from Garden City . Giles said England had started talking about their dream of walking the halls of the station again.
Attempts to get England inside the building before Ford started renovating it were unsuccessful. But a few months ago, Giles, a retired Chrysler employee, said she contacted a former colleague who initiated the connection with Mark Truby, Ford’s director of communications.
“In ten minutes it was a done deal and we were on our way,” Giles said.
For Bardelli, the tour reinforced the sense of responsibility he feels to restore the resort that holds memories for generations of Detroiters. “Never in a million years did I think I would have the chance to work on its restoration,” said Bardelli.
The massive project involved the meticulous replacement of thousands of decorative pieces in the station waiting room, repairing ceilings, and replacing hundreds of limestone blocks.
The redevelopment project also uncovered a treasure trove of historical artifacts such as an old bottle of whiskey left by plasterers over 100 years ago, shoe polish, bottles of Stroh’s beer, old banknotes of train and newspaper pages.
Ford plans to open the newly restored Central Michigan with retail, dining and community gathering spaces in mid-2023. It will be located in a 30-acre Mobility Innovation District. Ford is investing $ 950 million in the restoration of historic buildings, including Michigan Central Station, which will be on the pedestrian campus.
England – which has witnessed massive advancements in transport in its lifetime, from the heyday of train travel to the rise of air travel – is excited about what the future of mobility has in store for us. .
And standing outside Michigan Central Station, he expressed his gratitude that it is being held in a monument to his past.
“It gave me the feeling that people can always have a heart for things that someone else might put under the rug.”
SOURCE: Detroit Free Press.
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