Detroit House

1.

“Can we take a look at the old theater?”

My friend and I were in downtown Detroit and had ventured into the lobby of something called the Michigan building. Visitors to town, we were unsure what kind of cajoling would be needed to let us into the crumbling theater that we’d heard was hidden inside.

“$20,” said the guard.

“Really?” Too high.

“$10.”

More like it—

“$5”

Sold—

“Just messing with y’all. It’s free—take the elevator the third floor, go right, then through the exit sign.”

2.

I’d read about this place on the Detroit blogs, blogs that sported cool urban-explorer names like “Faded Detroit,” and “detroitfunk.” These sites specialize in what’s become known as “ruin porn,” wistful photography that glorifies deterioration and degeneration. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, especially when it comes to theaters, so upon learning of this faded palace, I knew I had to make a visit.

The blogs had laid out the basics: Once a palatial, 4,000-seat house featuring the likes of the Marx Brothers, John Philip Sousa and Bob Hope, the Michigan had barely skirted demolition in the late ‘70s, but was converted into a garage when workers in the office building it’s in whined about inadequate parking. The result was a faint echo of the former glory, but some of the old magic, I heard, could still be found.

3.

As directed, my friend and I headed up, went right, made our way down some steps, through another door, and—

“Ahhhhhh—!!!!!!!”

There she was! A brick and plaster cavern, a frozen Rococo tent, the most absurd and fantastical parking lot known to man. The walls rippled Mars brown and red, grey and cement, faded gold and seasick green.

Heaven, in other words.

Navigating the 15-odd cars in hibernation, we found a spot in the center of the shell and pieced together what we could of the theater’s history. Three levels of parking had been installed at some point—we were on the top floor—so that explained our proximity to the glorious ceiling. Glancing up, we could see the gorgeously spoiled plasterwork almost intimately—a glyph here, a fleur-de-lis there.

We turned around, taking in the back of the house. There stood the stub of what must’ve been the balcony. There were the old corridors leading patrons to their seats. And there was what used to be the rooftop of the lobby.

The curve of the ceiling directed our eyes forward, to the proscenium. The concrete floors had cut off both of its legs, but the rounded top sat mostly undisturbed.

Beyond it lay the gap of the stage itself, a vast maw untouched by the parking lot, if not by the elements.

The water dripped and the sun shone through and flanks of rust and mold continued their slow crusade and I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful. Why? Decay creates a mystical regret that makes us (or me, at least) feel curious and humbled and part of the Bigger Picture, no less guarded from the steady, wearying forces of time than the buildings around us. It’s like looking at the stars and feeling small and big at the same time, and knowing that The Answer, the simple answer, is right there, embedded in something physical just beyond your touch.

4.

Detroiters, of course, are starved for this kind of transcendence. We all know how the city has turned into a brittle chrysalis, how the jobs and the factories and the prosperity have vanished, how the public trust has gone sour. How plywood fills the windows of downtown office buildings. How traffic lights, if they work at all, blink the same eternal pulse: red black red black redblackredblack. How homes lost to foreclosure sprout trees like so many nursery gardens.

This is the roiling landscape Lisa D’Amour chose for her Pulizer Prize finalist of a play, Detroit, seen earlier this fall at Playwrights Horizons.

Walking around the Michigan Theater it was impossible not to think of D’Amour’s play, a play that culminates in the destruction of a house. Taking in the Michigan’s slow demise, I wondered, are its remains so different from the charred beams and joists of D’Amour’s play?

Not really, if only for the delightful happenstance that theaters are often referred to as, well, houses. I love this: What word could be more appropriate for spaces that soothe and rattle, welcome and surprise, nurture and madden?

So there we stood, my friend and I, in a crumbling Detroit house, acting as its small, temporary family.

Of course, a family turns a house into something else entirely.

A home.

There might only have been two of us, but in that moment, we filled the Michigan. She was a full house. A full home.

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Comments

  1. This is some beautiful decay. Another favorite is Central Terminal. Nice work!

  2. It’s sad to see the condition of old theaters like this that needs to be restored to its previous glory. However, many buildings in Detroit are suffering the same degeneration and abandonment and will likely be torn down (if they haven’t already). It’s a shame that history will fade out of existence.

  3. Thanks for posting I had to share it as I have a picture of it on my Pinterest. It’s a good read! Congrats on FP!

  4. Nice work, young man!!!

  5. Awful and awesome, decayed and delicately in ruin from one era to another. Your genuine interest shows through in the pictures you presented in this blog. We are so caught up in the brand new that we tend to ignore past accomplishments and the craftsmanship all about us.
    My question is; what haunts us to seek out the remains of the past?

  6. sweet, would really like to go there.

  7. Awesome photographs – I would love to see it in person! Thanks.

  8. Awesome shots, great write up and story. I am a sucker for ruin porn. I hope to visit Detroit soon to explore for myself. Great job on being freshly pressed!

  9. Great post. I reblogged this on . Thank you for the wounderful pictures.

  10. Reblogged this on Ruths Ingenieurbüro and commented:
    I have seen this place before in a picture book about Detroit. I was not yet in the US, but if I will go there this will be a place I want to see by my own. It is fascinating though sad. It is about what is/was important to the people in different times.

  11. Wow..Its so beautiful..
    Great photos! Thanks for sharing them!

  12. Absolutely stunning photos! Just by looking at them, I feel “feel curious and humbled”. And fantastic writing to add to that!

  13. Now this is one dilapidated Detroit building I’d love to see. Thanks for this. Road trip!

  14. Wow, a theater living its second life as a parking space. I imagine, there is hardly any other town but Detroit where that might be possible. Beautiful written and with beautiful shots in addition. Great work!

  15. I never knew this was there! I’m from MI – amazing!

  16. Amazing post! I went to school near Detroit and would always see art students’ photos in settings like this, but I always assumed they were rebels who had broken in. Had no idea they were open for anyone to explore. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Amazing. My parents grew up in MI, and we visit often, but my husband and I had never been into downtown Detroit. We drove into town this last trip to see the Motown Museum and the DIA. I was fascinated and saddened by the state of things. All those beautifully ornate art deco buildings standing empty and slowly falling apart.

  18. Maybe you could get some people to help revive this awesome architecture?

  19. free penny press says:

    Great post.. much enjoyed and congrats on being FP!! well deserved!

  20. Reblogged this on victorsmoviereviews and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  21. great pics,good writer!

  22. moving to Detroit – make that the Detroit suburbs – within a year. I’m a native NYC girl. I write. I can’t imagine living in a place with such a decayed city, where the suburbanites there have so little connection to their urban core. So sad, but maybe maybe it can come back if enough Americans care. Maybe, I can be part of the solution. Great read and I’ll follow you plus the Detroit bloggers to hopefully make some new connections.

  23. I can’t believe the decadence of allowing such magnificence just decay like that. It’s very sad.

  24. Wonderful pictures! Thanks!

  25. Wow, it’s gorgeous.

  26. Wow — that’s one heck of a parking garage. I hate to see a place like that deteriorating, but I’m glad you shared it with us so we could enjoy its magnificence. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  27. It’s unfortunate the lives and occupations have to be ruined to make such haunting sites… That being said, I can’t stop myself from photographing it and wondering.

  28. Nice tie to the play and wouldn’t it be “grand” to bring it to life in that grand old theater? Beautiful pictures of another time. Thanks for sharing this piece of American history.

  29. I loved this post. Great pics, beautiful place, and I love your writing.

  30. Interesting post and great photos. Thanks for sharing!

  31. Wow. You just made me travel through your writing!

  32. This post is really interesting thanks for sharing! The images are lovely and tell a story themselves. Keep it up, congrats on FP!

  33. Amazing architecture! Wow. Thanks for sharing!

  34. Harrison, this is absolutely amazing! I’m so glad you got to go!

  35. Katie Gilbert says:

    Oh the wistfulness indeed! To see the beautiful old lady surviving in spite of cars, weather and neglect is inspiring. Thank you for sharing the adventure with us!

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