First Major Renovation To Open At Michigan Central
June 4, 2021
The Book Depository will be the first major renovation at Michigan Central to open its doors, as one of several anchor buildings that will welcome entrepreneurs and startups as well as members of Ford’s mobility team from Detroit and around the world to develop, test and launch solutions to urban transportation challenges.
And it’s fitting that the Book Depository renovation open first, says Katie Rinaldi, Planning Lead for Ford Motor Company’s Michigan Central development, a new mobility innovation district in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Because although Michigan Central Station is the iconic masterpiece that will anchor the district, “the Book Depository is the heart.”
From the beginning, the Book Depository was built as a partner for Michigan Central Station, says award-winning Design Director Lily Diego of Gensler, the firm that is renovating and reimagining the classic Albert Kahn structure: “They were always meant to be a couple.”
In the 1930s, when the “Architect of Detroit,” Albert Kahn, designed the plans, ideas traveled mostly on paper, and most of that paper traveled by train. So it only made sense to build Detroit’s main post office—the Book Depository’s first role—adjacent to the train station. Underground, Michigan Central Station and the Book Depository are connected by a tunnel big enough to drive a car through, that originally allowed seamless transfers of mail in any weather, and will now allow mobility innovators to drive (or fly, or scoot) their pilot projects right into the Book Depository’s basement.
Kahn, who also designed Detroit landmarks like the Fisher Building, the Ford Rotunda, and Ford’s Rouge Plant, loved to showcase “engineering as an art form,” says Diego. The art of simple structure on full display at the Book Depository, with its large floorplates, twenty-foot ceilings, abundant windows, and signature Kahn “martini columns,” which flute out like martini glasses at the foot and caps. Those columns were a signature “only-in-Detroit” feature of industrial design at the time, not found in other cities. But they’re not just visually striking. They also give the building maximum support with minimum use of space.
To build it all, Kahn used a material combination that was innovative at the time: reinforced concrete, which he hoped would render the building fireproof. The wisdom of that design was proved almost fifty years later, in 1987, when a huge fire swept through the then-abandoned building. The reinforced concrete of Kahn’s original design stayed sturdy despite the flames, preserving the underlying structure intact – which made it a strong candidate for renovation.
If Michigan Central Station and the Book Depository are a couple, Diego says, they could be seen as an odd one. “Michigan Central is slender and gorgeous,” she says, “while the Book Depository is this robust monumental fortress.” And Rinaldi observes that the approach to renovating the two buildings has been different. The goal of renovation at Michigan Central Station is to restore the architectural masterwork, sister-station to New York’s Grand Central, to its original grandeur. But at the Book Depository, Rinaldi says, “there was more room to embrace the gritty industrial use, and reimagine the space for innovators of the future.”
Gensler’s renovation will give the Book Depository, which got its name during a second life storing books for Detroit Public Schools, much of the dramatic impact usually associated with Michigan Central Station. The original ground floor plan was wide open, but Gensler’s design opens it even further, with glass walls that stretch from floor to ceiling – always impressive, but especially so when the ceilings are nineteen feet tall. These huge windows flood the building with light. But more important, says Diego, they provide a view into the building, exposing “the surprise and delight of what’s happening inside, and blurring the line between interior and exterior.”
Innovators who work in the space will discover that the Book Depository works “like a choose-your-own-adventure,” Diego says. Pathways across the wide floor plate create connections in all directions, between a variety of amenities, including a food and beverage area and meeting spaces which are also available for the community to rent. A plaza outside will also host a temporary mobility hub offering the community access to micro-mobility options.
But cutting-edge innovation also involves sensitive information. The Gensler team wanted the building to welcome everyone, from the community and far beyond. But they also knew some information needed to be kept private until the time is right. As a result, upper floors are designed with security in mind.
The most striking feature of the interior is the atrium, inspired by the presence of a cavity in the center of the original building, probably created when machinery was removed years ago. Gensler expanded it into a vast open space that cuts through four floors and measures a hundred and twenty feet in length. It’s so large that it will allow testing of drones within the building walls. The atrium also draws light deep into each floor, and encourages all kinds of meetings between people, to promote interactions that spark innovation.
Those new features echo the simplicity of Kahn’s original design, but achieving that
effect was anything but simple. It required its own innovations in engineering. “Installing glass that’s nineteen feet high, or cantilevering an atrium between four floors of a concrete building with no additional infrastructure, is no small feat,” Diego says.
Renovated and reimagined, the Book Depository will be a next-generation collection of maker space for local and global innovators, where workspaces and meeting places are built “with choice as a cornerstone of the design,” says Diego. Since no one can be sure exactly what innovators will need to create the future of mobility, the spaces in the Book Depository have been designed for maximum flexibility, Diego says, “from an adaptive kit of parts, where everything from furniture to fixtures can be flipped, moved, or reused” to support a virtually endless variety of uses.
And the building will serve as a showcase of innovation and works in progress, to give the Detroit community and visitors from far beyond a glimpse into the revolutionary mobility technology being created at Michigan Central.
But from the day the Book Depository first opened its doors, to the moment it opens again as a unique home to a community of mobility innovators, its story has always been the same. Its underlying structure is a celebration of the art of engineering. And whether the ideas under its roof were written in letters, stored on the pages of books, or refined in the mobility studios of the future, it’s always been a place for the exchange of ideas.