Adventures in trespassing

Lucas McGrail walks into the front lobby of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station and steps over a sandstone wall panel that lies in pieces on the floor. Pigeons flee their perches near the ceiling far above, their wingflaps echoing loudly through the huge, empty room. McGrail looks down at the sandstone and points out the mason’s grease pencil marks, from the 1910s, on the exposed edge. He picks up a half-full bottle of water and squirts it onto the grimy floor.

"There’s beauty still, under this crap," he says. He rubs his foot in the muddy spot until it clears, revealing marble under the dirt.

A faint boom resounds behind the building – the sound of concrete being crushed as workers tear up the train yard to lay track for a new rail development. Outside, beyond the space where the station’s great bronze doors once stood, cars roll by along Michigan Avenue. Above the doorway, tall windows are pocked with bullet holes.

"Yeah, it’s messy. Yeah, it’s filthy," McGrail says, looking at the faded remnants of a mural on one wall, bricks crashed to the floor, broken glass and dust everywhere. "But guys like me look at it and say, yeah, it could come back."

Architectural adventurers

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 are looking for adventure, some are curious about Detroit’s architecture, and some see themselves as historians, documenting their explorations on the Web.

They have counterparts around the world, fellow adventurers who risk injury and arrest to visit forbidden places. A Web ring operated by the magazine Infiltration (see related Netropolis column dated 7/14/99) links local explorers with people who explore the sewers of Paris and search for Toronto’s lost subway station.

The extremes that shaped Detroit in the 20th century have made it an especially fascinating city 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. His Web site, The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, draws international attention to the city’s abandoned architecture.

"I don’t think there’s any place in the world with contemporary ruins of such grandeur and elegance," he says.

Not far from some of downtown’s abandoned landmarks is Pure Detroit, a city-themed store. Co-owner Bill Atwood says, "I think (exploring buildings has) become really popular in certain circles down here. I don’t think there’s any major building that hasn’t already been explored."

The Michigan Central Station is undoubtedly the most-visited abandoned building in Detroit. Eighteen stories tall, it towers ominously, impossible to ignore in the daytime, looming and ghostly at night.

Though the station was closed in 1987, many people found easy ways to get into it throughout much of the ‘90s. The station has attracted curiosity seekers, rail fans and paintballers – as well as skinheads, gang members, vandals and homeless people. It’s hosted an underground rave, a well-publicized art exhibit and even fashion shoots.

Now, it’s harder to visit; the company that manages the station has it under regular surveillance, and the train yard behind it is often full of workers.

Grave robbers and artists

Many people just explore the train station and leave it at that. But some get the urge to see more.

David Kohrman, a history major at Western Michigan University, drives from Kalamazoo to Detroit every few weeks to explore old hotels and theaters and meet with other explorers. His Web site, "Forgotten Detroit", features interior photos of several buildings, including the Statler Hotel and the Adams and United Artists theaters. He’s stood on the roof of the 33-story Book-Cadillac Hotel on Michigan Avenue, enjoying the view of downtown. During his search of the hotel, he found wine cellars that were still fully stocked – as well as foul-smelling beer and food storage areas, the latter still full of 15-year-old oranges and olives.

He’s seen the hotel’s third-floor ballroom, with its two-story arched windows, beautiful plasterwork decorations, rows of balconies and two giant chandeliers.

A few blocks to the north, he’s admired the United Artists Theater’s Spanish Gothic design mixed with statues of Indian maidens, arms stretched to hold up the ceiling.

But the buildings have all decayed since they were closed; many of his photos show water-damaged walls or acoustic-tile ceilings and ventilation ducts that have collapsed onto the floors.

Kohrman and the other explorers say they won’t break into sealed buildings, and most say they won’t take anything except paper items, such as old stationery. They want to see the places preserved, and won’t do anything that damages them.

"I only go in buildings that are obviously open to trespass," says Atwood.

Kohrman tagged along when the city opened the Statler Hotel and the Kales Building on Grand Circus Park for developers’ tours. Otherwise he, too, looks for entrances opened by others. He says he once had a dream about going into the United Artists’ Theater – then drove there and found a door unlocked.

Once inside, Kohrman takes pictures for his Web site, which he sees as a way to call people’s attention to the abandoned structures downtown.

"My motivation is to try to help people remember what I see as being forgotten buildings, to remember the history of these buildings, what these buildings meant to the city" – and, he says, to "expose what’s happened to them, all the vandalism, theft, the carelessness of the owners."

In the past few years, he says, the chandeliers in the Book-Cadillac’s once-grand ballroom have been lowered to the floor so people could take the crystals. At the UA Theater, two of the Indian maidens have been sliced in half, their top halves gone; the faces of two others have been chiseled off.

In addition to souvenir hunters, people searching for scrap metal have ripped pipes out of walls and taken apart elevator motors for the copper inside. Kohrman calls the building strippers "thieves," "swine," and "grave robbers."

"I just can’t believe that someone would be so stupid. Not only are you stealing something from the building’s owner – common theft – you’re also reducing the building’s chance of being renovated. You played a role in denying future generations the enjoyment of that building, stealing a building from the world, from everybody else."

Though other explorers share Kohrman’s respect and concern for the buildings, they say different impulses motivate their explorations.

For Lucas McGrail, it’s the challenge. "I have kind of an adventurous nature. It’s the explorer in me."

And indeed, his descriptions of his forays into the train station and downtown theaters make him sound like an urban Indiana Jones. While the train station’s immensity was "humbling," he says, the small spaces of the theaters were "unnerving." With no windows, he found himself in perfect darkness inside – and discovered that the closed-off spaces were surprisingly cold.

"In the Adams Theater, we were really in the dark, and it was 10 or 15 degrees colder inside. At the United Artists Theater, inside we could see our breath in mid-summer."

Inspiration, preservation, hesitation

Another reason for exploring old ruins is to gain artistic inspiration, notes Lowell Boileau. Something about Detroit’s dying buildings seems to inspire many artists, photographers and musicians, he notes.

"There’s something magical about finding someplace that was a very active place, very elegantly appointed architecturally, and to see it in decay," Boileau says. "There’s some sort of bizarre appeal to it that probably doesn’t have a name."

While these explorers talk passionately about wanting to see historic buildings preserved, they’re pessimistic that Detroit’s leaders will ever make an effort to do so.

"Nothing is too far gone. You can rebuild anything if you have the money and interest to do so," insists Atwood, who is himself restoring a house in Brush Park. "But you have to be realistic. In Detroit there are a lot of buildings that I don’t think ever would be restored. I don’t think the will is here to do that."

Boileau says he’s seen too many plans to save downtown buildings fall through; he figures most of the ruins of Detroit are destined for demolition.

"A few of them will survive," he says. "But there are so many, the devastation is so widespread, and the need for Detroit to move on is so imperative – they’re doomed, I’m certain."

Danger afoot

On the train station’s fifth floor, the carpeted floor of one old office is almost impassable, covered with building debris. Some wall panels have been smashed and knocked to the floor; they’ve shattered along the marble’s grain into long, rough vertical shards.

Vandals have broken practically every window in the station, and when you stand at certain doorways, the wind creates a constant stormlike blast.

At one end of the hallway, a couple named Jeremy and Victoria have written a pledge of their love in what looks like red-brown paint on the terra-cotta floor. McGrail spits on the outside of the heart and rubs it; the brown stuff darkens. "It’s blood," he says, holding his finger to the letters: They’re as wide as a fingertip.

It’s not the only blood he’s seen in the station. He once found a pool of blood near the shards of a broken window, with a trail of drops leading back to the stairs.

Injuries, self-inflicted or not, 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." Once, he says, he was exploring the Metropolitan Building, near Harmonie Park, with a woman who slipped and wrenched her ankle.

"I’m always worried in a building that I’ll find a body or something," he adds, telling the word-of-mouth story about people looking for scrap metal in a Detroit warehouse and discovering the skeleton of a paintball player, in paint-splattered combat fatigues, at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

The closest he’s come to finding a body was on another trip to the Metropolitan Building. He was outside a kitchen, and he saw a 4-foot shelf cut out of the wall where the cook would set out food to be served. The space in the wall was closed off with a coiled metal grille.

"I was trying to open it when I noticed, on the other side, something gray, like a sausage. It was a finger." He yelled in surprise, scaring his exploring companion – then wrapped up the finger and turned it in at a police station.

Urban explorers take risks they don’t suggest others take. "I don’t recommend that anybody do this," says Josh Kahl, a pizza deliveryman from Detroit who explores with Kohrman and has put up his own exploration Web site.

"The people that 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," says Kahl.

There’s also the danger of breathing in asbestos. When Kohrman left the Book-Cadillac after exploring its roof, asbestos was caked all over his boots.

And yes, there’s the risk of getting caught. Kohrman has heard of people caught in the train station receiving tickets from police, and Detroit Police Lt. Thomas Walton of the First Precinct, which covers downtown, says people caught entering a building illegally can be charged with a misdemeanor, possibly punishable by fines and jail time.

But downtown police aren’t used to looking for abandoned building explorers, and while he’s encountered building strippers, Walton says he hasn’t heard about anyone sneaking into downtown commercial buildings because of an interest in architecture.

"If somebody can get into one of these buildings because it’s not secure, I’m not even sure how they might be discovered," Walton admits. But because the recent schoolgirl rapes have raised concern about people lurking in abandoned buildings, police are required to drive by the ones in their precincts to make sure they’re closed up.

Train station visitors also risk arrest, says Todd White, a real estate representative for Properties Management of Warren. White’s company manages the station for its owner, Control Terminals, Inc. – one of the business interests of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Maroun. The company used to grant permission for people such as photography groups and architecture students to visit the building, but not anymore; some visitors "very badly abused" their access to the station, he says.

"When the police see someone in the building, they have instructions to arrest them," says White. "They call us, and we decide whether or not to prosecute, and we have been prosecuting."

Forgotten faces

Even if they’re not worried about cops, the explorers are wary of who else they’ll meet. Homeless people, who probably open up most of the ways into buildings, generally leave explorers alone. One explorer says she once stumbled upon someone’s belongings in an empty warehouse, including kitty litter for a pet cat.

Most explorers have met a homeless man named Catfish, who lived in the train station until recently. He had running water to drink and wash his clothes in – flowing constantly from a pipe in the recently demolished train sheds just outside.

Kohrman says he and a friend once went into an office on the 16th floor of the United Artists’ Building and found a locked door and some newspapers from a few days before.

"We’re standing five feet from the door talking, and all of a sudden the door opens, a homeless lady’s staring at us, for like five seconds we’re staring at her. She slams the door, locks it. We were out of there."

More worrisome is the risk of running into the people who leave bullet holes in the train station. McGrail says Catfish showed him spent shell casings from a dozen different kinds of ammunition, including ammo from an AK-47, left by people who’ve used the station as a free-for-all shooting gallery.

Considering the risks, Kohrman says he doesn’t think people should explore buildings for the thrill.

"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," he 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 the part-time jobs where he makes money. He hopes for a career in historic preservation, and he considers it part of his calling to publicize the troubled state of Detroit’s architectural heritage.

"Some people like to be soldiers – that’s a risky job – or they like being cops. 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."

For him, his mission is worth the risk. "I am a little cautious. If I see something that looks suspect, I don’t go near it, but ... If I ever got injured in a building, or killed, at least I’m doing what I like."

On the fifth floor of the train station, Lucas McGrail walks carefully through the shards of marble, toward the stairs. He’s wearing a hard hat, a heavy coat, gloves and boots – and he’s talking about the curiosity seekers he’s seen in the station, some of them dressed 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 they’re going to die. One person gets killed, it’s going to ruin it for the rest of us."

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