Generations of Detroiters used to park themselves under the jaw-dropping ornate plasterwork and opulence of a downtown movie palace called the Michigan Theater. Today, it's where they park their cars. Ironic, considering it was built atop Henry Ford's first workshop.

The city of Detroit exploded in size seemingly overnight as the great wealth from Henry Ford's mass manufacturing of automobiles enriched the city. Skyscrapers popped up throughout the expanding downtown city center.


One of these, built at Bagley and Cass avenues at a cost of more than $3.5 million ($42.4 million today, when adjusted for inflation), connected to a 4000 seat movie theater on the ground floor called the Michigan Theater. It was the only Detroit theater designed by renowned architects Cornelius W. and George L. Rapp and was the brothers' third largest. It and the 13-story Michigan Building office tower that it is connected to, would open in 1926.

But, as time passed and suburban metroplexes with free parking emerged, the Michigan Theater with its lack of parking failed and the commercial viability of the Michigan Building was similarly threatened.

After a stint as the state's largest nightclub — a 1,500-person venue hosting acts as varied as Aerosmith, Bob Seger, David Bowie Rush, and Blue Oyster Cult — the solution was to turn the theater into a parking lot. But not just any parking lot — the most beautiful parking lot in the world.


So in 1977, the building's owners paid $525,000 to gut the theater and build a three-level, 160-space parking deck inside it. The mezzanine and balcony were brought down, as was the grand staircase and one wall of the grand lobby. While walls were knocked out and beauty ravaged, much of the theater remains today. Its ticket booth, four-story lobby, proscenium arch, part of the upper balcony, and even the red curtain, all partially remain.


But what is most ironic about the decrepit parking lot is not that it was once a gorgeous Detroit theater built out of the opulence of the cars that enriched the city. No, it's that the building housing the parking lot built out of a gorgeous Detroit theater was actually built atop the site of Henry Ford's first workshop. We always supplant that which comes before us, don't we?


[More: atDetroit, Buildings of Detroit via HemmingsNews]

Photo Credit: Bourbon Baby; Life; Walter P. Reuther Museum; scottrreed

Share This Story

Get our newsletter