Wood/Stone/Brick 6: The Evolution of A2 Depot Buildings

Ann Arbor was established along the transportation corridors of the Huron River and the railroad that stretches from Detroit to Chicago. Its growth is an example of Transit Oriented Development (TOD). The ease of travel afforded by the railroad made it easier to obtain supplies and building materials, and to travel to and from other cities along the Michigan Central railroad line. Three of Ann Arbor’s depot buildings continue to exist. They have served passengers, mail and freight, and share interesting features that are recognized as components of sustainable buildings.

The Coming of the Railroad: Early Transit Oriented Development

Depot Street has long been a transportation hub for Ann Arbor. Rails were placed and service arrived in October 1839, just two years following Michigan’s establishment as a state. The first train, filled with passengers from Detroit, was welcomed by a parade from Depot Street to Main Street. The parade-goers gathered on the town square, had a picnic and many toasts to this major event in Ann Arbor’s transportation history. (1)

The new train service reduced travel time between Detroit and Ann Arbor from a one or two day walk to two and one half hours (2). The improved connection with Detroit, through to Chicago, helped Ann Arbor to benefit from this early example of what we now recognize as Transit Oriented Development.

Ann Arbor’s First Depot Buildings: Wood

The original Michigan Central depot building burned in 1845 (3), along with several warehouses that were located on Depot Street. At that point in history, risk of fire was a serious hazard. The replacement depot (left) was built after 1845, and remains in use today.

The wooden replacement depot was moved uphill from Depot Street, to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Beakes Street. According to a July 3, 1958 Ann Arbor News article, “It was moved to this site when the present depot was erected on Carey St. in 1886. A lower wing [of] the former depot has been removed, the roof lowered and a front porch added.” (4)

The move and re-use of the depot building represents the kind of sustainability that is currently acknowledged as a “green” approach to the built environment, that is, the remodeling and repurposing of an existing structure. Moving a building saved materials and retained the useful qualities of an existing structure.

The iconic Michigan Central Railroad building at 401 Depot Street, was completed in 1886, when railroad companies invested in unique and long-lasting buildings. It was recognized by many as the finest railroad on the Michigan Central line. Designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque form, by Detroit Architect Frederick Spiers, it includes stone native to Washtenaw County and to northern Michigan. The grand depot served as Ann Arbor’s center for passenger rail until 1969. It remains an impressive, distinctive landmark building. Today, its use as the Gandy Dancer restaurant, located within steps of the current Amtrak station is another example of adaptive re-use of an existing building that continues to contribute to the Ann Arbor community as a symbol of the grand era of passenger rail travel.

Amtrak Service and the Transportation in the Auto Era: Brick

In the 1960’s, passenger train travel declined and automobile travel increased. In 1971, Amtrak service was established nationally, in place of privately managed passenger rail service.

For a few years following the sale of Ann Arbor’s landmark depot, passengers waited for trains in the small express building that was attached to the west side of the main depot building/restaurant. It soon became clear that the cramped space of the express building was insu#cient for passenger service.

In 1979, the city of Ann Arbor undertook a study to determine where to place a new railroad station (5). After assessing multiple locations, the decision was made to continue to use the nearby area of Depot Street for passenger rail service, just west of the Michigan Central depot/Gandy Dancer.

In the era of Amtrak, the Ann Arbor depot that is in place today was based on the Amtrak Standard Stations Program. The clever design was used all over the Midwest, and provided Amtrak with both brand recognition for its depots, and cost savings on building design and furnishings (6). As an additional feature, the design was intended to allow for ease of expansion according to passenger service demand. According to an Amtrak communication, “A prime factor in the standard design is the flexibility of the station concept, taking into account future growth to create a station that can expand as business increases. The basic stations were so designed that the building ends can be removed and interiors expanded without interference with station operations during expansion.”(7)

Ann Arbor’s version of the standardized Amtrak station was selected to match the demand for passenger service. Accord- ing to the design manual, “Station square footage and amenities were determined by the “peak hour passenger count” (peak count), or the number of passengers who passed through the building in the busiest hour of the day.

While the simple lines of the 1980 Ann Arbor Amtrak Station contrast signi"cantly with the impressive 1886 depot, the 1980 design is in tune with cost-e!ective service focused on transportation rather than on an edi"ce. It continues to sup- port passenger rail service and is consistent with the Amtrak transition to an era of public-"nanced mass transit.

Amtrak owns the building and parking areas of the Ann Arbor Amtrak station on Depot Street. A possible outcome of the Ann Arbor Amtrak Environmental Assessment could be to implement the expansion de- sign of the Amtrak Standard Stations Program. Use of that approach would be consistent with the history of re-use of Ann Arbor’s depot buildings, to serve the passenger rail service needs for 2016 and beyond.


(1) History of Washtenaw County, Michigan: Together with Sketches of Its Cities, digitized. P. 341-3.

(2) Detroit: The History and Future of the Motor City, http://detroit1701.org/Detroit_Homepage.html#.VoiZPDZ_fss

(3) A History of Ann Arbor, Jon Marwil, University of Michigan Press, 1991, p. 8.

(4) Let’s Take a Look at Urban Renewal; Area Considered Has Varied History, Ann Arbor News, July 3, 1958. http://aastreets.aadl.org/aastreets/site10/aastreets_train_station

(5) The Ann Arbor Depot: A First Phase Investigation on Location Alternatives for Rail Passenger Facilities, 15 November, 1979.

(6) The Amtrak Standard Stations Program, March 4, 2013, http://history.amtrak.com/blogs/blog/creat- ing-a-visual-identity-the-amtrak-standard-stations-program

(7) ) The Ann Arbor Depot: A First Phase Investigation on Location Alternatives for Rail Passenger Facili- ties, 15 November, 1979, Appendix C: Amtrak Standard Design for Station Facilities, Ann Arbor District Library, see Reference (5) above.

[Originally posted May 4, 2016]