Curated Ruins and Un-Memorials: The Afterlife of Detroit’s Michigan Theater

I came across Gabriel Moshenska’s Curated Ruins and the Endurance of Conflict Heritage (2015) via Twitter last week, which happily coincided with my first visit to Detroit’s former Michigan Theater (there’s a gallery at the bottom of the post). Though Moshenksa focuses on the ruins of conflict and violence (specifically World War II ruins in Europe) in his piece, it got me thinking about whether some of the concepts from his article could apply to Detroit’s abandoned structures, as well.

In this post, I’ll discuss the life history of the Michigan before turning to Moshenska’s discussion of “curation” and how histories of violence and conflict impact the way we perceive and care for the built environment.

“The Great Showplace of the Middle West”

The Michigan is part of a 13-story building built on the site of a small garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile, the quadricycle. Ford had the garage moved brick by brick to his museum in Dearborn, and the 13-story Michigan Building, which houses offices and the theater, took its place in 1925. The theater cost about $3.5 million to build, or $41.4 million today, adjusted for inflation (Historic Detroit). The theater could seat over 4,000 people, and while the auditorium was stunning, the opulent lobby and the common areas that overlook it—where everyone would’ve gone to socialize before the show and during intermissions–was the pride of the Michigan. The lobby had a massive grand staircase, marble columns and archways, checkered tile floors, fountains, chandeliers, and famous works of art lining the walls.

The Michigan’s Grand Lobby, photo via Wayne State University

The Michigan opened during a transitional period in the history of theater and cinema, where live stage shows and orchestra/organ performances were integrated into silent film screenings. Historic Detroit notes that typical shows at the theater consisted of a concert by the orchestra, two 20-minute stage shows, singers and dancers and then a film (films were silent until 1928, so the orchestra and organist provided the accompaniment). Stars like the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, Louis Armstrong, Red Skelton, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Doris Day, the Dorsey Brothers and Bette Davis all graced the Michigan’s stage.

By the 1950s, however, movies and live entertainment like plays and concerts had separate dedicated spaces and different cultures of entertainment. The Michigan began focusing mostly on movies, installing a wide screen in 1954 that caused some of the first damage to the theater’s proscenium arch. The theater quickly became unprofitable; it was during this time that people were leaving Detroit for the suburbs, and many theaters downtown closed. In the 1960s the Michigan briefly became a supper club before transitioning into a venue for rock concerts (for performers like David Bowie, The Stooges, The New York Dolls, Aerosmith, Bob Seger, Rush, Iron Butterfly, Blue Oyster Cult and Badfinger). It finally closed in 1976 and was converted into parking space for the Michigan Building offices.

Post-(Partial) Demolition

The Michigan was partially spared because its complete demolition would’ve compromised the structural integrity of the office tower to which it’s attached. By 1977, decades of intermittent maintenance and destructive rockers from the club’s penultimate stage of life had damaged the interior of the theater, and any valuable fixtures had been sold via antiques dealers hired to clean the place out.

Demo of the theater's interior in 1977
Demo of the theater’s interior in 1977, photo via Wayne State University

But even if the Michigan was saved by a technicality, keeping all that plaster work in the auditorium and lobby, which requires at least some maintenance to keep it from falling onto people and their vehicles, was an interesting choice. The building’s owner at the time told the Detroit Free Press that he wanted to “leave something of the theater’s beauty intact” (Historic Detroit). In that respect, the Michigan is a perfect example of a Thomasson; it was partially spared because it’s beautiful, and it is maintained, albeit minimally.

The Michigan is often compared to both the United Artists Theater next door (opened 1928, closed 1975 and currently decaying) and the Fox Theater, opened in 1928 and still in operation (it was extensively rehabbed in the late 80s). The Michigan occupies the weird, liminal space between the total ruin of the former and the restored glory of the latter, and I think it draws people precisely for this reason. When we think of the possible trajectories for a building like this (some of which Moshenska outlines in his piece), we gravitate towards either demolition on one end of the spectrum or rehabilitation/reuse on the other. A parking garage is an example of reuse, but the Michigan is a contradictory blend of demolition and preservation. The juxtaposition of the plain concrete floors, rusty fencing, and exposed brick walls of the parking garage with the ornate, beautifully decaying molding and marble of the theater is jarring.

As mentioned above, part of one wall of the theater is fencing to facilitate ventilation of the parking space, and this means the remains of the theater are open to air, humidity, heat, freezing temps, light, and a variety of other things that will cause plaster and the scaffolding that holds it to deteriorate. I didn’t see any chunks of plaster or dislodged steel rods lying around during my visits, but I noticed that there were many more cars parked on the lower levels, where they’re less likely to sustain damage if a something does fall, than on the upper level.

The exterior of the Michigan Theater building in August 2015, showing the fencing where the parking garage is
The exterior of the Michigan Theater building in August 2015, showing the fencing where the parking garage is. Photo by the author.

I went back to the Michigan on a different day to talk to people who work in the building and learn more about how the theater space functions for them. The partial existence of the theater is mostly a hassle for current employees, for multiple reasons. While a number of plaster pieces that weren’t secure were removed a few years ago, there is currently another area of the ceiling where the plaster is hanging precariously. It’s noticeable to employees and they avoid parking under it, but they prefer to park on the lower levels just in case.

Earlier this year, the Michigan was supposed to host a screening of Eminem’s 8 Mile, portions of which were shot in the theater (see clip below), but the screening was postponed because the theater failed a city safety inspection. So far, no visitors or employees have been hit by a falling piece of plaster (knock on wood), nor have any cars been damaged recently…but these are still daily concerns for the people working in the building. There’s also the issue of having pedestrians wandering around a semi-dark parking garage and potentially being hit by motorists who can’t see them. There is a guard for the garage, though I did not actually see him/her either time I was there.

Having a steady stream of people coming through the building to get to the theater is disruptive for those trying to work in the office tower. There were 5 other visitors in the hour or so that I spent inside the theater. I was told that during August, prime vacation time for many Europeans, large groups of tourists (many from Germany and France) visit the theater. The Michigan is a privately-owned building, and different companies and businesses pay rent for their office and commercial space there. Having visitors wandering around, possibly trying to access the top floor of the theater where the balcony is, or trying to find public bathrooms, can be frustrating for employees and business owners.

The Michigan Building
The Michigan Building, image via Wikipedia

It’s probably even more disruptive when film crews use the space (in addition to 8 Mile, The Island, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Only Lovers Left Alive also filmed scenes in the theater), but at least the hefty fees they pay offset some of that temporary inconvenience, and the awareness that films bring to the theater have also likely resulted in it being semi-maintained. Professional photographers are also charged a fee for photographing the space, and all other visitors are charged a $10 parking fee to see the theater.

Whereas people who work in the building tend to view the Michigan as just a parking garage, I view it primarily as a ruin…and it’s just doing ruin-type things, like slowly falling apart. The ruined theater is a landmark in its own right, and it’s routinely cited as a primary reason why the building finds buyers and attracts enough investment to stay occupied. It’ll be interesting to see how the owner and tenants balance the need for a practical parking space with the fact that the building’s future is socially and structurally tied to its ruined theater.

Curated Ruins and Un-memorials

Moshenska’s piece discusses the (now restored) Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, and the ruined town of Oradour-sur-Glane in France, both destroyed during the Second World War. The Frauenkirche, a Lutheran church and historic landmark, was destroyed during the fire-bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in February of 1945. It’s estimated that the bombings in Dresden killed between 25,000–30,000 people (Moshenksa, 81). The church was initially left in its charred, disordered, ruined state after the end of the war as Dresden became part of the Soviet-controlled zone, and it served as a physical reminder of the brutality of the Allied forces and the suffering of ordinary Germans (82). Over time, however, as East Germany collapsed and the nation began various reunifying and nation-building projects, the Frauenkirche became a symbol of a “painful wound” from the war that needed to be “healed” (i.e. restored) so that Germany and other nations could process and heal from the trauma of the conflict. Some local residents opposed the restoration on the grounds that it would constitute an erasure of a difficult and complicated past, and they advocated for keeping the ruin as a memorial and “material witness” to the bombing of Dresden (85). However, this opposition was marginal, and with international cooperation and funding (including from former Allied countries and their citizens), the structure was restored using existing and new materials as needed (83).

The Frauenkirche in Dresden, image via Wikipedia

The village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France was destroyed in June of 1944 when a Nazi Waffen-SS unit massacred 642 of its inhabitants. A new village was constructed nearby, but the ruined town was maintained by locals and the French government as a memorial and museum where survivors and the entire nation could process the complicated legacy of the Nazi occupation of France (86). Over time, however, traffic through the memorial and the natural processes of decay and erosion compromised the structural integrity of the site, so a new visitors center and museum was erected in 1999, and repairs were made to Oradour’s structures to leave the ruins in “a state of suspended but not disordered decay” (Steinmertz quoted in Moshenska, 86). The new visitors center contextualizes the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane within the history of genocides and crimes against humanity around the world (86).

Moshenska uses these two case studies to support his central argument that the curated ruin of conflict is “first and foremost a managed form of capital, limited by its form and, in as far as it is contested, it is for control of the narratives that it can support and the uses to which it can be put” (89). This got me thinking about the ways in which the meanings of ruins change over time, and how we treat and mobilize (or more frequently, immobilize) structures that have been stigmatized by violence, conflict, or loss.


Moshenska describes the curation of ruins as “a strategy of low-impact conservation aimed at maintaining architectural ruins in fragile stasis” (78). The remaining parts of the Michigan are minimally maintained (that precarious plaster is the definition of “fragile stasis”). Visitors come to see the theater in its “authentically” ruined state, and though it’s not explicitly a memorial, in some ways it functions as one. It could be seen as a memorial to the theater itself and to the city that built it.

Demolition of the Michigan in 1977, photo courtesy of Wayne State University
Demolition of the Michigan in 1977, photo courtesy of Wayne State University

Many people get nostalgic for what’s perceived as a “lost” era and way of life when they see the remains of the theater, and many read the ruins in a way that presents the theater–and by extension, Detroit–as just another victim of changing times; and worse, Detroit is often portrayed as suffering from self-inflicted wounds, as if what happened here somehow wasn’t a part of what happened to cities throughout the US in the decades after WWII. Many “outsiders” think that Detroit’s best days are in the past (largely because this is how the city is portrayed in the media), and people tend to see that reflected back to them when they look at the theater.

The theater also represents the way Detroit is perceived to have come down in the world. It juxtaposes the beautiful ruin, a symbol of the city’s pre-Depression expansion and its status as a manufacturing and cultural center, with a parking garage…which seems to represent Detroit’s inability or unwillingness to save the things that used to define it and give it its identity as a great city…like it’s trading its greatness for the “progress” and “convenience” we associate with the post-WWII era in the United States.

But the Michigan disrupts the nostalgia it elicits. The parking garage is an architectural slap in the face, and it intervenes in the reflex we have to get sentimental about and memorialize the loss of the theater and the romanticized version of Detroit it represents. It’s different than letting the whole thing decay, which at least allows the hope of restoration to linger (hell, people still talk about restoring the Michigan to its original state), and it’s different than gutting it completely, which is a total preservation loss, but which allows for something entirely new to take its place. It’s a testament to the theater’s many different incarnations, and to the many different incarnations of Detroit. Do I think that was anyone’s intent when the parking garage went in, to make some radical statement about how the theater and its city aren’t finished yet? No. But I also think the theater, having outlived many of the people who were in a position to make decisions about it, has taken on a life and a set of contradictory meanings all its own.

But what about Detroit’s other “ruins?” The vast majority of older structures in the city don’t live to tell the tale that the Michigan tells–they are abandoned and left to decay, and they become “blight” that needs to be either rehabilitated or removed. Blighted or vacant properties in Detroit are “curated,” but usually with the future, not the past, in mind. Organizations like Neighbors Building Brightmoor, Motor City Blight Busters, and various other neighborhood and city organizations focus on boarding up blighted structures to protect them (and to protect people, especially children, from them and what they represent) until they’re either demolished or purchased and rehabbed, and they often make them more aesthetically pleasing in the process by adding artwork. Other organizations like the Detroit Mower Gang (whose members refer to themselves as “renegade landscapers“) voluntarily maintain the city’s overgrown parks and recreational spaces. Moshenska discusses curation as a means of maintaining and displaying the “open wound” of conflict so as not to forget the past (and to direct how that past is viewed and materially represented), but for many Detroiters, curation is the healing act. All of these organizations focus on maintaining and taking care of various parts of the city that give it its identity (its communities, the spaces where children play), and they’re also acts of pride and faith in the city’s future and in its ability to regenerate itself.

The Stigma of Violence and Crime

Moshenska’s piece explores the different characteristics of “conflict heritage,” which of course got me wondering if Detroit’s ruins can also be viewed as the result of violence and conflict, and what that association would mean for the city’s “everyday” ruins–not the beautiful old theaters and Art Deco masterpieces, but its blighted homes and neighborhood businesses.

I recently read a fascinating piece in the Atavist Magazine about how the psychological stigmatization of death and crime impacts a home’s subsequent residents and its economic value. One passage in particular stuck out for me because it reminded me of the stigmatization of blight and of the people who live in and around it, but it also applies to the examples Moshenska discusses:

“An appalling act adhered itself to local architecture, clinging to surfaces like an odor. It transmuted schools and homes and businesses into mnemonics for trauma. If a memorial is a place where death is collectively recognized, a stigmatized property is a place where death remains raw and unprocessed.”

If war memorials like the Frauenkirche and Oradour-sur-Glane are seen as places where death and trauma are collectively recognized and mobilized in various political narratives about victimization, healing, and authenticity, urban blight is on the other end of that spectrum as an un-memorial. Blight represents and is a result of various traumas and failures (failures of the state, societal failures). There is a rawness to it, and seeing block after block of stripped and burned-out homes, churches, and schools gets under your skin. (Moshenska describes the “rawness” of Oradour-sur-Glane, but notes that the site is carefully curated to enhance visitors’ perceptions of and emotional reactions to that rawness.) While there has been a movement in other rust belt cities to memorialize blighted homes and neighborhoods and process/alleviate the trauma associated with them, most people here just want it gone, removed from the landscape. They prefer an empty lot or a field to structural blight.

It’s not a coincidence that owners of properties where horrific crimes have been committed also frequently raze those structures. The Atavist article mentions that the home Adam Lanza shared with his mother, Sandy Hook elementary, the apartment complex where Jeffrey Dahmer lived, and the site of the Heaven’s Gate suicides were all razed by subsequent owners, and in some cases, the local community. These heinous, violent crimes were more localized, but I argue that violence and loss of all types alter the way we think about and interact with the built environment. Whether a structure has witnessed murder, the destruction and atrocities of war, or the slow unraveling of a city’s infrastructure and impoverishment of its residents due to government-sanctioned racism and corruption–it’s as if the structure itself holds on to the trauma that it has witnessed and there’s no way to release it short of letting it stay ruined (as they did initially with Frauenkirche and Oradour-sur-Glane), demolishing it, or waiting a certain amount of time before attempting to “heal” the trauma by restoring the structure.

The trauma represented by blight in Detroit is more diffuse, and the violence and failures that caused it are harder to untangle and define, but make no mistake about it: blight holds onto and triggers a variety of traumatic memories and experiences for residents and visitors. Whereas war memorials and sites of conflict can be carefully curated and presented to the world as a means of acknowledging and “working through” trauma, blight is the material witness of unprocessed violence and trauma, and many people want that “witness” gone.

I almost feel a sense of panic when I hear that the city or a private organization is demolishing a certain neighborhood at the rate of 6 houses a day, or something like that. I know that most residents want the blight gone because it’s painful and is perceived as dangerous, but I also worry about what’s being erased in the process. Yes, from a preservation and sustainability standpoint, traditional demolition is often not the best option, but there’s more to it than that. Residents may want demolition so that their neighborhoods can begin to recover…but many other people, people in positions of power and privilege, want blight gone so that they don’t have to think about or deal with how it was created in the first place.

Works Cited

  1. Austin, Dan. “Michigan Theater.” Historic Detroit, n.d.
  2. Hunt, Will, and Matt Wolfe. “The Ghosts of Pickering Trail.” The Atavist Magazine, August 2015.
  3. Moshenska, Gabriel. “Curated Ruins and the Endurance of Conflict Heritage.” Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 17, no. 1 (2015): 77–90.

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