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Project: Pere Marquette Depot, Bay City, MI
Architect: Quinn Evans | Architects, Ann Arbor, MI; Ilene R. Tyler, FAIA, director of preservation

By Eve M. Kahn

By now the fates of very few American train stations are still in limbo. The vulnerable, unused buildings have been torn down, and the better defended examples either serve their original transit purposes or have been adaptively reused. The 1904 brick depot in Bay City, MI, is a relative newcomer to this conversion game. Last year, the structure made a remarkable comeback, after decades of abandonment and wholesale destruction of signature parts including platform canopies and a 66-ft. tower. Tourists now throng the depot again; it houses the local convention and visitors' bureau as well as nonprofit groups' offices.

One major force behind its recovery is Ilene R. Tyler, FAIA, director of preservation at Quinn Evans | Architects' Ann Arbor office. A Bay City native, Tyler has been shepherding the depot through nearly two decades of reuse attempts. In 1994, her office first drew up enticing marketing drawings for a restoration. But plans to convert the vacant building into a courthouse wing, restaurant or library kept fizzling. "At least our drawings were useful for developers to show at meetings, year after year, proposal after proposal," she says.

Tyler has been admiring the tenacious building at the edge of downtown since she was a teenage traveler. The depot, built when Bay City was a thriving lumber and shipbuilding capital, originally served the Pere (pronounced peer) Marquette Railroad Company. Its architect, Saginaw-based William T. Cooper, was a prolific designer of masonry civic and commercial buildings. The depot shows the transitional architecture tastes of the time: deep eaves speak of Prairie Style horizontality, while the hip-roofed tower cap rests on Beaux-Arts-inspired Ionic columns made of Berea sandstone. The waiting room, with a coffered ceiling 22 feet high, had steam heat, marble wainscoting, mosaic floors and a quarter-sawn oak ticket booth. More oak lined a staircase leading to a double-loaded corridor of second-floor offices.

In the 1950s, the railroad cut off service to Bay City, and turned over the depot to the Greyhound bus line. The new management chopped off the tower as well as iron-bracketed canopies that sheltered train platforms and an iron-columned porte-cochere over the driveway. Asphalt roofing replaced Spanish clay tiles, and a Greyhound sign was posted atop the stub of the tower. In the waiting room, an infill floor was jammed in to create a rabbit warren of second-floor offices; the floor's steel joists were pocketed into the 4-wythe brick walls.

"The bus company wanted to 'moderne-ize' the building, make it look less like a train station, and have less of a building to maintain," Tyler explains. In 1969, Greyhound decamped for a new plain vanilla, single-story station a few blocks away. The empty depot, after suffering a few devastating fires, became known as "Bay City's largest birdhouse." The weight of accumulated bird droppings as well as roof leaks caused plaster and lath to fail by the yard. Radiators and marble wainscoting were stolen. The waiting room's open-web steel joists were undersized for contemporary occupancy. But Tyler never lost faith that the building remained structurally sound, and could still support a rebuilt tower. "There was no evidence at all of foundation settlement," she reports.

In 2002, a community development organization, the Great Lakes Center Foundation, began planning to take over the depot. Where private and civic proposals had failed, "the foundation put together, with mostly volunteer leadership, the funding and momentum needed," Tyler explains. The $6.2 million budget came from sources as diverse as the local newspaper and Rotary Club to Dow Chemical, Wal-Mart and state agencies including the Department of Transportation.

The depot proved surprisingly adaptable to its new program. The second floor's office corridor and conference room accommodate 35 people, and a new fire-suppression system has been installed, so the original oak staircase meets current fire-egress codes. The marble-lined waiting room can serve as soaring rentable space for lectures, exhibits and performances, and the ticket booth makes a handy office for event planners. Quinn Evans was meanwhile able to retain much historic fabric inside, except for the waiting room's mosaic flooring; irretrievably damaged by concrete patches, it has been replaced by a terrazzo field and border reminiscent of the mosaic pattern.

The architect and the contractor, Gregory Construction of Bay City, MI, were also able to save most of the exterior components, while undoing dramatic losses. The new tower shaft almost exactly matches its ancestor, as well as the rest of the brick skin. "We followed the original tapered profile, fluted recesses and corbels on the true masonry bearing walls, and the same transition from 4-wythe to 3-wythe brickwork as you go up," says Tyler. The new orange ironspot bricks, from Belden Brick of Fraser, MI, are slightly smaller than the 1904 supply. "But our tower starts in a straight line with the eaves," Tyler points out. "The new part is practically indiscernible – you can only see the line if you know exactly where to look."

To create a smooth, flat base for the new shaft, the contractor removed a few top layers of the stub, and then recycled those vintage bricks for invisible spot repairs elsewhere. Gregory Construction tinted the mortar with aggregate to match the reddish original, and brought in Metropolitan Stone Inc. of Carleton, MI, to carve new Berea sandstone columns.

Within the stone-trimmed brick mass, the construction team undetectably wove in modern mechanicals. New louvers on the tower feed HVAC ducts in the trusswork-laced attic, and original dormers with dense mesh behind the louvers provide natural attic ventilation: "We don't want anyone having to shovel out bird dirt again," Tyler says. The former boiler room now contains restrooms, and a mechanical room has taken over the freight area. Elevator overrun is tucked into the attic and shallow basement, so little mechanical equipment mars the roofline or facades. "This is a freestanding building on a superblock surrounded by parking, so it's very visible from every side," she says. "There's no back wall where we could hide anything unsightly."

The restoration project, she adds, attracted lots of attention throughout the process. "The contractor had to keep a stack of extra hardhats in the trailer, because people kept stopping by," she says. Local skeptics were gradually persuaded that this time the progress was for real, and crowds formed nearby during particularly eye-popping moments, for instance the day the new pyramidal top for the tower was craned in via unnervingly thin cables. There's even a video posted on YouTube showing the workers lassoing the piece and maneuvering it snugly onto brick piers and sandstone columns.

In June, 2008, hundreds of people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. A TV news crew tracked down Tyler in the waiting room. "Standing here gives me goose bumps, to see the grandeur of the space," she told the interviewer. And over the past year, she says, "I keep using the phrase 'a phoenix that rose from the ashes' to describe what happened there. Everything's worked out so well, after all those false starts. When I go there, I see tourists finally walking out of the depot and heading into downtown." So a train station, without any trains, has become a starting point again for exploration. TB

 

 

 
 

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