This may be the most magnificent depot that the Grand Trunk Western Railroad built in Michigan. It ranks among the most impressive depots in the state. The Grand Trunk Western’s joint depot with the Ann Arbor Railroad, Union Depot in Durand is more famous because of its popularity with rail fans today. However, no GTW depot in Michigan is a better example of the architects’ ken than the one pictured here and located close to downtown Battle Creek.
The British investors who funded the Grand Trunk Railroad completed a line from Portland, Maine and Montréal in the east to Sarnia in 1859. The next year they completed track from Port Huron to Detroit where they interchanged traffic with the Michigan Central Railroad for Chicago and points west. The Grand Trunk officials wished to establish their own line from Port Huron to Chicago so that they would not have to share revenues with the Michigan Central. It was quite a long process for them to establish a connection to Chicago. By buying some existing lines and encouraging the building of other new ones that the Grand Trunk took over, by 1881 they had a through railroad linking Chicago to Toronto, Montréal, Portland, Maine and other Atlantic ports.
The Grand Trunk line from Port Huron reached Battle Creek in early 1870. As the Grand Trunk Railroad’s Michigan division developed, they selected Battle Creek as a location for massive shops that would repair locomotives and equipment. Thus Battle Creek became an important point for the Grand Trunk line in Michigan.
Early in the Twentieth Century, officials of the line—probably those based at the headquarters in Montréal—decided to erect a beautiful depot in Battle Creek. Their rival—the Michigan Central Railroad—had already commissioned architects Rogers and MacFarland to design the impressive depot in downtown Battle Creek that is now Clara’s Restaurant. Frederick Spier and William C. Rohns were commissioned to design a depot for the Grand Trunk that would also provide offices for many members of management. Unlike the Richardson Romanesque style that these architects used for many of their Michigan depots including the Michigan Central depot in Ann Arbor, they used a very different and imaginative style for this station. If anything, they were influenced by Spanish design because of the very extensive use of red tile roofs. Their designed called for 1,200 red ceramic ties. As you may see from the picture, gray granite walls were used at the lowest level implying that Spier and Rohns may have been thinking about the Richardson Romanesque style when they planned that level. However, those stone walls were ornamented with extensive brick and stone trim. Brick was used at the upper levels. The architects added not one but two substantial towers. These must have been for ornamentation. At present each of the towers is topped by four triangles. Spier and Rohns, however, designed a dome like arrangement for the top of each tower. Pictures show them to resemble the type of bowler that a Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer might wear on a visit to 10 Downing Street.
The massive waiting room was 90 feet by 32 feet with 30-foot vaulted ceilings. This must have been one of the largest waiting rooms in Michigan but it certainly was not as large as the one that still exists in the dormant Michigan Central depot in Detroit. The waiting room included a fireplace that would be appropriate for a castle. I don’t know if it was designed to be used or for decorative purposes. That waiting room also had a grand oak staircase leading to the offices on the upper floor. A substantial restaurant was also built into the first floor. As originally designed it had a light green ceiling with ornamentation in orange and dark green. The walls were painted in Pomeranian red. From the time it was opened in 1907 until 1954, a floral garden was maintained on the large campus devoted to this depot. This continued the tradition that the Michigan Central started in 1892 with their floral garden at their Niles depot, a practice they expanded to their depots in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
The Grand Trunk Western Railroad offered passenger service to this depot until May 1, 1971 when Amtrak took over most trains in the United States. Until Amtrak took over, the Grand Trunk had three trains to Chicago and Detroit every day including one that had cars that continued through Port Huron to Toronto. That railroad maintained offices in the building until 1988.
In the 1980s, the Kellogg firm—leading manufacturers of breakfast cereal—and the very financially secure Kellogg Foundation invested in a renovation of downtown Battle Creek. Both the firm and the foundation erected major buildings there. A large new hotel opened to serve those who visited the firm and the foundation. The Michigan Central tracks that inconveniently bisected downtown were move a bit south in 1982 when a modern transportation center opened. The Kellogg Foundation also took over the vacant Grand Trunk Western depot in 1989, restored it to its original glory and turned it over to serve as offices of the Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan. While the renovation preserved the beauty and architectural integrity of the interesting depot changes were made including the construction of a mezzanine in the very large vaulted waiting room.
Architects: Frederick Spier and William C. Rohns
Architectural style: Eclectic with some Spanish influences
Date of opening: 1907
Interior Decorations: Adix-Bartischek Company of Detroit
Michigan Registry of Historic Sites:
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Use in 2011: Home of the Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan
Photograph: Ren Farley; November 5, 2011
Description prepared: December, 2011
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