The ‘breathtaking’ job of reviving an icon

A baller’s tale

As a kid growing up in southwest Detroit, Manuel “Manny” Martinez spent many days playing paintball in the hulking, long-abandoned Michigan Central Station.

Today, the University of Michigan graduate is performing a pivotal role in the $1 billion train station restoration being undertaken by Ford Motor Co. He’s the on-site project superintendent for Christman-Brinker, a construction company joint venture transforming the building into a major office center for Ford and other mobility-focused companies.

About 5,000 workers are eventually expected to fill the building and surrounding 30-acre mobility and innovation campus.

“Playing paintball in the building was the knucklehead side of Manny,” Martinez says. “Now I walk around with a toothbrush, and where I see paintball marks, I wash them off.”

A passion to rebuild

Environmental portrait of alumnus Manuel Martinez, supervising construction in a hard hat and yellow jacket, at the Michigan Central Station renovation project in Detroit.

“Playing paintball in the building was the knucklehead side of Manny,” Martinez says.  (Image credit: Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography.)

Martinez has three degrees from U-M; a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and master’s degrees in architecture and civil engineering that he completed in 2015.

The benefits of education were drilled into him at a young age by his parents who moved their family here from the Dominican Republic when Martinez was in elementary school.

“They gave up everything just for us to come here and educate ourselves,” he says.

But although he was a good student, Martinez didn’t see himself as college material. That was in part because he was taught to work to pay for whatever he wanted. Going to college would delay his ability to earn a living, Martinez believed. Plus, many of his friends had no college aspirations.

Martinez’s mindset was changed, though, in middle school after meeting the late Tyrone Winfrey Sr., who worked in outreach for U-M in Detroit at the time.

“He told me that’s what your parents came here for, so you could get an education,” Martinez said. “He said, ‘You’re going to continue that.’ I wasn’t aware I was capable of that. He was an angel, to say the least, for us Detroiters

Martinez had planned, at Winfrey’s suggestion, to enter the military as an officer following graduation. But he was dissuaded from doing so by his mother, who feared losing her only son to the raging Afghanistan war.

As he progressed in his engineering and architectural studies, Martinez said he developed a passion for rebuilding Detroit. The history of the Michigan Central Station was even a part of his curriculum.

But Martinez first worked on several assignments outside Detroit before immersing himself in the city.  One of them was the renovation of the Ernest Hemingway Museum in Havana.

“It was a unique project, one of the first interactions the United States had with Cuba in working on a project together,” he said. “I pretty much ran that project.”

‘The beauty of it’

Martinez has been working at the Michigan Central Station for the past three-and-a-half years, leading a 23-person project team that manages hundreds of construction workers. The project, which Ford announced in 2018, is expected to be finished next year.

“Being able to work on an iconic building that’s a historical landmark on a daily basis in my own community is the most exciting part of the job,” said Martinez, who lives in southwest Detroit. “The beauty behind it is that it’s going to create a ton of jobs. I see this as breathtaking. I’m fortunate to be doing this.”
(This story originally was published at the U-M Detroit website. Lead image by Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography.)


  1. Rebecca Widdick

    I drove past the train station LAST NIGHT on my way home from an event at the Ren Cen and was SO happy to see this iconic building all lit up! During visits downtown (of which there have been MANY), I’ve spent a LOT of time daydreaming with friends about how great it would be when the right investors decided to take a leap of faith and breathe new life into that beautiful structure and neighborhood. Taking an area that is already wonderful and making it even better. Keep up the great work! Can’t wait to check it out once the project is complete!


    • Deborah Holdship

      So exciting, right???


  2. Anthony Jiga - 1971

    I had a brief summer job after high school in the late ’60s unloading boxcars in a freight area in or near that terminal. I recall being in awe of the enormity of the building. It was so very sad to see the building’s decline, and now thrilling to see its rebirth, and the new vitality of the neighborhood. Great work, Manny!


  3. Thomas Schmidt - 1953 (Architecture)

    My occasional visits to Detroit back in the !945-1955 time period were mostly to watch the Detroit Tigers play in Briggs Stadium…..and the nearby bustling Michigan Central Station was a symbol of the great city of Detroit at that time. I am so very pleased to see Ford and Manny are working hard to again bring that area of Detroit back to what it was and can be again…..Thanks for that.


  4. Diane Kuuttila - 1984

    Such an incredible piece of Detroit history being restored. I have always dreamed it would be preserved when I visited Corktown. I am grateful to you and your team for your passion in bringing this Treasure back to life. Can’t wait to see the finished Gem!


  5. Mary Pinegar-Koster - 1993

    Way to go Manny!


  6. Robert Merchant - 1968

    I recall taking a train from Sturgis to the Detroit station to go to a Tigers game just before the station closed in the early 50’s. So glad to see a fellow UM arch grad involved in saving this landmark.


  7. David Kassoy - 1965 PhD

    Manuel learned at the U of M that the investment of time in a college education prepares one for handling responsibilities taken on in the future. Those sponsoring the renovation of an historic building must have sensed his capability to take on a complex project and manage a team of workers. Bravo!!


  8. David Finger - BA 1973 MBA 1976

    I grew up in NYC and started my UM education in 1964 before taking time out for the military. I loved trains and many times I rode the New York Central between Grand Central Station in New York City and Ann Arbor. I rode in both directions and several times had to change trains in Detroit. And after I got my BA in in 1973 I took a job in Detroit. I commuted daily for several years – the New York Central had a daily commuter train. By that time the Michigan Central Station in Detroit was truly a decrepit dump.

    I too am happy to see this iconic structure being restored.


  9. Chris Campbell - Rackham, '72; Law '75

    So many cogent lessons here. An immigrant’s contribution to our state. The power of one person, the outreach guy, to affect lives. Positive corporate behavior to turn things around. The powerful effect of transformative action. And of course, the role of U-M in our state’s growth.


  10. Lorraine King - 1973

    Several UoM architect grads used to commute to work in Detroit from Ann Arbor by train back in the 1970s – perhaps some still do. There were times when the train stopped at the Central Station and we wended our way out via corridors dripping with water of dubious origins. But we could not help be impressed with the building. Good to think it is now receiving attention.


  11. Rowell Huesmann - 1964 LS&A

    I grew up in near northwest side Detroit going to Angell Elementary school and Cooley High School, but my aunt (who like my parents graduated from Michigan) lived in Chicago; so my mom took my sister and me many times on the train from the Michigan Central Station in Detroit to Union Station in Chicago between 1947 and 1955. I remember well the beautiful decorated, huge waiting room for passengers in the station and then the massive steam locomotives waiting along the platforms. It is fantastic that our university and its graduates are revitalizing this beautiful landmark.


  12. David Ellies - BA 1969

    I’m a proud native Detroiter. My family lived on the far northwest side of the city and I attended the late Holcomb Elementary School and the late Redford High School. From my youth through the 1990’s I attended many a Detroit Tigers baseball game at Tiger Stadium located at the corner of Trumbull and Michigan Avenues. We often parked in close proximity to the massive, but decrepit Michigan Central Station. I am delighted with its massive renovation by the Ford Motor Company and have followed its progress from afar since 2018. Thank you Rick Haglund for this interesting article about its reconstruction and our Michigan alumnus Manny Martinez managing the construction effort. Go Blue!


  13. Jim Van Sickel - BS Aero Engrg, 1971

    I recall getting a brief tour of Michigan Central Station in my junior year at UM (1969) by Chuck Zimmerman, a fellow Wolverine and Allen Park High School alumni, whose father worked for the railroad (New York Central and/or Penn Central) and had an office on one of the upper floors. I’ll never forget how amazing the architecture of that building was, even though the occupation rate at that time was clearly a only fraction of what it was in its hey-day.


  14. Frances Randall - CCS '93 BFA

    My brother has been working there as an Iron Worker for the past 3 years. Ford invited the workers and 3 family members for a walk-through recently and my brother invited myself and my husband with him and his wife. My husband and I were so excited to glimpse the interior and we were not disappointed. It was incredible and beautiful. We had guides showing us the areas of restoration and what the process was. They explained in great detail the work involved and the manpower just to restore this Detroit Gem. We are looking forward to the completion and will visit again to see the train station in it’s full glory!


Leave a comment: