Craig David Butler Studios opened last spring in the former Pere Marquette Railway Co. station at 900 Starkweather, alongside tracks still heavily used by CSX Railroad freight trains. The building of about 1,500 square feet is at least 105 years old, though some sources date it from as far back as 1871.
Remodeled several times, the station retains some of its original characteristics, including high plank ceilings in some rooms, the original ticket window, an elaborate wooden ticketing desk, and a foundation of tree trunks, hewn beams and fieldstone.
“From day one I wanted to buy,” said Craig Butler, recalling how the station was the 10th, and final, stop on a list of potential studios he toured with a real-estate agent last February.
Butler, the photographer, and wife Bonnie, who handles the business side of things, leased two different studio locations in downtown Northville over the years, but had been looking for a permanent site.
“We wanted something that seemed to fit us,” said Craig Butler.
The station was in “rough shape” when they bought it last March, he said; the Butlers “kind of looked past that” and cleaned up, painted, leveled the floor and had wiring, obviously added later in the building’s life to the walls, concealed within them.
They had to get an insurance rider for foundation replacement in case of a total loss. “Tree trunks aren’t up to code,” Craig Butler said.
There’s a reception area with a living-room feel that includes the ticket desk, a studio room with props, backdrops and equipment, and a high-ceilinged storage area. The Butlers also own a smaller building next door plus the adjacent grounds, which they use in some of their photo shoots.
Clients, they said, are drawn to the building’s charm and its association with the railroads.
“I think people really like that feeling,” Bonnie Butler said.
Craig Butler said that during client meetings, some people will rush to the windows to catch a glimpse of passing freight trains.
“They actually seem to like having the trains. It’s pretty crazy,” he said.
Historical events, not just trains and the feel of an old building, add to the station’s aura: President George W. Bush spoke there in September of 1992 during his re-election bid, and, the Butlers say, President Theodore Roosevelt once made a whistle stop there as well. A former building owner, Bonnie Butler said, had an aunt who was a stationmaster there for 25 years.
The Butlers even found some 90-year-old Pere Marquette Railway freight documents that list shipments of coal, flour and “autos.”
They say the building’s historical and railroad connections give their studio an edge.
“It’s different from everybody else,” Bonnie Butler said. “It’s not everybody has a historical building they can shoot against.”
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