Order your copy of the new book about the work of Albert Kahn Click Here
Order your copy of the new book about the work of Albert Kahn Click Here
powered by bulletin
Skip to main content

Construction and Demise of the Packard Plant

Detroit’s Packard automobile plant is slowly yielding to the wreckers in preparation for a new use for the land. The Detroit Packard factory was first constructed in 1903 as a complex of one- and two-story brick and timber buildings, designed by brothers Albert and Julius Kahn. At the time, the brothers were in a partnership that combined architecture and engineering in a single firm, a highly unusual arrangement for the era. Albert provided the architecture skills and Julius, a civil engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, the engineering skills.

In 1906 Packard added a tenth building to the complex, designed by Albert Kahn. This structure was constructed of reinforced concrete, being the world’s second concrete auto factory. (The Cadillac Motor Car Co. factory at 450 Amsterdam St. in Detroit was the first.) All subsequent multi-story buildings were constructed of reinforced concrete, while most single-story buildings were of steel. Nearly all buildings within the complex were designed by Albert Kahn’s firm.

Packard Motor Car company sales grew and the company continued adding buildings and adding floors to existing buildings to increase production capacity. The size of the plant expanded from two acres of floor space in 1905 to over 33 acres by 1910 and nearly 60 acres by 1916. Also in 1916 the last of the original brick and timber factory buildings, dating from 1903, were demolished.

In 1909 the company expanded on the south side of Grand Blvd, constructing a power plant and a two-story service building that manufactured and stored spare parts for Packard cars (building #27 on the southeast corner of E. Grand Blvd. and Concord Avenue). An addition to the service building the following year (known as building #28) changed it from an “L” shape to a “U” shaped structure. In 1911 a third story was added and then a fourth story in 1917.

 

Looking west along E. Grand Blvd. in 1909, the service building (on the left) as a two-story building. On the right two stories are being added to the original two-story Packard office building. (Library of Congress)

 

This 1910 photo shows the service building after the addition of a wing to the south side. (Library of Congress)

 

The building received a third story in 1911. This view is looking southeast from Grand Blvd. The photo and caption appeared in the February-March issue of “The Packard,” the company’s internal magazine.

 

Packard added a fourth story to the building in 1912. This is how the service building appeared in 1917. Note that the first three floors had double-hung windows that were standard for factories at the time. In 1910 steel sash windows were first used on the Kahn-designed Ford Highland Park factory and quickly became preferred over the older style. Steel sash windows were used here on the fourth floor of the building. (Detroit Public Library)

Bridge over Grand Blvd.

Continued growth and the introduction of the moving assembly line eventually forced Packard to convert the service building to the assembly of car bodies. In 1939 a bridge was built across Grand Blvd. to allow completed car bodies to be transported along the assembly line from the former service building to the main plant where they were joined with automobile frames.

The bridge differed in appearance from numerous other bridges connecting buildings within the complex in that it had a decorative façade. This was due to a city requirement that, as the bridge passed over a major thoroughfare and was highly visible, it must have an attractive appearance.

The bridge spanning Grand Blvd. was completed in 1939. It was a steel truss structure with brick facades. (Detroit Public Library)

 

The bridge contained the assembly line which carried car bodies from the service building north to the main plant where the bodies were joined to the frames.

The bridge over Grand Blvd. represented a reconfiguration of the interior arrangement of the Packard complex; construction of multi-story factory buildings had largely ended by 1918. The last major addition to the plant designed by the Kahn firm was the 1940 construction of a large one- and two-story building for Packard’s aviation division, (located adjacent to the railroad tracks west of the main complex and south of the Edsel Ford Freeway).

Packard Shuts Down

Packard ceased operations in the factory on Grand Blvd. in 1956, idling 11,000 workers in the process. About half of the now empty plant was leased out to various corporations for manufacturing and warehousing. In 1999 the city, believing that it owned the property, evicted the tenants in preparation for demolition of the plant by the state. A subsequent legal battle resulted in the city losing its claim to ownership of the plant. With no tenants and legal title to the facility in question, the abandoned structure continued to deteriorate.

In 2022 the city finally seized the property and completed demolition of one building on the north side of the plant complex. Beginning in January of 2023 the city demolished building #28, the 1910 addition to the service building. Unlike most of the complex, buildings #27 and #28 are owned by the city. It is believed that building #27 will be kept intact for historical reasons, along with the former Packard offices facing it on the north side of Grand Blvd (also owned by the city).

The service building and bridge in 2015. Scrappers made off with the steel sash of the fourth floor windows but left the wooden double-hung windows. (Google)

Demolition

In a May 2, 2008 article in the Free Press, the photo caption states: “Firefighters say scrappers have cut out some of [the bridge’s] support beams and fear it will collapse.” In January 2019 it did just that.
Two views of the former service building before and after the addition was demolished in 2023. (Google)

 

A view of the service building (#27) and the addition (#28) prior to demolition. (Bing)

 

The former Packard service building after demolition of the south wing. (Google)

Final Days of Building #28

Below are photos taken of the 1910 addition to the Packard service building prior to its demolition

The service building was of reinforced concrete construction with wooden wearing surfaces on the floor.

 

A view from the service building addition to the original service building. The metal pieces that are visible in the ceiling are channels into which brackets could be inserted from which equipment could be suspended.

 

The 1911 service building addition (on the left) as seen from the original 1910 structure. The structure on the right protrudes from the building and contains a large elevator and stairway. The elevator and stairway were built on the exterior of buildings so they could be better enclosed to prevent a fire on one floor from spreading to other floors.

 

A wonderful mural on the wall of the addition with a fine aspirational statement: “Hard work and dedication leads to success”. The reason for a door on an upper floor is that it opens to a bridge to the adjoining building.

 

The service building addition is on the far right here. One of the bridges that connected each floor of the building across the courtyard to the other section of the service building remains, the others having collapsed. The bridges, being constructed of steel rather than reinforced concrete, were more susceptible to the ravages of time. In the distance is Grand Blvd. and the former Packard office building.

 

The courtyard between the original service building on the left and the wing added in 1910 on the right. Courtyards were necessary at the time of construction because work areas were illuminated by natural light. Courtyards permitted light to enter interior facing sections of the building. The outline of a later addition to the factory of a single-story structure can be seen on the far wall.

Below are photos taken during the demolition of the service building addition on January 31, 2023

Demolition of the east half is underway while the western half of the building (on the left) has yet to begin.

 

One section or bay of the building has been torn off.

 

This close up photo of a column shows the various steel reinforcement bars protruding from the crumbled concrete. To its left is another column with the vertical reinforcement bars and the circular “hooped” bars that held the column together.

 

In this photo the construction of the Kahn System floor (invented by Albert Kahn’s brother Julius) is clearly visible. The hollow terra cotta blocks served no structural purpose, they just filled the space between beams. This made the floor much easier to construct as forms did not have to be built to shape each individual beam. It also resulted in a flat ceiling for the floor below which allowed light coming in through the windows to be reflected further into the building.

 

This section of the building contains the elevator and stairway.

By Michael G Smith. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Albert Kahn and Albert Kahn Associates, Inc

No architect of the 20th century was more significant or influential than Albert Kahn. Although the firm is best known in Detroit for a number of impressive office buildings, Kahn’s greatest contributions were in industrial architecture and the management and operation of a modern architecture firm.

Albert Kahn possessed enormous foresight and a superb business sense. In the first years of the 20th century, he correctly anticipated that the rapid increase in industrial manufacturing would require not merely more factories, but factories of a different type: larger, stronger, more complex, and highly specialized. Perceiving both demand and opportunity, he left his partnership with George D. Mason—a partnership primarily focused on homes for the well-to-do—and, in 1902, partnered with his brother Julius Kahn, a skilled civil engineer. Kahn & Kahn was the first architectural firm in Detroit to offer engineering services, and one of the first in country to do so.

The 1903 Packard Motor Car factory
Packard Motor Car factory (1903) designed by Albert and Julius Kahn
A Focus on Industrial Work

The two brothers refocused the firm on industrial work and soon met with success. In 1903, they were commissioned to design an automobile manufacturing facility for the Packard Motor Car Company, which was moving to Detroit from Ohio.

While the Packard work was the type of desirable business Albert anticipated his refocused firm would secure, another development arose from the joint efforts of the two men: Julius invented a practical, inexpensive, and scientifically-based method of reinforcing concrete with steel bars. Prior to Julius’s invention, reinforced concrete was expensive and infrequently employed in the U.S. as a method of building construction. Late in 1903, Julius left the architecture partnership and founded a company to manufacture and market his steel reinforcement bars: the Trussed Concrete Steel Company (Truscon). Among the partners in the new firm was Albert Kahn.

Over the next two years, Truscon grew rapidly into a national firm. Albert was the first architect in Michigan to employ the Kahn System of reinforcement for constructing reinforced concrete buildings. In 1904, Albert designed, and Julius’s firm constructed, a factory and office building for the Burroughs Corporation on Second Avenue in Detroit, a structure that was written up in American Architect due to its unusual reinforcedconcrete construction.**

These four factory projects … did much to cement Albert Kahn’s reputation as a leading architect of modern factories and automobile plants in particular

Architect of modern factories and automobile plants

During 1906, Truscon’s aggressive sales efforts secured commissions for three substantial automobile factories of reinforced concrete construction: Pierce Arrow and E. R. Thomas in Buffalo, and Garford Company in Elyria, Ohio. Because of Albert’s experience with both reinforced concrete and the design of Packard’s auto plant in Detroit, all three clients accepted Truscon’s suggestion that Albert Kahn be employed as the architect for their new auto plants. In addition to these out-of-state jobs, Albert designed for Packard two large additions to their Detroit factory, also constructed by Truscon. These four factory projects represented a total of nearly 600,000 square feet of reinforced concrete construction, the majority of all automobile factory construction that year. This work did much to cement Albert Kahn’s reputation as a leading architect of modern factories and automobile plants in particular.

Ford Motor Company Highland Park plant (1909)
Ford Motor Company Highland Park plant (1909)

In 1906 Kahn’s firm recorded 27 jobs, of which six were residences and seven were factories—the first year in which industrial jobs exceeded in number the residential projects. The following year the firm recorded 56 commissions, of which 13 were residences and 19 were factories or factory additions, reflecting a significant change in the nature and volume of the business. Soon after, Kahn was engaged by Henry Ford to design the Highland Park Ford factory complex, the largest factory in the world. Then in 1917, Kahn’s firm was again tasked by Ford to design a new factory complex, the far larger River Rouge factory. By the time of America’s entry into the First World War, Albert Kahn’s firm was the largest industrial architecture firm in the nation. In 1937, one source estimated that the volume of work from Kahn’s firm represented “19 percent of all architect designed U.S. industrial buildings.”

“Much like the Director of an Orchestra…”

In 1903 Kahn hired designer Ernest Wilby to handle design duties, thereby freeing Albert to attend to the increasing demands on his time resulting from his firm’s dramatic growth. Wilby was made an associate of the firm two years later. Kahn wrote in 1941: “One of the best investments I made early in my professional career was the engagement of Ernest Wilby. I flatter myself at having had the courage to engage him at a salary considerably higher than what I expected to earn for myself—but it proved a wise move.” This, indeed, was a wise move, and one which Kahn repeated numerous times as he grew his architecture firm. Hiring top people and delegating the work, while reserving to himself close management oversight, was one of the keys to Kahn’s success in building what was almost certainly the world’s most efficient and innovative architecture and engineering firm.

“Nine tenths of my success has come because I listened to what people said they wanted and gave it to them.” Albert Khan

Kahn’s vision of an efficient and well-run firm was consistent throughout his career. The first component of his highly effective business approach was stated clearly by Kahn in a 1929 interview: “Nine tenths of my success has come because I listened to what people said they wanted and gave it to them.” Kahn achieved this with an organization that provided under one roof all the various competencies required for specialized industrial production facilities. “An “organization,” he stated, “composed of men competent and qualified to handle the project in its various phases of plan, design, and engineering, both structural and mechanical.”

Kahn understood that having specialists with all the required technical expertise, while necessary, was far from sufficient to bring about the results he sought. Bringing the various individuals and departments together to work as an effective team was viewed by Kahn as the most essential aspect his firm’s success. This was brought about by managing the efforts of his organization “much like the Director of an Orchestra in which each instrument plays an important part, all controlled, however, by one force to produce the desired ensemble.”

An internal document from the Kahn firm, dating from around 1930, describes the procedure by which Kahn directed his orchestra. The client met first with Albert Kahn and then preliminary layouts and floor sketches were prepared for the client. Once the client approved these preliminary plans, the job was turned over to the design department. The document describes the preparation of the design as follows.

The work is handled by two architects, one of whom specializes in exterior design, the other in interior design and decoration. Each has draftsmen and detailers working under his supervision. The sketch plans are studied and from them, artist’s drawings of the elevations are worked up in color, to give the Owner an idea of the finished appearance of the building. … Minor modifications are perhaps made at the request of the owner or Mr. Albert Kahn and when the final design is finished, it is turned over to one of the other divisions of the architectural department for the preparation of working drawings.

“Team work rather than star play”

Except in its early years, the structure of Kahn’s organization was not entirely unique. Other firms soon began including engineering services within a multi-faceted architecture business. However, Kahn remained somewhat distinct in his strong emphasis on teamwork and collaboration. He wrote in 1918 that “the efficiently organized office…prides itself upon the final success achieved, rather than individual effort—on team work rather than star play.” He stated in an interview that, “In our offices there are no jealousies; sometimes six or ten of us work on a design together.” Some firms might allow a particular employee to be recognized for their role in the design of a building; Kahn did not. Nor did he claim credit for himself, as was often the case with the heads of some firms. He once explained his viewpoint when being interviewed in connection with a building for Ford: “When you write the story, credit [the building] to Albert Kahn Associates and Engineers, Inc., rather than to me, personally. After all, I am like the quarterback on a football team. Without the teamwork of my associates, I would be nothing.”

An organization the size of Kahn’s, with hundreds of employees, demanded more than competence in architecture and engineering; broad business expertise was essential as well. Daniel Shahan, hired by Albert and later served as president of the firm, described Albert as “a dynamic person with a terrific business mind.” A 1918 article in Architectural Forum on the firm’s internal operations stated that “In Mr. Kahn’s practice, particular attention is paid to the business administration of the work.” Kahn described the many facets of his job which were not strictly architectural in nature, but essential to the success of his business.

The architect is expected to be an able administrator to handle the large sums often involved in building, somewhat of a lawyer to save legal complications, considerable of a judge to decide between owner and contractor, a sociologist to meet the social problem, somewhat of a banker to advise on the financial soundness of projects, and above all a tactician to meet the requirements of clients.

Yet Kahn reveled in these diverse requirements: “It is the many demands upon him that make the architect’s work so interesting and exciting.”

Kahn’s ability to anticipate future trends and respond to them with an effective business strategy contributed greatly to his exceptional success. He had a pragmatic view of architecture in the 20th century that many architects failed to appreciate nearly as early as did Kahn. He understood that the industrial and commercial client operated under financial and competitive pressures that dictated, in Kahn’s words, that “The plant must be economically designed. First and last, it must serve as an investment.” This comment of Kahn’s, which appeared in the September 1918 edition of Architect and Engineer, was intended to inform other architects of two considerations underlying their increasing loss of work to engineering firms. The first was that, while the appearance of a building may be of great concern to an architect, it was of little concern to the factory owner. The second was that, again in Kahn’s own words, “Industrial buildings must need deal largely with practical requirements, structural design, and mechanical equipment.” Kahn foresaw that the increasingly complex requirements of manufacturing companies would cause them to seek out engineering firms to design their facilities, and architects would eventually be relegated to the sidelines. Rather than lose highly lucrative industrial commissions to engineering firms, Kahn brought engineering into his firm and placed it within the broader context of an expanded architectural overview.

It was Kahn’s early realization of these considerations that motivated him to join with his brother Julius, and hire Ernest Wilby. Julius provided the engineering capability the firm needed and Wilby freed Kahn from doing his own design work. For most architects, design work was the most interesting and desirable task in the office, but Kahn had a much larger vision; to achieve it, he had to become the “Director of the Orchestra,” not just one of its players.

A good test of a team’s cohesiveness and collaborative ability is an urgent and vitally important project. An excellent example of which occurred when Kahn’s firm was called upon just after the United States entered the First World War. At that time, the country’s air corps was essentially nonexistent. The Army sought to construct 30 training airfields across the country, but lacked the capability of designing them. In an unusual move, the Army hired an outside architecture firm, Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers, Inc., to design the fields. Days after that decision was made, the head of the US Army Signal Corps arrived at Kahn’s firm: “I took his office, cleared out every bit of work he had in it, took his entire force, and we got out the plans for 54 buildings in about 10 days.” The plans were not only developed quickly, but all the airfields were built from the same set of plans. The buildings were constructed of standard hardware and lumber available locally, using assembly methods familiar to ordinary house carpenters. The first airfield, Selfridge Field near Mt. Clemens, Michigan, composed of more than 50 buildings and hangars, was completed in less than two months.

Though industrial structures dominated the job list of Albert Kahn’s firm, many commercial and office buildings were turned out by the firm as well. In fact, Kahn’s office had an exceptionally talented design department that was responsible for hundreds of fine looking buildings, not only in Detroit, but throughout the country. It was Kahn’s commitment to hiring the best employees that resulted in his design department’s consistently high quality of output. Ernest Wilby was a talented designer and a highly respected member of Kahn’s staff. In 1910, as the volume of work grew, Kahn added a second designer, George D. Mason’s chief designer, Wirt C. Rowland. Rowland left Kahn’s firm in 1912 to join Malcomson and Higginbotham, where he was made an associate in the firm. Kahn then sought out a promising designer in New York City, Amedeo Leone, to replace Rowland. Leone, though he stayed with Kahn only two years, was exceptionally talented, eventually becoming president and chairman of the board at Smith, Hinchman and Grylls. After Leone’s departure, Kahn rehired Rowland, who remained with the firm until 1922. Sometime in 1915 or early 1916, medical issues forced Ernest Wilby’s retirement from the practice of architecture. Kahn then advanced Rowland to Wilby’s former position of chief designer.

In addition to Leone and Rowland, Kahn’s office trained an uncountable number of highly skilled employees who later went on to distinguished careers with their own or other firms. Many young architects early in their careers sought the opportunity to work in Kahn’s office to develop and refine their skills before setting out on their own; so indirectly, Kahn’s influence on the quality of architectural design went far beyond the buildings designed by his firm. A number of examples illustrate the point. The magazine Architectural Digest in 2016 published an article on the world’s most beautiful art deco buildings. Included on the list were four buildings in the United States constructed between 1924 and 1930: LeVeque Tower, Columbus, Ohio (constructed 1924), Guardian Building, Detroit (1929), Chrysler Building, New York City (1930), and Eastern Columbia Building, Los Angeles (1930). The LeVeque Tower was designed by C. Howard Crane, a former draftsman in Kahn’s office. The Guardian Building was designed by Wirt Rowland, Kahn’s former chief designer. The Chrysler Building’s architect was William Van Alen, yet the design was substantially revised to its iconic appearance by its owner, Walter P. Chrysler, based on Wirt Rowland’s design of a building for the Union Industrial Bank in Flint, Michigan, of which Chrysler was a director and member of the building committee. Claud Beelman, architect of the Eastern Columbia Building, trained in Kahn’s office before relocating to the West Coast.

Designer John L. Skinner settled in Miami Beach in the 1930s and subsequently designed many of the city’s most important buildings, including Miami International Airport, the Dade County Auditorium, the missile launching complex at Cape Canaveral, and Art Deco beach hotels. He acquired his design skills while working in Kahn’s office from 1916 to 1919. His comments about those years, described in his American Institute of Architects nomination for fellowship, reveal a great deal about Kahn’s office and Albert Kahn.

The Nominee’s office training and experience prior to engaging in practice covers a period of approximately six years. Three years of this time was spent in the office of Albert Kahn, where the Nominee was under the personal supervision of Mr. Kahn and the “chief designer” Wirt Rowland. The Nominee might be considered a protégé of this office in that Mr. Kahn encouraged him and loaned him sufficient funds to continue his education in Europe, at a time when it would have been impossible for him to undertake such a program at his own expense.

Others from Kahn’s office impacted the education of architects as well. John Skinner headed the Department of Architecture at Georgia Tech from 1922 to 1925 and then served as the first head of the architecture department at the University of Miami. Detroit’s Lawrence Technological University’s College of Architecture and Design was founded by Earl Pellerin, who worked in Kahn’s office as both an intern and a permanent employee.

The extent of Kahn’s contributions to architecture can only be touched upon in this brief summary. He should be remembered for his commitment to effectively meeting the needs of his industrial clients, and by so doing, he greatly advanced American’s industrial development. By wrapping engineering services within an architecture firm, which operated under his capable leadership, he and his organization were able to understand the problems faced by his clients, and develop innovative methods of solving them. Kahn had superb business skills, and exceptional ability to anticipate trends in his own and in other fields, and an uncanny ability to hire excellent people, all of which contributed to his success.

_______________
* At present, the name of the firm is Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. For the period of significance of this property, based on journal articles and the firm’s letterhead, it was known by various names, including: Albert Kahn, Architect; Albert Kahn, Architect, and Ernest Wilby, Associate; Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers; and Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers, Inc.
** “Factory of the American Arithmometer Co., Detroit, Mich.,” American Architect 87, no. 1527, (April 1, 1905), 107-08.