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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.