Packard Motor Car Plant

1580 East Grand Boulevard


This is the nation’s foremost and most famous industrial ruin.  Indeed, it is probably the biggest industrial ruin in the United States and, perhaps, in the world.

James Ward and William Doud Packard operated a firm in Warren, Ohio making electrical equipment in the 1890s.  Similar to many other manufacturers and inventors, they were captivated by the possibility of designing and building a motor vehicle.  As early as 1899, they built a successful vehicle in Warren.  In 1900, they established The Ohio Automobile Company to produce vehicles in larger numbers.  Apparently, the early cars they produced were deemed very reliable and promising.

Investors were seeking their fortunes in the vehicle industry but they had a difficult time deciding which of the many new firms would be successful.  Three very well capitalized Detroit investors, Henry Bourne Joy, Truman Handy Newberry and Russell A. Alger, sought to add to their fortunate by building cars.  They recognized the high quality of the cars produced by the Packard brothers so their encouraged them to move to Detroit.  Detroit was becoming something of a center for vehicle production, but more importantly, these individuals had the capital to fund a large company.  They invested in the firm in 1902.  The name of the firm was changed to the Packard Motor Car Company and, by 1903, a plant was operating on the East Grand site now occupied by the ruin you see pictured above.

The factory plays a significant role in the history of the modern vehicle industry.  In 1905, Albert Kahn constructed the first modern auto plant here, one that used reinforced concrete rather than the heavy pine floors used in earlier building.  Previous auto factories had a tendency to burn down as the Oldsmobile and Cadillac plants had in Detroit in the early 1900s.  With structurally reinforced concrete, the buildings were much larger and much less at risk of combustion.  The investors were not disappointed in their decision for Packards quickly developed a reputation for excellent and innovative engineering.  And they were quite the opposite of the Model T’s that Henry Ford designed about two miles away on Piquette Street and then built in great numbers in his Highland Park plant.  Packards were expensive luxury cars distinguished by their large powerful engines, stylish bodies and smooth rides.  By 1910, Packard had the largest auto plant in the United States, occupying 30 acres on East Grand Boulevard and employing at least 6,000.

In World War I, military leaders of the combatting nations believed that airplanes were the keys to victory so each of the nations tried to develop powerful air forces.  However, the technology advanced more slowly than wished, so air power was not crucial in that long and bloody war.  Detroit, however, was the center for the building of air craft engines for the United State military in World War I.  Indeed, Henry Leland, founder of the Cadillac Motor Car Company, was something of a Tsar for the production of military planes in that conflict.  The Packard Motor Car plant assembled airplane engines.

The 1920s were the years when the Packard Company’s reputation for engineering soared.  It became known as the highest quality vehicle produced in the United States and one of the best in the world.  I believe that it outsold all of its competitors in the luxury car market.  The plant here on East Grand expanded greatly.  Eventually, there were 47 different building spread across 40 acres of Detroit providing about three and only-half million square feet of space for manufacturing and offices.  Albert Kahn was the most famous architect to design buildings for this campus but I presume that many other architects were responsible for some of the 47 buildings.

By early 1942, all of Detroit’s plants had been converted to defense production.  The Packard Plant turned out aircraft engines, many of them the reliable Merlin engine designed by Rolls Royce.  By the time of this war, airplanes were frequently used for fighting and, from time to time, to transport men and material from production points to the front.  The Packard Plant also produced a large numbers of naval engines.  I have read that employment at the plant you see went to about forty thousand men and women in World War II.

By late 1945, all of Detroit’s auto plants were returning to vehicle production.  And for three years or so after that, there was a ready market for any vehicle assembled in the country.  However, most of the early post-World War II cars were similar to what the firms made in the mid to late 1930s. Indeed, in the Depression decade the producers cut back on investments in engineering and design.  I believe it took Packard until 1951 to sell models that were completely redesigned in the post-World War II years.

The years after World War II were not kind one for the five smaller United States producers that had survived the Depression: Hudson, Nash, Packard, Studebaker and Willys.  The Big Three found it much easier to access the huge amounts of capital needed, both to design innovative cars and for building new production plants.  Older multi-story facilities such as the one you see here were much more costly to operate and less efficient than the huge low-rise greenfield plants that were constructed in the suburbs after the defeat of the Germans and Japanese.  And the United Auto Workers effective labor strategy led to a Treaty of Detroit in 1950 that substantially increased labor costs, a cost that the Big Three firms were better able to bear than the smaller producers.

Packard continued to outsell Cadillac as the nation’s leading luxury car until about 1949.  After that, it was all downhill for Packard.  Realizing they were coming to the end of their solvency, Packard and Studebaker merged.  In 1956, the last Packards were assembled in Detroit.  A few more cars were built in South Bend with the Packard name plate but they were basically Studebakers.  In 1958, the last Packard rolled off the assembly lines in Indiana.  Studebaker was able to continue producing cars for another decade.

Within a decade, Packard went from being the top-selling luxury vehicle to being out of business.  Nevertheless, they had a rich history.  The 1901 Packard was the first United States car to use a steering wheel rather than a tiller.  In 1915, Packard became the first firm to power its expensive models with V-12 engines.  It was, in 1923, the first producer to sell cars with the much safer four wheel brakes.  I believe that their models, in 1940, were the first to offer customers air conditioning. 

A subsidiary or offshoot of the Packard Company continued to own this building until 1987.  For some years, a variety of firms used parts of the Packard complex while other components were used as a warehouse for large items.  Gradually, these businesses moved away.  I believe that a Detroit chemical company was the last active occupant.  I think they moved away sometime between 2007 and 2010.  After that scrappers stripped the building of its valuable items.  There was controversy about the ownership of the building for a long period.  The city and county attempted foreclosure on the building in 1993.  I presume that the local governments were reluctant to take control since the 47 buildings had no real value and would it would cost multiple millions to tear them down and then make the area acceptable for today’s environment regulations.

At only point, a work of folk art by the mysterious but famous British underground artist, Bensky, was found in the building.  It was removed and taken to a local gallery.  At this point a Dominic Cristini stepped forward to claim ownership of the building, presumably in hopes of claiming to own the valuable Bensky.  He was promptly billed by the city for past-due taxes.  Nothing came of his claim.   By 2014, the Bensky—title “A Boy Paints at Packard” was for sale at the city’s 555 Gallery.

The county decided to sell the building at auction in the fall of 2013.  If there were no acceptable bids, they would be willing to sell each of the twenty one parcels that make up the Packard campus for $2,000 each.  At the auction, a Dr. Jill Van Horn from Dallas, Texas bid $6,038,000; claimed ownership and said she would invest a great deal in renovating this and other derelict buildings in Detroit.  She did not put down the required earnest money, so the building passed to the second highest bidder.  This was Bill Hults, a developer from Chicago who bid $2,003,000 for the Packard plant.  He put down several hundred thousand dollars in earnest money but could not make his first real payment for the plant so he lost his ownership rights.  The building went to the third highest bidder, Fernando Palazuelo, who offered $405,000.  He is a Spanish and Peruvian real estate developer who had successfully renovated some buildings in Spain prior to the recent economic crisis when he moved to Peru where he continued as an urban developer.  He completed his payment of four hundred thousand and took possession in late 2013.  He spoke about renovating the building for a variety of purposes including manufacturing.  He promised to build an apartment in the building so that he could move into it to celebrate his 59th birthday on April 9, 2014.  He did not meet that deadline.  However, in the summer of 2014, he said that the firm that would renovate the building for industrial and commercial purposes would open and office in the structure in the fall of that year.  He predicted that it would take five to ten years for him to restore the building for commercial use.


Primary architect: Albert Kahn
Date of first building: 1903
Date of first building using reinforced concrete: 1905
Use in 2014:  Abandoned building scheduled for renovation
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photographs:  Ren Farley at a variety of dates
Description prepared: June, 2014

 

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