Cadillac’s Amsterdam Avenue Plant

450 Amsterdam Street near Detroit’s New Center

Henry Ford’s first vehicle firm, the Detroit Automobile, was founded in the 1890s but he disagreed with the bankers who backed the firm.  It soon went out of business.  They expected profits, Ford was interested in engineering.  Later in the 1890s, he obtained financial support from Detroit bankers to establish the Henry Ford Automobile Company.  Once again, the bankers expected profits and disagreed with the way Ford ran the firm.  I believe they thought he was more interested in auto racing that in making profits.  By this time, French firms were making profits selling expensive vehicles to the silk stocking trade.   The bankers saw their investments at great risk.  They brought in Henry Leland to evaluate Henry Ford’s company.  Apparently, Leland saw potential in Mr. Ford’s ideas, but the bankers were not patient. 

In 1902 the bankers took over the Henry Ford Automobile Company, got rid of Mr. Ford and put Henry Leland in charge. Mr. Leland had a reputation for being a creative engineer, especially with regard to the production of high-quality engines.  Leland renamed the company in honor of Detroit’s founder and the firm began building Cadillacs in 1902.  In 1903, Leland and his Cadillac started to build a large factory at the corner of Cass and Amsterdam near the Michigan Central Railroad.  It was completed and ran 24 hours a day, turning out 40 new Cadillacs every day.  This was a very substantial production rate according to the standards of that era.  Leland emphasized the manufacture of highly precise parts so that the quality of the assembled engines and cars would be exceptional.  In terms of production in that era, only Ransom Olds with his Oldsmobile was a rival. Unfortunately, the Amsterdam Street Cadillac plant—similar to many other plants at this time—burned.  On April 14, 1904, a cap blew off a riveting machine; oil was spilled and then ignited.  Given the financial success of Cadillac, the bankers decided to invest in rebuilding the Cadillac plant.  Indeed, the new factory was erected in just 67 days so that Cadillac could continue its high rate of production.  The building you see was completed in late 1904 or 1905.  This is the creation of productive Detroit architect George Mason—the man who recognized the ken of Albert Kahn and gave him his start in architecture.

The building pictured above is a substantial component of the rebuilt 1904 Cadillac plant.  It is an important structure in the archeology and history of the vehicle industry.  It was a large factory—275,000 square feet of floor space.  It was modern and extensive with its own forge, a machine shop, and iron foundry, a brass foundry and pattern-making facility.  In 1905 Leland merged the Cadillac Automobile Company with another of his firms, Leland and Falconer Manufacturing, to form the Cadillac Motor Car Company. With the opening of the huge Clark Street plant in 1921, Cadillac ceased production at this facility. Henry Leland is a key figure in the development of the nation’s automobile industry.  If you wrote a book about why Detroit was and still is the center of the world’s vehicle industry, you would devote chapters to Henry Leland.   He grew up in New England and learned about the need to produce interchangeable parts from his employment with the Colt firm that manufactured guns.  By the 1870s or so, craftsmen were about to turn out the precise parts needed for interchangeability of manufactured products.  But they were produced at a low rate by careful craftsmen.  To get to the large-scale production that we associate with Henry Ford, you need to mass-produce precise parts.  One of the major challenges for those who made early gasoline engines was that the parts were not always precisely made.  Since there were dozens of moving parts in a gasoline engine, if a few of the parts were not exactly as specified, vibrations would develop and the engine would cease to operate efficiently.  Henry Leland played an important role in the development of mass-produced precise parts.  By the early 1890s, Henry Leland moved to Detroit and, with Robert Falconer, established the Leland and Falconer Manufacturing.  They produced machinery and gasoline engines for ships.  By 1900 or so, they were manufacturing engines for the cars that Ransom Olds built in Detroit. This was the first car to be produced in substantial quantities.  I believe the Leland and Falconer factory was located at the intersection of Trombly and Riopelle, but they may have had another factory at the foot of Orleans where they produced engines for ships.  After the Olds plant on East Jefferson burned on March 9, 1901, Olds assembled some cars in the Leland and Falconer factory using Leland-made engines before Olds reestablished his business in Lansing where Oldsmobile were produced until General Motors terminated this brand in the Twenty-first Century. 

The first Cadillacs were also turned out at the Leland and Falconer plant before the Amsterdam Street factory that you see above was opened. Henry Leland founded both the Cadillac and Lincoln automobile firms.  Quite a few years before Henry Ford produced Model T’s in his Piquette Street plant, Leland engines were propelling the popular Curved Dash Oldsmobile and Cadillacs.  There is a story that may help explain the prominence of Detroit in the vehicle industry, although I do not know if it is true.  Engineer Leland mastered his trade in the industrial center of Springfield, Massachusetts.  But he was a Presbyterian who possessed a strong need to adequately ensure the financial security of his family.  In the early 1890s, he decided that opportunities were highly favorable in the industrial Midwest.  He intended to explore opportunities in Chicago.  He took the Boston and Albany from Springfield to Albany, and then the New York Central west toward Chicago.  While the train was being serviced at the old station in Toledo, he bought a paper from a news butcher.  He read prominent stories about violent labor violence in Chicago.  He promptly decided that Detroit offered a more secure future for his family than Chicago, so he took the New York Central to Detroit. As a result, Detroit is still the vehicle center of the world.  If anyone can confirm or refute this story, please let me know.

Architect: George Mason
Date of Construction: 1904
Use in 2009: Wescott Paper Company
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites.  This building is within the New Amsterdam
Historic District; Listed May 30, 2001.
Picture of Building:  Ren Farley, 2002
Picture of 1907 Cadillac: Ren Farley; February 21, 2009.  This vehicle was in the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine
Description prepared: February 22, 2009   

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