Former Packard Plant, Detroit

A visit to the former Packard automobile plant is de rigueur for any architectural historian or any lover of abandoned buildings. While Packard closed in 1956, the complex was never truly abandoned, as far as I could find, until 1999.

As so often has happened, a manufacturing plant with an august history was relegated to simply storage or subjected to dreams of becoming an “industrial park,”

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Aerial view of the once-thriving but long-abandoned and ransacked Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, Michigan. Designed by architect Albert Kahn, opened in , and completed in 1911, the plant made luxury Packard cars until 1958, except during World War II, when it made fighter-jet engines. In its heyday, the plant employed 40,000 workers. For a time until the late 1990s, the premises was used for storage, chemical production, and even parties, before closing for good, as scavengers and graffiti artists took charge of the hulking facility. United States Michigan Detroit, 2020. -02-22. Photograph.

The complex is gigantic, and eventually would take up eighty acres and eighty buildings, right along the future Edsel Ford Freeway, named after the heir to one of its most important competitors.

Designed by Albert Kahn, whose name appears yet again, it was revolutionary in its use of wide open spaces which aided in the implementation of assembly lines, but also, in my opinion, accelerated American industry’s need for wide open spaces in suburbia, thus dooming cramped and compact manufacturing sites in urban settings to obscurity.

Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Packard Motor Co., Detroit, Mich. United States Michigan Detroit, None. [Between 1900 and 1915] Photograph.

Just look at the sites of the Big Three automakers in post-World War II St. Louis; almost none of them were in the City, with the corporations choosing huge, flat suburban locations in Wentzville, Hazelwood and Fenton for their new plants.

While apparently many visitors are obsessed with the abandoned buildings of the old Packard plant, I wasn’t terribly impressed; yes, they are huge, but that is really the only superlative I can use to describe them. And yes, I certainly understand their historic significance.

Leffler, Warren K, photographer. Exterior view of the Packard Motor Co. factory with smokestacks, Detroit, Michigan / WKL. Michigan Detroit, 1958. [01/23/ 23 January] Photograph.

And yes, they are sublime, but not beautiful. And honestly, it’s kind of annoying that so many people focus on it. In fact, the website Historic Detroit says it best, “The Packard Plant became one of the most tired images of Detroit’s decline…”

I’m more interested in how the people who once worked inside, and the people who now live nearby, and how they interacted and interact, and will interact with the building.

Siegel, Arthur S, photographer. Detroit, Michigan. Assembly of Rolls Royce engines at the Packard motor car company. Assembling connecting rods on a crankshaft. Wayne County United States Michigan Detroit, 1943. Jan. Photograph.

During World War II, the plant, like many industries shifted to aiding the war effort. In this case, the Packard plant built Rolls Royce engines, and I love this photo of an employee hard at work. While the luxury cars are well known in America, Rolls-Royce is actually still a major player in the commercial jet engine industry.

It’s hard to imagine, but fun to try, thinking about all the activity, which perhaps went on around the clock, in these now silent buildings.

Siegel, Arthur S, photographer. Detroit, Michigan. Assembly of Rolls Royce engines at the Packard motor car company. Connecting engine at a flush-in stand. Wayne County United States Michigan Detroit, 1943. Jan. Photograph.

Of course, World War II became the moment where many women entered the workforce, some permanently so.

Detroit, Michigan. Assembly of Rolls Royce engines at the Packard Motor Car Company. Quality stamping parts already inspected by the Army. Notice the long lacquered nails of the girl. Wayne County United States Michigan Detroit, 1943. Jan. Photograph.

And what about the neighborhood around it? Certainly the loss of thousands of jobs did not help it, but I also saw operational auto plants in otherwise abandoned areas, making it obvious that employees drove in from the suburbs.

Trees obscured houses, which often just barely popped out above the foliage that in the late summer had grown to their probably tallest extent.

One can imagine workers leaving home at the sound of a whistle from the power plant, walking five minutes to work.

For every occupied house, there are four to five abandoned houses, and twenty to thirty vacant lots.

One thing that Detroit does have is a plethora of really cool Mid-Century motels. Now, I would n’t say I would actually stay there, but they have cool signs and design.

I obviously didn’t go inside the plant, but rather just cruised by. I really didn’t see many people, as would be expected. The buildings are already largely gutted.

And of course, after one more abortive attempt at redevelopment, at least some of the complex is going to be demolished, which was occurring as I went by. I am largely ambivalent, as I’m sure readers would assume by this point, but I’m sure for others, it represents a loss of their comfortable “decay” which they’ve become so accustomed to in the Motor City.

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