- Written by webmin
We hear a lot of anger from readers about the neglect and loss of America’s automobile history. We share it, too: Things are being lost that can never be recovered. The Big Three have only ever been halfhearted, at best, about conserving their heritage. When they could have afforded to do something, they didn’t, and those days are past, now. With a few exceptions such as Studebaker, the picture is grimmer still for the thousands of other makes that aren’t Ford, GM or Chrysler. Detroit and its environs house the densest population of important sites and a surprising number have survived, but the poor, benighted city can’t even begin to contemplate historic preservation.
So to my mind, there are no small successes. Every piece we save is important, but some, like a lot in “Milwaukee Junction” at the corner of Piquette Ave and Beaubien Street, purchased by Henry Ford in 1904, stand out. It became his Piquette plant, where the Model T was ultimately developed. In a very real way, it is perhaps the most important single site in our automotive history, and in 1998, it was about to be demolished.
Over the next decade, the Henry Ford Heritage Association and later Model T Automotive Heritage Complex worked first just to stabilize the building, then begin the groundwork for restoration. Today, as T-Plex Chairman Steven Rossi reports, they’re beginning a new 10-year project to complete the restoration, and he sent over the following report on Piquette’s first 107 years. Score one for the good guys.
History of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant
The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, birthplace of the famous Ford Model T, could easily be the most significant automotive heritage site in the world. Because of its simple design, constantly improving manufacturing efficiency, and price reductions throughout most of its production run, the Model T became a ubiquitous fixture in the early 20th century. It also started a process of fundamental change in the economic and social structure of the entire world. This paper is a brief summary of the history of the plant.
By 1904, only a year after its founding, the Ford Motor Company had already achieved commercial success with its first Model A, and needed to move out of the cramped building it rented on Mack Avenue in Detroit. In April 1904, Ford’s stockholders authorized purchase of 3.1 acres of land in the “Milwaukee Junction” area, which would become by 1910 the center of Detroit’s auto industry. Construction of the plant began on the site within two months, and was completed by the end of 1904. The three-story New England mill-style building was designed by the Detroit architectural firm of Field, Hinchman & Smith, and is constructed of brick load-bearing walls with timber post-and-beam framing and thick wooden floors. The 402- by 56-foot building used 355 double-hung windows to admit natural light and ventilation. Because of his shareholders’ awareness of the Olds Motor Works fire a few years earlier, Mr. Ford had his building equipped with the latest fire prevention and control technology – three firewalls with double steel doors dividing the building into four sections, fire escapes in each section, an automatic sprinkler system, and fire-resistant frame and floor construction. At the time of its completion, some people wondered if the company could ever fill the plant’s space, but history soon proved that concern to be unfounded! Besides the main plant building, Ford also built a steam power plant on the site, and in the next few years, a number of outbuildings were added for various manufacturing purposes.
The business offices were on the ground floor at the front (south) end of the building, but Henry Ford’s office was at the southwest corner of the second floor, amid the “real” business of the factory – designing and building automobiles. Mr. Ford was usually to be found in the production areas, the power plant, the design department, etc., and paperwork tended to lie ignored in his office. The plant layout was constantly changing, as happens in automobile plants today, but at Piquette, the changes occurred at a very rapid pace. Initially, the company produced the C, F and B models, all of which were discontinued by 1906. In April 1906, production commenced on the larger, more powerful Model K, which was championed by major shareholder Alexander Malcomson, but totally contrary to Mr. Ford’s product instincts. In July 1906, Ford began production of the Model N; a simple, light vehicle to suit Mr. Ford’s design philosophy, and which proved to be a commercial success, validating his own instincts.
The Model N was followed by Models R and S, both minor upgrades of the N, on the same chassis. Soon, however, several shortcomings in the N’s design became evident, and Mr. Ford saw the need for a new and better vehicle; one which would follow the same design philosophy, while correcting the N’s shortcomings, and introducing new innovations such as left-hand steering, magneto ignition, extensive use of vanadium steel, and others.
In January 1907, Mr. Ford ordered an experimental room to be constructed in the northeast corner of the third floor. In this room, Ford and a few trusted and gifted employees designed and developed the revolutionary Model T automobile, which would soon change the lives of Americans, and eventually many of the world’s people. These men conceived, sketched, discussed, modeled, and tested the design features of the Model T, using the Model N as a test bed or “mule” for proving out new components. By October 1907, the basic design and development had been completed, two prototypes fabricated, and production drawings initiated. Starting early in 1908, N, R and S production was phased out, and on September 27, 1908, the first production Model T was completed. Within a few months, production had risen to 200 cars per month, and over 12,000 Model Ts were eventually built at Piquette before production was transferred to the new Highland Park Plant in January 1910.
The Piquette Plant continued to be used by the company for support offices through 1910, and the building was sold to Studebaker in January 1911. The Model T continued to be produced by Ford at Highland Park and in other locations around the world for 19 years, during which time over 15 million units would be built, using ever-more efficient methods (including the famous moving assembly line), forever changing world social and economic life in the process.
Piquette After Ford
After purchasing the building from Ford, Studebaker built an Albert Kahn-designed addition in 1920, which was used for parts storage and service, and which still stands on the site. Over the years following Studebaker, the site was owned by 3M, Cadillac Overall Company and Heritage Investments, and was used for various light manufacturing and storage purposes. The power plant and outbuildings were eventually razed, along with the water tower on the northwest corner of the main building. Although the building was modified slightly for various uses, large portions were basically unchanged from the day Henry Ford left. Even the original “No Smoking” signs on the fire doors are unchanged from the time they were photographed in the Ford era, as is the rear stairwell, the floors, most of the original windows, and many other features. For some reason, perhaps the brevity of its life as a Ford facility, or an industrial culture which valued only the new and modern, the Piquette Plant and its significance were almost forgotten by the late 20th century.
Saved From Demolition
In early 1998, the Henry Ford Heritage Association (HFHA), arranged with the plant’s owner to tour the interior for the Association’s spring field trip, and during that tour the members discovered that the owner intended to raze the building and replace it with a steel warehouse, thereby gaining a 12-year tax abatement for building in the Empowerment Zone. Immediately, several association members, including Dr. Jerry Mitchell, a Wayne State University professor, and Randy Mason, former Curator of Transportation at the Henry Ford, organized themselves to try to save the building. Jerry and Randy obtained approval from the HFHA Board to raise funds, and after a major effort over several months, nearly $100,000 was raised, and plans initiated to acquire the building.
In early 2000, the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex (“T-Plex”), a non-profit corporation, was formed with Jerry Mitchell as its first president; its primary mission being to preserve the plant, and in April of that year the building was purchased via land contract. Since its formation, T-Plex has stabilized the building’s structure, paid off the land contract, initiated restoration and preservation activities, obtained historic vehicles and other exhibit materials and begun regularly scheduled museum operations. The facade has been professionally restored to its original appearance, a team of volunteers is engaged in a 10-to-12 year project to complete the restoration of the plant’s 355 original windows, and an all-volunteer staff and board are pursuing the plant’s development into a world-class museum. The Piquette Plant has been designated as a Michigan State Historic Site, listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Plans for the Future
In order to continue organized and expeditious progress in its mission, T-Plex formed a Strategic Planning Team, which developed a long-term vision, an overall strategy, and work plans for all major projects needed to reach the vision. During 2011, these plans will be costed, prioritized, and mapped into a ten-year plan, so that the necessary funding and other activities can be put in place to support it.