Packard Car Factory
Detroit, MI

Arson, Anarchy, and a Detroit Dinosaur

Under “Packard” on the trip agenda I had “…the parts NOT ON FIRE” scribbled next to a smiley face. My friend crossed it out, but I guess an aversion to fire is kind of a deal breaker, at least for this place.

Wood brick floors reduced noise and vibration, making the work environment safer and keeping the superstructure intact. Too bad people like to pile these up and set them on fire on the weekends. With 3.5 million sqft, though, it's not exactly running out...
Wood brick floors reduced noise and vibration, making the work environment safer and keeping the superstructure intact. Too bad people like to pile these up and set them on fire on the weekends. With 3.5 million sqft, though, it’s not exactly running out…

First, a Rant

Why care about this automobile plant? It has become a symbol of Detroit’s economic problems, and by extension the US’s uncertain car industry, ever since its acres of repeating pillars and blank window holes caught the attention of postmoderns.

‘See here, this is what it would be like if we all disappeared tomorrow.’ ‘Give nature half a century and the world would look ancient again.’

1937, Making of Modern Michigan Collection, msu.edu
1937, Making of Modern Michigan Collection, msu.edu
2012, bing.com
2012, bing.com

I have to say, I prefer the lived-in look.

Detroit is a special sort of place because of its Packards. Not for the reason you may think, however.

There are many, many giant bits of last century’s history crumbling around us in this big country. Sure, Detroit has more than its fair share, but it is also more cognizant of it than one might expect. There are as many ‘guerilla historians’ in Motor City as there are places to document, so at what point is doing so no longer unconventional?

Some of the earlier buildings were dressed up with brick facades.
Some of the earlier buildings were dressed up with brick facades.

What follows that question is a philosophical debate, not unlike the age-old semiotic battle over the use of “discovery” and “exploration.” Those usually sound like, “Franklin did not discover electricity, because it obviously existed before he electrocuted himself,” something easily extendable to urban unknowns.

When it comes to Packard, and indeed all major Detroit relics, a quick search will pull up hundreds of blog entries, database rows, and web articles like those I usually write.

Obviously, I do not want this to be that kind of work. Instead, I will transcribe parts of conversations I recorded during the trip and give a short summary of Packard’s history, without citing any of the many secondary sources dedicated to Detroit’s abandonments.

1927, Making of Modern Michigan Collection, msu.edu
1927, Making of Modern Michigan Collection, msu.edu

Conversation 1: Scope Out

“Yah, Concord Street, take a left.”
“What’s in that guy’s cart?”
“Toilets. And bits of other toilets.”
“From Packard?”
“No. Well—maybe. Probably doesn’t have any left now anyway.”
“Huh, I wonder if ‘e lives here.”
“You mean in Packard or the ghetto?”
“Either… both…”
“I’m just glad it doesn’t seem to be on fire at the moment.”
“Don’t sound so sad, it’s still early!”
“Whatever, I have no idea how it would even burn. Looks like straight concrete for fuckin’ miles.”“You’d be surprised—they’re still scrapping the place every day. Even cut out the load bearing pillars just to get the steel out of ‘em.”
“Shit, how’s it still standing?”
“Think a lot of people wonder that same thing, and ain’t too happy about it either.”

Many outdoor areas of the plant have become unofficial city dumps. The skeleton doesn't care.
Many outdoor areas of the plant have become unofficial city dumps. The skeleton doesn’t care.

Conversation 2: Helpful Scrappers

“No, dead end.”
“This isn’t right, we’re in a corner there should be a staircase. We gotta get off the ground.”
“Looks like they’re all cut away.”
“Naw, there’s gotta be a way up, or ten with the size of this place.”
“Across the street, maybe?”
“I saw squatters in there watching us, so I’d rather give ‘em space.”
“Shit, there are a couple scrapper guys comin’ our way.”
“Hey.”
“Yo, whatchya’ll doin’?
“Trying to get up to the next floor, know the way?”“Through the hole, ‘an left, down there.”
“Cool, thanks.”
“Naw, naw, naw, tha end one. Yeah, that’s it.”
“Thanks, guys!”
“Yeah, cool, here’re the stairs. We’re good. Now up into the light, right?”

I wonder what this guy is thinking, walking through the complex.
I wonder what this guy is thinking, walking through the complex.

Conversation 3: Turnaround

“Guys wanna try to head back just walkin’ the roofs?”
“Well I guess we gotta head back down for the skyway part crossing the street, but yeah, sounds fun.”
“On second thought, look over there—collapsed. Looks like it burned recently. Shit, and it’s full of tires. God that must’ve stunk.”
“Stinks now. Let’s head out the same way, I guess. Careful o’ the stairs. No railin’ on this one.”
“S’pose they cut ‘em out for the steel, like Fisher (link).”
“Yup, anything they can get at. Can’t blame ‘em though. Just hungry.”
“Glad I got to see the place before it gets knocked down.”
“Yeah, but knowin’ this place your kids will probably get to say the same damn thing!”
“Packard, the concrete block that everyone smacks with hammers and refuses to fuckin’ die. It’s growin’ on me, this place.”
“Wanna come back tomorrow?”
“No, not really. Think I’ve seen it all. Though the closer I look the more I notice. Like here—bits of wooden strips that used to be the floor where before it was wood brick. And there’s more glass on that wall than other parts. Little stuff.”
“Yeah, it’s weird. More than mushroom pillars, that’s for sure, but it takes a little while to appreciate it.”

When I see this picture, I imagine that I am an ant exploring a mushroom farm.
When I see this picture, I imagine that I am an ant exploring a mushroom farm.

History, in Reverse Chronological Order

Packard is now abandoned, a haven for anarchy, the subject of art, a hulking reminder of good days gone.

I like this picture because it shows some of the only unbroken windows at Packard.
I like this picture because it shows some of the only unbroken windows at Packard.

The last tenant moved out a few years ago in the mid 2000s—an electroplating company—one of many small companies that rented space in the complex after the car manufacturer closed its doors in 1958.

Two years before the doors were chained overnight without warning, it was bought and put on life support by the Studebaker Motor Car Company of South Bend, Indiana (link), who was struggling itself at the time. This bold expansion was supposed to save both companies, but as Studebaker is also covered on this site, you might guess its fate. Their mutual downsizing, one of the measures to try to save the brand, meant the layoff of half the plant’s workers in Detroit, about 5,000 people. Before that point they were selling 60,000 too few cars annually to break even.

Not much earlier, in the late 1940s, the employment almost hit 12,000 just at the one location, which most people were taking to call ‘Grand Boulevard’, after the intersecting main drag. Thousands of people drove through the complex, between its cutting edge reinforced concrete buildings and under the steel skyways every day. Then, like now, people remarked at the massiveness of the property itself—3.5 million square feet of pure industry, a testament to the economic potential of the country.

At no other time was our capacity for war tested as in World War II. But before any American units were committed overseas, Packard had dedicated a million square feet to produce Rolls Royce aircraft engines and some marine engines as well on behalf of Great Britain. This made sense, as during the first World War the plant made plane engines as well, specifically the 400 horsepower, V-12 ‘Liberty’.

January 1943, Rolls Royce engine, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, [LC-USW3-012902-C]
January 1943, Rolls Royce engine, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, [LC-USW3-012902-C]
Once its homeland was challenged, though, Packard stopped making automobiles altogether. On February 9th, 1942 the last production car until after the war rolled out with a sign on it reading:

Here’s the last PACKARD
Till we win the war
It’s all out on ENGINES
To even the score

Last pre-WWII car, 1942, blog.hemmings.com
Last pre-WWII car, 1942, blog.hemmings.com
uk, Making of Modern Michigan Collection, msu.edu
uk, Making of Modern Michigan Collection, msu.edu

Historians seem to agree that the wear and tear WWII wrought throughout Packard’s already aging machinery and superstructure is a significant contributor to the plant’s final closure. The plant had been open for almost half a century, so by the time it started making engines for WWII it was likely in need of repair.

These buildings were remarkably tough, however, thanks to their ingenious architect. Using knowledge of concrete gleaned from a brother in the construction industry, Kahn designed wide buildings with large windows supported though a series of internal pillars. They would combine the tensile strength of steel and the load capacity of concrete, something that is extremely common today, but cutting edge for the time. The first reinforced concrete building, Packard #10, was built in 1906.

A typical stretch of the assembly line.
A typical stretch of the assembly line.

Where did Kahn come from though? Interestingly, Kahn had designed a home for Henry Joy in 1900, three years before he brought Packard to Detroit from Warren, Ohio. The men worked well together, so when it came time for serious expansion at the car plant, Joy brought Kahn back in.

Now the architectural style is an international standard, the plant an urban icon, the brand a feature of classic car shows, and the memories fading, distant things.