Metropolitan Detroit and Wayne County

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Detroit became the premier American industrial city in the twentieth century, due mainly to its meteoric rise as the center of automobile production. The early history of Detroit is discussed on pages 23–53 of this volume.

Before it became the Motor City, Detroit had considerable success as a manufacturing center with a diverse industrial base. Population jumped from about 46,000 in 1860 to nearly 286,000 by 1900, with growth based on expanding industrial employment. Around 1880, the most important industries were iron and steel, tobacco products, foundries, machine shops, meatpacking, flour milling, boots and shoes, and men's clothing. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Detroit became the largest producer of heating and cooking stoves in the United States, as well as a major center for shipbuilding, cigar manufacturing, and the production of pharmaceuticals. Other major manufactured products included railroad cars, paints and varnishes, foundry and machine shop products, and beer.

Detroit industry in the nineteenth century was situated on or near the Detroit River, along a narrow band extending about three miles east and west from Woodward Avenue. Few of the industrial buildings of this pre-automotive era remain. The Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Company ( WN108) complex on the Detroit River and the Frederick Stearns and Company buildings survive from the pharmaceutical industry, but almost no manufacturing plants from the stove industry, paint and varnish industries, tobacco products, or shipbuilding industries are extant.

In the early twentieth century, Detroit quickly became the Motor City, and the success of the automobile industry, with its high wages and enormous need for labor, contributed to the departure of other industries from Detroit. Ransom E. Olds opened the first Detroit automobile factory in 1899 on E. Jefferson Avenue, near Belle Isle. In a very short time, Detroit became the home of Cadillac ( WN73), Ford ( WN74), Packard ( WN97), Chalmers (1907), and other automobiles. At the same time, several large independent body manufacturers built factories in Detroit, including the C. R. Wilson Body Company, the Murray Body Company, the Briggs Manufacturing Company, and the Fisher Body Company ( WN75). Although General Motors has not been Detroit based, with the exception of its Cadillac Division, the Ford Motor Company and the Chrysler Corporation were Detroit centered. Throughout the 1910s and the 1920s, Ford was the dominant firm in the industry.

Automobile production in Detroit, well under 20,000 vehicles in 1904, reached 1 million by 1917, with Ford accounting for 700,000 of these. The explosive growth of the automobile industry during the early twentieth century made Detroit an industrial boomtown. The combined populations of Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck jumped from about 300,000 in 1900 to over 1 million in 1920 and then to 1.6 million in 1930. The Detroit of 1900 included 23 square miles of territory located along the Detroit River, but extended only about two miles inland. The city reached its current boundaries by 1927, with a total area of 139 square miles.

In the late nineteenth century, Detroit was a medium-sized industrial city with a large number of factories, few of them particularly large or architecturally distinctive. The substantial manufacturing complexes such as Parke-Davis and Company or the Michigan Stove Company works consisted of several buildings of standard multistory New England mill design, with masonry bearing walls and extensive use of wooden or cast-iron columns. In the twentieth century, large, integrated automobile manufacturing complexes, with enormous multistory reinforced-concrete factory buildings, dominated Detroit's industrial landscape. Beginning with the Ford Rouge plant ( WN134), the monumental single-story, steel-framed industrial building encased in glass became the new expression of modern industrial architecture. The new factory designs, while not unique to Detroit, were carried to their logical extreme in the Motor City and had their greatest cumulative impact on the built environment. Detroit produced new industrial architecture as well as automobiles in the twentieth century.

Albert Kahn was both the innovator and advocate of new factory architecture for the automobile industry, and he worked closely with the great automotive innovator Henry Ford. The peculiar needs of the automobile manufacturers perhaps made innovation inevitable. They required multistory factory buildings that could bear the great weights of machinery and product, could rely heavily on natural lighting, and could be erected quickly and economically. Traditional New England mill designs were simply not adequate. Kahn experimented with reinforced concrete at Packard Building Number 10 (see WN97), then followed with the Chalmers Plant (1907), the first segments of Dodge Main (1910), and the stunning success of the Ford Highland Park Plant ( WN126). The designers of other major automobile plants followed Kahn's lead, readily seen in the later segments of Dodge Main (after 1914), the Uniroyal Plant (1905–1925), the Cadillac Clark Street Complex (1921), and dozens of smaller factory complexes and individual buildings.

Remarkably, Kahn and Henry Ford abandoned the new factory design almost as soon as they put it into service. When Ford began to develop his property along the Rouge River in Dearborn, Kahn executed his first sprawling steel and glass industrial building there, the “B” Building, in 1917 (see WN134). Over the next twenty years, Kahn designed more than two dozen major new buildings for the River Rouge complex, all utilizing some variation of the same design. By replacing the multistory plant with single-story steel and glass buildings, Kahn increased the spaces between columns substantially, improved ventilation and lighting enormously, and eliminated all the vertical movements of parts and raw materials, a bane of the multistory factory.

Detroit's architectural landscape clearly reflects its industrial past and present, as well as the impact of the automobile as the primary mode of transportation. A small central business district perched on the Detroit River is flanked by two narrow bands of nineteenth-century industrial growth. Pre-automotive Detroit extended about three miles north, east, and west from the point where Woodward Avenue meets the Detroit River. Beyond those boundaries, the city is a collection of large zones of industrial growth or residential development that mushroomed during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Woodward Avenue ( WN24) is Detroit's single unifying spine of retail establishments, commercial buildings, houses of worship, and public institutions.

The riverfront area, extending about 2.5 miles east of Woodward Avenue to Belle Isle, was the location of most of Detroit's industry in the nineteenth century. An extensive collection of machine shop and foundry buildings begins just east of the GM Renaissance Center ( WN7). The Parke-Davis complex still stands about a mile west of Belle Isle, as does the Stearns pharmaceutical plant at 6533 E. Jefferson Avenue, but the industrial character of this district is fast disappearing. All of the industrial buildings between the Parke-Davis complex and Belle Isle have been demolished since 1980, including the Uniroyal complex, metal fabricating plants, and warehouses. This area is now primarily commercial and residential in character, a vast change from the past.

Farther east on Jefferson Avenue, close to the riverfront, the next industrial buildings are found about five miles from Woodward Avenue. This industrial district extends north for about three miles along Conner Avenue. Known as the Conner Industrial Corridor, this conglomeration of factories developed along the line of the Detroit Terminal Railroad, which serves as the spine of this industrial district. The great bulk of the surviving buildings date from the early twentieth century, and most are directly related to the automobile industry. Beginning at the Detroit River and extending northward, this district included the Detroit Edison Connors Creek Generating Station (1914–1950); the Chrysler Jefferson Avenue complex (1907–1933); the Budd Corporation plant (1919–1937); and the nearby Chrysler Mack Avenue plant (c. 1915). Other significant manufacturers previously located in the corridor included Briggs Manufacturing, Timken Gear and Axle, the Hudson Motor Car Company, and the Chalmers Motor Car Company. All the plants mentioned above are no longer extant.

The greatest concentration of twentieth-century Detroit industry was in the Milwaukee Junction Industrial District, which surrounds the city's major junction of railroad lines. It is called the Milwaukee Junction because it was originally the intersection of the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad with the Michigan Central Railroad. Broadly defined, the district is bounded by Woodward Avenue on the west, Warren Avenue on the south, Van Dyke Avenue on the east, and McNichols Road on the north. This area contained many of the auto industry's pioneer plants, such as Ford Piquette Avenue ( WN74), Cadillac Amsterdam Street ( WN73), and the earliest plants of the Fisher Body Company ( WN75). Three of the largest integrated plants were erected here, namely Ford Highland Park, Dodge Brothers' “Dodge Main,” and Packard Motor Car Company. Other auto manufacturers, including E-M-F, Studebaker, and Hupp, located in this area, along with the major automobile body companies, including Briggs, Murray, Fisher, and Wilson. The Chrysler Corporation also built the last major new automobile factory in Detroit, the Plymouth Lynch Road Plant ( WN96), located in this district. The Dodge Main and Hupp plants were demolished in 1980 along with part of the residential area known as Poletown, to make way for a new General Motors assembly plant, but the rest of the district has maintained its essential industrial character. Little remains of the Cadillac Amsterdam plant, the Packard complex has seriously deteriorated, and the E-M-F/Studebaker buildings burned to the ground in a June 2005 fire.

Detroit's river frontage extending west of Woodward Avenue has never had the density of industry found east of Woodward. This area is covered extensively with railroad yards, docks, and warehouses. An area of heavy industry, including blast furnaces, chemical plants, refineries, and salt mines, begins at a point about four miles west of downtown and extends downriver to Wyandotte. Detroit's west side has served primarily as a residential area. Substantial auto-related factories that have been demolished in recent decades include the Fisher Body Fleetwood plant (1917–1922), the sprawling Cadillac Clark Street Plant (1921), and the Lincoln Motor Car Company Plant (1917–1939) on Warren Avenue. The Chrysler DeSoto Division Plant on McGraw Avenue (1936) is extant.

New industrial expansion in the late 1930s and after took place at Detroit's outer edges and in the suburbs, in part because the city was largely developed, and large blocks of land were simply not available. The location of new plants was no longer primarily the result of the availability of water transportation or the railroads. Increasingly, surface streets and expressways carried incoming parts and raw materials, as well as the finished products. In the late 1930s and during World War II, the main thrust of industrial expansion was northward into Macomb County along three new industrial corridors: Mound Road, Van Dyke Avenue, and Grossbeck Highway. No complexes of the size of River Rouge were built, but the industrial architecture of the Rouge is endlessly duplicated in the new plants north of Eight Mile Road. Many were built for defense production during World War II, but about a dozen were built in 1946–1955 by the automobile companies, including General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. The plants still in operation today include three assembly plants (cars and trucks); at least one stamping plant, which makes car bodies; a “power train” plant that manufactures engines and transmissions; and several parts plants. All have been recently modernized.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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