The vast Packard automotive plant is one of Detroit’s most iconic ruins, beloved by urban explorers and photographers. If there is any one property whose resurgence would truly give a sign that the phoenix of Detroit is truly rising from the ashes, it would be this property.
And it’s happening. It, of course, will never again host an automotive assembly factory, but it will hopefully no longer lay derelict and abandoned.
Before we go there, however, we need to go back. The Packard assembly plant, consisting of multiple buildings, by 1910 was the largest in the United States. Designed by famed architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates (yes, the firm founded by the same architect who designed “Old Slumpy” from yesterday’s post, and whose buildings are all over Detroit), it was the first reinforced concrete industrial building in the US for auto assembly. During WWI it assembled aircraft engines, and in the 1920s moved to the use of assembly lines. It would eventually encompass 4 million square feet of factory space and employ 40,000 workers.
Most significantly for my own interests, during WWII the famous Rolls Royce Merlin engine was produced at the Packard plant. Initially, manufacturing the Packard Merlins was a challenge as Rolls Royce had not produced the engines on an assembly line. Eventually the kinks were worked out and starting in 1941, over 55,000 Packard Merlins rolled of the lines in Detroit, most destined for P-51 Mustangs, but some also ending up in the Canadian-built Avro Lancasters (including the Canadian Warplane Heritage’s Lancaster, fondly known as VeRA.) The plant also manufactured naval engines.
Unfortunately, the Packard company ceased to exist in the 1950s after being purchased by Studebaker. Cars were manufactured there through 1958, after which the property was split up among a variety of industrial tenants. The property went through several owners before being acquired by the City of Detroit in 1998, which planned to demolish it. This never took place, although the last tenant left in 2010. Instead, Wayne County foreclosed on the property due to non-payment of taxes and then sold it at auction to Arte Express in 2013.
As the site was slowly abandoned, it became a canvas for graffiti artists and a site for raves. Urban explorers posted copious amounts of photos and video of the site, which became a mecca for ruin enthusiasts, including Camilo Jose Vergara. Curbed has published an excellent series of photographs of the property, which you can see here.
In 2017, Arte Express announced plans to begin securing and revitalizing the plant as the first stage of a renovation that is estimated to cost over $300 million. Their website discusses the plans for the property.
Per the Detroit News, as of last March “$4 million has been spent on pre-development and clean-up, with more than 14,000 yards of debris hauled away from the lower east side plant that sat mostly vacant for decades, according to Kari Smith, director of development for the project through site owner Arte Express Detroit. There are plans for a brewery to open next year. The goal is to create a mixed-use development over the course of 10 to 15 years, Smith said.” Public Radio International has written more recently about the progress of the cleanup, which has been slow but steady. Unlike the downtown sites I looked at the past two days, the Packard plant does not have any nearby attractions to draw residents or foot traffic. What it does have is its history.
Most interestingly, Pure Detroit now offers tours of the plant (something I plan to take advantage of on a future visit). At the very least, ruin enthusiasts will have a chance to tour the property without having to break laws to do so. Pure Detroit was originally a clothing and culture merchant but now gives tours of two of Detroit’s intact architectural gems, the Guardian and Fisher buildings. I’ve taken the former tour and will be taking the latter on my upcoming visit.
Unlike Packard, Ford is still a strong presence in Detroit. Just recently, they purchased another iconic ruined building and plan to renovate it. We’ll visit the Michigan Central Station in the next post.
Breaking news: The bridge (the one that says Packard) seen in the slideshow above has collapsed. Once again, Detroit seems determined to be newsworthy just in time for these post.