Resurgent Cineribus IIIa: Visiting the Packard Plant

The future was today.

Back in January, writing about the resurgence of Detroit, I dedicated one of my posts to the Packard Plant.  Today, I finally got to put on a hard hat and complete, at long last, my pilgrimage to visit this iconic ruin.

The earlier post discusses the history of the plant, but I learned a few more interesting things on my visit, which focused on the northern part of the plant where the automotive assembly line was located.  (The southern part had the truck assembly line and is only partially owned by Arte Express, so we couldn’t tour that part of it, but I did shoot a couple of photos of that area. )

First of all, while it doesn’t really look like much progress has been made on the site, that’s misleading.  What’s been happening is that the vast interior has been largely cleared of debris, and both lead and asbestos remediation have been taking place.  They’re now working on the roof.   Our guide indicated that there are already several companies that have signed letters of intent to move into the space once it’s ready (and there’s a prominent For Lease sign on the front of the building.) After the roof, the next step is to replace the windows, which will apparently cost several million dollars.  (The plant was known in its day for its excellent lighting.)

We came in through the administrative building, which is at the front of the complex, fronting out on Grand Blvd, and we ended the tour there.  This area included some remnants of the public entrance to the plant with tile floors still in place.

We then moved out into the courtyard area of the vast complex and proceeded to tour through the outside areas of the factory.  Lots of interesting graffiti, remnants of film shoots, and even old shoes (from a shoe warehouse that had occupied the site late in its useful life).

 

Another highlight was a glimpse into the tunnels that run underneath the factory.  These connected the two sides of the factory, which had its own power plant on the south end. We accessed them from the basement of a torn-down building that had previously housed kilns.

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We then moved in through the area where the cars were parked once they were completed to the end of the assembly line. The part of the factory where the Merlins received their final assembly is actually still occupied (by a company that does displays for conferences and the like–and the tour assistant showed me a photo of a Merlin sitting in that building as a display.)  However, we did get to walk down the main assembly line where the larger parts of the assembly of those iconic engines took place.  Our guide told us that during the war, the machinery for assembly of cars was stored on the roof while the line was given over to engine assembly.  After the war, the machinery was brought back in, but it was not in great shape due to exposure to the elements.  While I have a couple of shots down the line, we were not permitted to photograph that long walk due to the fact that we were technically taking a shortcut that was not usually on the tour. One fascinating part of that walk down the assembly line. was that the floor consisted of small blocks of wood, originally coated with creosote.  This gave the floor the springiness needed to accommodate heavy machinery.

 

My earlier post contained photos of the bridge that connected the north and south parts of the factory, where a conveyor belt helped to create one massive, long assembly line that actually went across the top of Grand Blvd.  That bridge collapsed this past January right after I wrote my piece, in fact).  The photos below show the area where the bridge once spanned, and the building it connected to.  Apparently, the City of Detroit owns the building across the street and was not responsive to requests to help stabilize the structure.  Plans are in place to hopefully eventually rebuild it.

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I purchased a tile with an image of that bridge before its collapse at the small Pure Detroit store that inhabits a storage container across the street from the site.  It will live on my niche of remembrance along with the three relics I picked up–pieces of terra cotta tile, concrete, and wood, all from the administrative building.

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It’s worth giving another mention to Pure Detroit–as with the previous two tours I’ve done with them (of the Guardian and Fisher Buildings), the tour was absolutely outstanding, and our guide extremely knowledgeable about the site.   Here is their small shop and meeting place for the tour.  My tour guide was the guy visible on the left in the grey shirt.

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I will very much be interested to see how this site evolves in the next few years.  The investor behind Arte Express, who now owns significant chunks of the property, has repurposed historic buildings in a number of cities, although none on quite the scale of the Packard Plant.  Still, the buildings clearly still have good bones and is for the most part architecturally sound.   There are apparently now speculators starting to purchase nearby properties, waiting to see what happens with the site, and investors are still being sought.

As this article points out, the revitalization of Detroit is signalling the end of the Ruin Porn era, something I noted on my trip last January and again last week.  Make no mistake, there are still plenty of ruins around Detroit, but many of the bigger sites have either been restored and reused (or are in progress), have been torn down, or have been stabilized and fenced off.   I noticed this piece of graffiti while I walked down the long assembly line of the Packard Plant, and while I couldn’t take a photo, someone else did. I am glad I got to see it in its ruined glory before its hopeful resurrection.

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