The Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, Michigan has long been on my list of abandonments to visit. Known for its extensive deterioration, brought about by decades of underutilization and neglect, and by scrappers, the Packard encompasses 3.5 million square feet that fills vistas from all directions.
But how does one simply cover the Packard? It’s been gutted, scorched, written about, photographed, spray painted, scrapped, and adored for decades. It is often the sole subject of ruin porn, a newer terminology coined specifically for Detroit, in where visitors to the city come not for its cultural and athletic attractions, but for its abandonments and decay. With thousands of acres to slumber over, the Packard is typically at the top of most explorer’s “must see” list due to its easy access and immense size.
The Packard plant along East Grand Boulevard opened on October 12, 1903 on just 7.5 acres at the edge of Detroit, figuring that they would not need to build out any further for a considerable amount of time. They had not even purchased frontage along East Grand. It was not long until they bought additional acreage on both sides of the boulevard.
In 1905, Albert Kahn designed Building No. 10, with the Trussed Concrete Steel Company acting as engineers with work performed by the Concrete Steel and Tile Construction Company of Detroit. The building was the first reinforced concrete building for industrial use in the world, and was built in an “L”-shaped pattern so that the floor let in as much natural light as possible. The interior featured large floor plans to minimize columns. Typical industrial buildings prior to that were constructed of steel and iron supports, and were typically faced with brick with few windows.
Growth at the Packard was quick – trending from 4,423 employees in 1909 to 7,121 just one year later.
A 1910 article in The Packard, the company’s in-house magazine, stated that just five years prior, the company had just two acres of floor space and that stockholders wanted to know what they were going to do with all of the excessive room. By the time the article was released, Packard had grown to consume 33.6 acres, with active expansion projects ongoing east of East Grand Boulevard. Twenty-three of those acres were in use, and of that, over six acres of buildings were put into use since July 1, 1909, consisting mainly of new truck shops, a foundry and additions to the wood working, body making, sheet metal, administration buildings and powerhouse. The expansion projects included the construction of new machine shops, a forge shop, power house for the forge shop and foundry, stock building, and additions to the body erecting, hardening, service and truck shops, and to the main powerhouse.
The first powerhouse was put into operation in August 1908, fronting East Grand Boulevard. The plant featured a 1,500 HP Corliss engine coupled to a 1,000 KW Western Electric Dynamic that operated at 250 volts, and three vertical boilers, each at 400 HP capacity. In the well were two water pumps with a capacity of 1,000 and 1,500 gallons, with the floor of the well level with the floor of the tunnel that ran parallel to Packard Avenue.
The first addition to the powerhouse was completed in August 1909. The addition also included the erection of a 175-foot-high smokestack.
Due to the location of the power house across East Grand Boulevard, a means to connect it to the plant was necessary. As a result, a tunnel, which carried steam, water and compressed air pipes, and electric cables, was constructed. The 1,843 foot tunnel, 9 feet high and 8 feet wide, enabled safe distribution of the products without overhead interference. Each tunnel included three steam pipes, one being a 10-inch high pressure line carrying 150 lb. of steam to operate fan engines that circulate hot air currents used for heating some of the shops. Another 12-inch low pressure line carried steam for direct steam heating of some buildings and to warm the air of the fan circulation system of other buildings. It also furnished steam for the dry kiln. The third pipe, 10-inches wide, is a return from the heating apparatus. The 8-inch compressed air pipe carried a pressure of 80 lb. Other pipes included two 4-inch water pipes, with one connected to the city main and the other connected to the power house that produced hot water for use throughout the factory. Trunk line cables carried electric current for power and light, suspended by hangers and insulated.
Compare the above to a 2011 view.
In February 1910, the Truck Department relocated to a new building south of East Grand. The building, designed for the production of one truck per day, was quickly found to be inadequate. Through much cramming of machines and people, production was increased to three trucks per day, with some assembly being done outside in tents to relieve overcrowding. Construction began in mid-year on a one-story extension to bring production up to four trucks per day. The extension, however, was unique in that it was simply a glass roof between two buildings.
Throughout the following decades, the facility expanded to encompass 74 buildings and 3.5 million square feet over 52.5 acres.
The Great Depression knocked off sales for the Packard, but the company was not financially hurt due to strong marketing and automobiles that were priced lower. An introduction of a mid-priced vehicle in 1935 signaled to some buyers that the Packard was moving more downmarket and was not as luxurious as it had originally been, but the vehicle was a success, selling 109,518 cars in 1937.
Post-World War II, the Packard was in strong financial shape and had refreshed its pre-war vehicles for 1946. But as the company began dabbling in lower priced automobiles, which did not return as high of a profit margin, and began selling to taxi and fleet car markets, the luxury marquee that the Packard commanded diminished. Sales began dropping quick after 1949. By the mid-1950s, Packard sold just over 27,000 cars per year, and in 1954, merged with Steudebaker to save on operational and manufacturing costs. In early 1956, the company signed a three year management advisory agreement with the Curtis-Wright Corporation. The last Packard automobile was moved off of the assembly line on June 2, 1956, when the company dropped the Packard line in lieu of smaller cars that were its “destiny.”
The Packard plant closed in 1958 when Steudebaker opted to merge operations at South Bend, although the Packard buildings were reused by as many as 100 tenants. That number dwindled to just a few by 2007. The last tenant, Chemical Processing, who had rented space in the plant for 52 years, moved to Madison Heights in 2010 – leaving the entire Packard plant vacant.
The Packard is just massive, and it’s hard to miss. I hate to sound like a broken record in a sea of other web-sites that feature content from the Packard Automotive Plant, but add this to the list of ruin porn. While it’s status is all but solid as a mecca for anyone who lusts over abandonments, it’s fate as a standing structure is still not clear. Sections of the complex have recently collapsed due to advanced deterioration, and it is the site of frequent fires. The city has made repeated promises to have the structures demolished, but finding a legal contact for the complex was next to impossible until just fairly recently.
I’ll be back.