The Packard Automotive Plant is a former automobile manufacturing facility in Detroit, Michigan. Packard’s were known best for their luxurious automobiles and their catchy slogan, “ask the man who owns one.” Constructed in 1903, the Detroit factory employed 40,000 at its peak before closing in 1958. Portions of the complex remained in operation for other businesses until 2010.

The roots of the Packard Motor Car Company extend to James and William Packard, who founded the Packard Electric Company in 1890, producing arc lamps.1 17 Largely because of Packard, Warren became a major incandescent lamp manufacturer in the nation.17 Business boomed, and James was able to take a pleasure trip to Europe around 1891 and 1893, where his interest in automobiles took root. After his return, the Packard brothers and draftsman E.P. Cowles devised plans to create a gasoline powered carriage and they negotiated on the purchase of an engine. The idea did not proceed further due to a lack of funds as a result of the panic of 1893.

In 1898, James Packard purchased the 12th carriage manufactured by Alexander Winton in Cleveland, Ohio, who was a leading builder of horseless vehicles.17 Packard drove it towards his residence in Warren, a distance of 60 miles, but at some point dring the journey, the vehicle quit and had to be towed home by a team of plow horses. James returned to the factory where the car was purchased from and gave Winton constructive criticism. Winton replied that if he was so smart, that he should build a better machine.1 The Packard Motor Car Company was founded by the Packard brothers in 1899.6 Packard’s first automobile was completed on November 6, 1899, and was given a trial run the following morning. The one-cylinder, twelve horsepower Model A could accelerate up to 30 MPH and had a range of 35 miles.17

The move to Detroit was fast coming. Henry B. Joy was looking to get into the infant automobile industry, and had traveled to New York City in 1901 to shop for a company to purchase, accompanied by his brother-in-law, Truman H. Newberry.1 The duo were impressed by the Packard, where they purchased the vehicle and drove it to Detroit. Joy enlisted Newberry and other investors from Detroit’s wealthy families in a bid to bring Packard to the city.17


Construction and Growth

The Packard Automotive Plant was constructed along East Grand Boulevard and opened on October 12, 1903.8 16 The company, however, had purchased only 7.5 acres of land about 200 feet from the boulevard, figuring they would not need to buy any additional land or frontage along the road. It was not long until they purchased frontage along the boulevard and on both sides of the street. In 1905, Albert Kahn designed Building No. 10,7 with the Trussed Concrete Steel Company acting as engineers, with work being let to the Concrete Steel and Tile Construction Company of Detroit.18 The buildings featured reinforced concrete, a first for an industrial site in the world,1 and were designed in “L”-shaped patterns so that the floor is lit with natural light as much as possible.18 The interior was designed so that there was a large floor plan without the interference of columns. A single row of columns ran through the center of the plant, 32 feet apart on centers. Heavy machinery was placed on the ground floor, with lighter equipment installed on the floors above, although the floors could support 100 pounds per square foot. Workers chimed in, commenting on the wide, open windows that allowed in a lot of natural light.7 Typical industrial buildings prior to that were constructed of steel and iron supports, and were typically faced with brick with few windows.

The number of employees at the Packard increased from 4,208 in the shops and 215 in the office for a total of 4,423 by July 9, 1909 to 6,769 in the shops and 352 in the office, a total of 7,121 just one year later.11

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.9 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 engine room was 50 square feet with one 250 HP engine.10

The first powerhouse was put into operation in August 1908, fronting East Grand Boulevard (in the place of the now abandoned grocery) for 140 feet by 77 feet.10 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, with the completion of 44 feet deep and 140 feet long.10 A 3,000 Cooper Corliss engine was installed coupled to a 2,000 KW Western Electric dynamo operating at 250 volts – the largest direct current dynamo operating at a low voltage in the United States. Four additional boilers were added, each at 400 HP, as well as an air compressor with a 3,000 feet-per-minute capacity. The addition also included the erection of a 175-foot-high smokestack, with a 12 foot diameter.

Packard Automotive Plant

By 1910, the capacity had increased to 6,000 HP with new equipment that was being installed to increase the capacity to 11,000 HP.10 The second addition featured the addition of a 500 HP engine and a 600-foot air compressor that had been in the old power house.

The second addition was completed in October. Four additional 400 HP boilers were installed, for a total of 11 boilers.10 A second Cooper Corliss engine of 3,000 HP was planned to be added, coupled to a General Electric dynamo of 2,000 KW capacity operating at 250 volts. A condensor system was being installed to increase the capacity of the Cooper engines to 4,000 HP.

Due to the location of the power house across East Grand Boulevard, a means to connect it to the plant was necessary.13 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.

The main line under the boulevard, from the power house to the administration building, was 150 feet.13 From that point, a straight tunnel of 866 feet ran north under Packard Avenue, branching to the different buildings along Packard Avenue. The branches totaled 294 feet. A branch from the power house to the service building and running south on Bellevue Avenue, including branches into the truck building, measured 533 feet.

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.13 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.

Packard Automotive Plant

The 8-inch compressed air pipe carried a pressure of 80 lb.13 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.

In February 1910, the Truck Department relocated to a new building south of East Grand Boulevard.14 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, 240 feet by 60 feet, 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.

The two new machine shops were nearly ready for occupancy by August.15 One of the shops was three weeks ahead of schedule and machines had been installed.

Throughout the following decades, the facility expanded to encompass 74 buildings and 3.5 million square feet over 52.5 acres.1 8

Packard cars, constructed by the Packard Motor Car Company and later by the Steudebaker-Packard Corporation, were considered luxury automobiles. By 1909, the Packard was a major car company, leading the way in innovations. In 1916, the “twin-six” was introduced as the first 12-cylinder automobile in the world.1 It outsold other luxury makers, including Lincoln, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow and Cadillac.

By June 1, 1916, the Packard employed 5,664 in the factory and 346 in the offices for a total of 6,010.9 There were 1,601 power machines in operation, 93 in storage awaiting installation and 313 ordered for delivery. The original brick machine shops, encompassing a half-acre, were demolished, for a reinforced concrete structure.

Sales topped 50,000 cars in 1928, with one-third sold overseas.6


The Great Depression and Decline

The Great Depression knocked off sales for the Packard, but the company was not financially hurt due to strong marketing and autos that were priced lower. The introduction of the a mid-priced vehicle in 1935, which used the company’s first six-cylinder engine since 1928, signaled to some buyers that the company was no longer as luxurious as other brands. But the vehicle was a success, selling 109,518 cars in 1937.6

During World War II, Packard manufactured airplane engines, just as it had during World War I. It also built engines for American PT boats.

Post-World War II, the Packard company was in strong financial shape, and it refreshed pre-war vehicles for 1946 introduction. But the company began to enter into the lower-priced automobile market, which did not return high profit margins, and began selling to the taxi cab and fleet car markets, further eroding the luxury marquee the company had long established. Despite initial favorable reaction, lower priced entrants, such as the Clipper, dragged total sales.1 Other luxury titles, such as Cadilliac, dropped their mid-offerings and aimed straight for the luxury buyers. Sales began dropping quick after 1949.6

By 1954, Packard was selling only 27,000 cars per year, and decided to merge with Studebaker to save operational and manufacturing costs.1 6 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.”6


Closure

In 1958, the last caretaker of the Packard Plant was laid off and the company began selling off parts of the plant and leasing others.28 Packard Properties of Illinois took out a mortgage from Land and Norry Associates, a partnership of Edward Land and Irving Norry, and the buildings were reused as an industrial and warehousing facility for as many as 100 tenants.3

On August 12, 1987, Packard Properties sold the plant to Bioresource, a company founded by Aziz Khondker, only to have the complex foreclosed upon in 1993 by the city and state after Bioresource failed to pay any property tax.28 Bioresource shareholders oust the founder a year later, with Edward Portwood, a master electrician and tenant in the plant, becoming president of Bioresource and manager of the Packard facility.

In 1996, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a $1 million cleanup effort after discovering combustible liquids and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination at the southern end of the plant.28

Bioresource filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 1997, but a deal with the city allowed Bioresource to manage the plant, including the collection of about $46,000 in rent from its tenants.28 The company was acquired by Dominic Cristini in August 1998 after Portwood had a heart attack at the plant and died in August 1998.27 Cristini purchased Bioresource from Portwood’s estate, which was valued at just $3,000. At the time of the deal, the plant had dozens of tenants at the Packard. But on November 20, 1998, the city council voted to oust Bioresource as the property manager, and the Detroit Police Department’s Gang Squad was assigned to monitor the Packard plant around-the-clock.28 The city informed the tenants that they needed to vacate by February 1, 1999, and then signed a $4 million deal with Diamond Dismantling to demolish the Packard. A second contractor was hired to remove nearly 500,000 illegally disposed tires.

Demolition work began in January 1999 but work was hampered by the discovery of asbestos and other containments.28 On February 11, OPPMAC, headed by Cristini, was formed to acquire Land and Norry’s mortgage interest. OPPMAC then filed suit against the city to halt demolition and was successful. On August 10, 2000, county Circuit Judge Michael Clalahan allowed OPPMAC to acquire the property by paying back taxes and noted that the city failed to notify Land and Norry of its 1993 foreclosure. Three businessmen, Romel Casab, Fouad Sitto and Gasper Fiore, pay $700,000 in back taxes to redeem the property in hopes of attracting a casino to the lot.

On May 12, 2004, Cristini was charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs out of an abandoned school adjacent to the Packard and pled guilty in August 2006.28 He was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison.

Chemical Processing, the last tenant at the Packard plant and who had rented space in the complex for 52 years, moved to Madison Heights in 2010 – leaving the entire Packard plant vacant.3 Chemical Processing, a metal finishing company, employed just eight but at its height in the 1960s, the factory employed 90 and operated over three shifts. The company had complained for years about vandalism at its facility, including the theft of copper from its electric and phone lines, and the general decay next door.

On May 10, 2010, a section of wall continuing Banksy graffiti was removed by the 555 Nonprofit Studio and Gallery,2 4 after the organization received permission from scrappers at the Packard site.5 The artwork featured a boy holding a spray can with the message, “I remember when all this was trees” next to him. Biosource became enraged when the cinder blocked wall was removed – except that Cristini was serving his prison term.4 The company filed a lawsuit against the studio, with Romel Casab going forward on the case on behalf of Biosource. The reveal of a legal contact for the company led to Detroit to take command of the property in order to have it demolished. The Banksy artwork was taken off display at 555 after the non-profit was threatened with defacement.5

On April 1, 2011, Cristini was released from federal custody.28 Three days later, the Detroit City Council approved demolition orders for the Packard. That August, the federal Environmental Protection Agency removed seven drums containing hazardous plant waste and billed Bioresource for $35,000 for the cleanup but never received a response. In December 2012, Wayne County began foreclosure proceedings against Bioresource for unpaid taxes, which totaled $747,663.


Sale

The development deal between the county and William Hults, an Evanston, Illinois developer, was to close in late August 2013 but financial difficulties precluded him from completing the transaction.25 Hults proposed transforming the site into housing, restaurants, offices, shopping and a hotel, all for $974,000, or what was owed in back property taxes owed by the previous owner.26

The first place bidder, Jill Van Horn, a family physician in Ennis, Texas, offered $6 million with the promise of forming a manufacturing center for modular homes and offices within the Packard.24 Horn, who had no experience in manufacturing or development and had released an official statement titled “The Posential Energy in Detroits Assets” that did little to alleviate concerns and then failed to make a $2 million down payment.23 The entire $6,038,000 offer was invalidated 21 on October 10.23

The second place bidder, William Hults, failed to remit payment on the full amount of the $300,000 down payment for the Packard despite placing a $100,000 down payment on the property on November 1.21 Hults had made a $2.2 million bid for the plant.22 Hults had also failed to produce a $1 million payment to close on the Packard in September. The payment represented back taxes owed by the previous owner Bioresource, a company owned by drug dealer Dominic Cristini.

On December 12, Peru-based developer Fernando Palazuelo made the final payment towards the purchase of the Packard plant after paying 10% down, or $40,500,20 on the total cost of $450,000 in November.19 20 29 Palazuelo had finished third in the tax foreclosure auction in October. Palazuelo, who had redeveloped properties in other countries and was dubbed El Conquistador Del Centro elsewhere, plans to redevelop the Packard into a mixed-use development over the next ten to fifteen years at an estimated cost of $350 million. The project will be financed with foreign investments, along with federal tax credits and loans.30

Palazuelo intends to live within the Packard with the intention of constructing an apartment in the plant once security is in place.20

The Packard rehabilitation’s first phase, which began in July 2015, involves work on the pedestrian bridge and the former administration building on the bridge’s north side.29 Arte Express is financing all of the work, with the estimated cost, $20 million, expected to decrease to $12 million. Construction was delayed by six months due to title issues stemming from the plant’s previous owner, Cristini.

Potential tenants include the Detroit Training Center, which is looking to move into the third floor of the administration building, and two other prospects for the first and second floors.29 Arte Express will move onto the fourth floor.

[stag_toggle style=”normal” title=”Further Reading” state=”closed”]
  1. Packard Motor Car Company at Abandoned America by Matthew Murray
  2. Packard Automotive Plant at DetroitUrbex.com
  3. Packard Motor Car Company at Hudson Valley Ruins
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