The Packard Automotive Plant is a former automobile manufacturing facility in Detroit, Michigan. Packard was known for their luxurious automobiles and the catchy slogan, “Ask the man who owns one.” The factory employed 40,000 at its peak. The once abandoned and collapsing plant is being selectively demolished and rehabilitated into new uses.
In 1890, James and William Packard founded the Packard Electric Company in Warren, Ohio to manufacture arc lamps. 1 17 Largely because of Packard, Warren became a hub of incandescent lamp manufacturing. 17 Business boomed, and James was able to take a holiday to Europe 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 together 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 economic 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 began driving it towards his residence in Warren, a distance of 60 miles. At some point dring the journey, the car 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
In reply, 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, 12 horsepower Model A could accelerate up to 30 MPH and had a range of 35 miles. 17
In 1901, Henry B. Joy was looking to get into the infant automobile industry and had traveled to New York City to shop for a company to purchase. 1 His brother-in-law, Truman H. Newberry accompanied him. The duo was impressed by the Packard Model A, and bought 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
Joy and Newberry enticed Packard to move to Detroit, and a factory was built along East Grand Boulevard that opened on October 12, 1903. 8 16
In 1905, famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed Building No. 10 for Packard. 7 The Trussed Concrete Steel Company served as engineers, with work being let to the Concrete Steel and Tile Construction Company of Detroit. 18 The building featured reinforced concrete, a first for an industrial site in the world, 1 and was designed in an L-shaped pattern so that the floor would be lit with natural light. 18 A narrower footprint allowed for a mostly columnless interior. 7 It contrasted greatly with former industrial buildings that were constructed with steel and iron supports and faced with brick and had few windows.
The company was rapidly expanding. The number of employees at the Packard increased from 4,423 in July 1909 to 7,121 in July 1910. 11 The company in 1905 had just two acres of floor space, and stockholders wanted to know what the company was going to do with all of the excessive room. 9 By 1910, the plant sprawled over 33.6 acres and boasted a new truck shop, foundry, and additions to the woodworking, body making, and sheet metal fabrication shops. A new administration building and powerhouse had just been completed. Active expansion projects east of East Grand Boulevard included the construction of new machine shops, a forge shop, a powerhouse 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 at the Packard was a single 250 HP engine. 10 A modern power plant was put into operation in August 1908, which included a 1,500 HP Corliss engine coupled to a 1,000 KW Western Electric Dynamic that operated at 250 volts, three vertical boilers, each at 400 HP capacity, and two water pumps with a capacity of 1,000 gallons and 1,500 gallons.
The first addition to the powerhouse was completed in August 1909. 10 A 3,000 HP Cooper Corliss engine was installed coupled to a 2,000 KW Western Electric dynamo operating at 250 volts, the largest direct current dynamo that ran at a low voltage in the nation. Four additional 400 HP boilers were added, 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.
By 1910, the capacity of the power plant had increased to 6,000 HP with new equipment that was being installed to increase the size to 11,000 HP. 10 The second addition, finished in October, included a 500 HP engine and a 600-foot air compressor. Four additional 400 HP boilers were installed for a total of 11. 10 A second Cooper Corliss engine of 3,000 HP, coupled to a General Electric dynamo of 2,000 KW capacity, was planned. A condenser system was also scheduled to increase the ability of the Cooper engines to 4,000 HP.
The power plant was connected to the rest of the Packard plant via a 1,843-foot tunnel, which carried three steam pipes, water, an 80 lb. compressed air pipe, and electric cables. 13 Each tunnel included three steam pipes: a 10-inch high pressure line that took 150 lb. of steam to operate fan engines that circulate hot air currents used for heating some of the shops; a 12-inch low pressure line that carried steam for dry kilns and to warm the air of the fan circulation system of other buildings; and a 10-inch return pipe.
In February 1910, the Truck Department relocated to a new building south of East Grand Boulevard. 14 The structure, designed for the production of one truck per day, was soon found to be inadequate. Production was increased to three trucks per day after additional machinery was shoehorned in, with some assembly done outside in tents to relieve overcrowding. Construction began that summer on a one-story extension to bring production up to four trucks per day. The extension was unique in that it was primarily a glass roof between two buildings.
The two new machine shops were nearly ready for occupancy by August. 15
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 Studebaker-Packard Corporation, were considered luxury items. By 1909, the Packard was a major car manufacturer, boasting sales higher than Cadillac, Lincoln, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow, and led with first-in-class innovations. In 1916, the “twin-six” was introduced as the first 12-cylinder engine in the world. 1
By June 1, 1916, the Packard employed 6,010. 9 There were 1,601 power machines in operation, 93 in storage awaiting installation, and 313 ordered for delivery. The original machine shops, encompassing a half-acre, were demolished late in the year in favor of a far more significant reinforced concrete structure.
Packard sold 50,000 cars in 1928, with a third of total sales going to dealers overseas. 6
The Great Depression and Decline
The Great Depression caused sales of Packard to decline, but the company did not drop financially due to strong marketing and lowered automobile prices. The introduction of 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 a luxury car manufacturer. But the vehicle was a success, selling 109,518 cars in 1937. 6
Post-World War II, Packard was in stable financial straits. It had refreshed pre-war cars for 1946. 1 But as the company began to introduce lower-priced vehicles, profit margins eroded. Additionally, the company started selling cars to the taxi cab and fleet car markets, further undermining the luxury marquee the company had once held. Sales began dropping after 1949. 6
By 1954, Packard was selling only 27,000 cars per year. To survive, the company merged with Studebaker to save operational and manufacturing costs. 1 6 It then signed a three-year management advisory agreement with the Curtis-Wright Corporation in early 1956. It was then decided to cease production of Packard cars, and the last Packard automobile was moved off of the assembly line in Detroit on June 2. 6
The last caretaker of the Detroit Packard factory was laid off in 1958. 28 The company began selling or leasing portions of the factory. 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 for industrial and commercial warehousing. 3
On August 12, 1987, Packard Properties sold the plant to Bioresource, a company founded by Aziz Khondker, on August 12, 1987. 28 The complex was foreclosed in 1993 by the city and state after Bioresource failed to pay any property taxes. 28 Bioresource shareholders ousted Khondker in 1994, and Edward Portwood became president of Bioresource and manager of the former Packard facility.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a $1 million cleanup effort on-site in 1996 after discovering combustible liquids and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination. 28
Bioresource filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 1997, but a deal with the city allowed Bioresource to continue to manage the plant, including the collection of about $46,000 in monthly rent from its tenants. 28
Dominic Cristini acquired bioresource in August 1998 after Portwood died. 27 At the time of the deal, the former Packard property had dozens of tenants. The city council voted to oust Bioresource as the property manager on November 20, 1998, and the police department’s Gang Squad was assigned to monitor the grounds around-the-clock. 28 The city informed the tenants that they had to vacate by February 1, 1999. It then signed a $4 million deal with Diamond Dismantling to demolish the Packard complex. A second contractor was hired to remove nearly 500,000 tires that had been illegally dumped on the grounds.
Demolition of the Packard began in January 1999 but 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 successfully filed suit against the city to halt demolition. On August 10, 2000, county Circuit Judge Michael Callahan 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.
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.
The last tenant at the Packard facility, Chemical Processing, moved to Madison Heights in 2010 after 52 years, leaving the entire complex vacant. 3 The metal finishing company, employed only eight, down from its height of 90 workers in the 1960’s. The company had complained for years about vandalism at its facility, including the theft of copper from its electric and phone lines.
The 555 Nonprofit Studio & Gallery removed a section of a wall that contained Banksy graffiti on May 10, 2010, 2 4 after the organization received permission from scrappers at Packard. 5 The artwork featured a boy holding a spray can with the message, “I remember when all this was trees.” Biosource became enraged when the cinder blocked wall was removed and the company filed a lawsuit against the studio. 4 The reveal of a legal contract for the company led Detroit to take command of the property to have it demolished. The Banksy artwork was taken off display at 555 Nonprofit Studio and Gallery after it was threatened with defacement. 5
Cristini was released from federal custody on April 1, 2011. 28 On April 4, Detroit City Council approved new demolition orders for the Packard. The EPA removed seven drums containing hazardous plant waste in August and billed Bioresource for $35,000 for the cleanup, but never received a response or payment. In December 2012, the county began foreclosure proceedings against Bioresource over $747,663 in unpaid taxes. The Packard went to auction in January.
The first successful bid at auction went to William Hults, a real estate developer, who proposed transforming the abandoned Packard site into loft apartments, restaurants, offices, retail space, and a hotel. 26 Hults secured a deal with the county in which his company would pay $974,000, or what was owed in back taxes, for the property. The development fell through in August over difficulties in securing loans. 25
In October, Jill Van Horn, a family physician in Ennis, Texas, proposed converting the Packard into a $6 million manufacturing plant for modular homes. 24 Horn, who had no prior experience in manufacturing or real estate development, failed to make a $2 million down payment. 21 23
William Hults then placed a $100,000 down payment on the property on November 1 but was unable to make a subsequent down payment. 21 Hults, who had made a $2.2 million bid for the plant, 22 had failed to produce a $1 million payment to close on the Packard in September.
Reuse On December 12, Peru-based developer Fernando Palazuelo acquired the Packard for $450,000 19 20 29 after submitting the final down payment. 20 Palazuelo, who had redeveloped properties in other countries, proposed converting the Packard into a mixed-use residential and commercial development over the next 10 to 15 years at an estimated cost of $350 million, financed with foreign investments, tax credits, and conventional loans. 30
Palazuelo began work on the first phase of rehabilitating the Packard in July 2015, 29 focusing on the pedestrian bridge over East Grand Boulevard and the administration building. 29 Arte Express has financed the $20 million project.
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- Gallagher, John. “Developer in Peru makes final payment on Packard Plant.” Detroit Free Press 12 Dec. 2013: n. pag. freep.com. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Article.
- Reindl, JC. “Packard Plant bidder says he’ll live there, lure auto suppliers, build go-kart track.” Detroit Free Press 26 Nov. 2013: n. pag. freep.com. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Article.
- Reindl, JC. “Developer fails to deliver on promise to make $300K Packard payment.” Detroit Free Press 4 Nov. 2013: n. pag. freep.com. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Article.
- Reindl, JC. “Could Packard get Peru savior? Wayne County awaits cash from No. 2 bidder.” Detroit Free Press 30 Oct. 2013: n. pag. freep.com. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Article.
- “Wayne County cancels Packard Plant sale after buyer misses deadline, offers it to second bidder.” WXYZ. 10 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Article.
- Nicholson, Eric. “Meet Jill Van Horn, the Ennis Doctor Who Punked the Entire City of Detroit.” Dallas Observer 31 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. Article.
- Reindi, JC. “Packard plant could go on auction block, sell for $21,000, if latest development deal falls through.” Detroit Free Press 22 Aug. 2013: n. pag. freep.com. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. Article.
- MacDonald, Christine. “Developer seeks new life for crumbling Packard Plant.” Detroit News 17 Jul. 2013: n. pag. Detroit News. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. Article.
- Dixon, Jennifer. “Man behind Packard Plant has long said he owns it, but facing lawsuits, now doesn’t.” Detroit Free Press 2 Dec. 2012: n. pag. freep.com. Web. 16. Dec. 2013. Article.
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- Reindl, JC. “Palazuelo restoring Packard bridge with historic photo.” Detroit Free Press 21 May 2015: n. pag. freep.com. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. Article.
- Christoff, Chris. “Detroit’s Ravaged Packard Plant Looks to Europe for Renaissance.” Bloomberg Business 29 Apr. 2015: n. pag. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. Article.