Ford Piquette Avenue Plant History

In its first year, the Ford Motor Company became a fast-growing infant which quickly outgrew its crib (Mack Avenue Plant) and needed a lot more room. On 26 January 1904, the firm's board of directors authorized Alexander Malcomson, the company Treasurer, to take an option (at a cost of $1,000) on a nearby parcel of 3.11 acres, an entire city block bounded by Beaubien Street on the east, Brush Street on the west, Piquette Avenue on the south, and the Michigan Central Railroad line on the north. A special Stockholders Meeting of 1 April 1904 authorized the purchase of the property for $24,500. The land was situated in a largely-undeveloped section of Detroit about three miles north of the Detroit River, known as the Milwaukee Junction. The name derived from the junction of three railroads in this area the Detroit & Milwaukee, the Grand Trunk Western, and the Michigan Central. The Ford Motor Company stockholders limited construction costs for a new factory to $76,500. The company directors authorized Henry Ford and John Dodge to approve all the plans and specifications for the Piquette Avenue Plant. They employed the Detroit architectural firm of Field, Hinchman & Smith. Construction began on 10 May 1904, but the City of Detroit did not issue a building permit for the project until 21 May.

Field, Hinchman & Smith traced its roots to Sandusky, Ohio, where Sheldon Smith established an architectural practice in 1853. Sheldon Smith moved to Detroit in 1855, where his son Mortimer L. Smith and grandson Fred L. Smith later continued the family's architectural practice. In 1903, Fred Smith joined two engineers, Henry G. Field and Theodore H. Hinchman, Jr., both University of Michigan graduates, to form Field, Hinchman & Smith. It was one of only a handful of Detroit architectural firms that took on factory commissions. In addition to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, the firm designed factories for the Daisy Manufacturing Company (1903); multiple buildings for the Olds Motor Works and the Olds Gasoline Engine Works (1903-1905) in Lansing, Michigan; facilities for Walker & Sons (1904-1905) in Walkerville, Ontario, Canada; and factories for Dodge Brothers (1904-1905) in Detroit. Charles Bennett, one of the original Ford Motor Company stockholders, was also the president of Daisy Manufacturing Company (makers of air rifles) and would have been familiar with Field, Hinchman & Smith. When H. J. Maxwell Grylls joined the firm in 1906 and Field departed, the practice was renamed Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, the name it retained until the late 1990s. This is the oldest continually-operating architectural practice in the United States and one of the most prolific architectural practices based in Detroit.

The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant initially consisted of a three-story brick factory building, 56' wide and 388' long and a brick powerhouse measuring 36' wide and 57' long, located near the northwest corner of the factory building. The powerhouse was equipped with three Pratt fire tube boilers, Skinner direct connection steam engines, and Triumph dynamos to generate electricity for the plant. At its meeting of 9 May 1904, the company directors authorized the major construction contracts with the Malow Brothers receiving the contract for carpentry work ($23,500), and the contract for masonry work ($21,195) was awarded to the firm of Nut & Clark. Additional contracts were let on 1 June and in August. Construction proved more costly than originally estimated, forcing the Ford Motor Company directors to authorize additional funds on 10 October 1904 to complete the work. The Piquette Avenue Plant was sufficiently finished by October 1904 to enable Ford to begin moving its operations into the facility, having spent its first eighteen months in the Mack Avenue Plant.

Old-time Ford employees recalled the roominess of the new factory. Fred Rockelman asked Henry Ford if the company would ever need this much space and Ford challenged Rockelman to a foot race to one end of the building and back, and Rockelman accepted. Another employee, Frank Hadas, recalled eleven-year-old Edsel Ford riding his bicycle inside the plant, weaving between the columns in the half-empty building. When first occupied, the southern one-fourth of the first floor, near Piquette Avenue, included the office of business manager James Couzens, a vault, and offices for bookkeepers, clerks, stenographers, and sales staff. Henry Ford and his production and design staff had their offices on the second floor, also at the southern end of the building, but there is little surviving evidence of these offices. The first floor included an area for testing cars, a machine shop, and a shipping department at the north end of the building. The second floor included space for magneto assembly, an additional machine shop, and a storage area. The third floor, which included drafting rooms at the south end, contained the body trimming, painting and varnishing operations, with most of the space devoted to final assembly and storage. Over time, the usage of the space shifted considerably, but the location of offices on the first and second floors did not.

The Ford Motor Company expanded the Piquette Avenue Plant by adding new buildings west of the three-story brick factory. In late 1906, the Board of Directors decided to build an engine-testing building equipped with ventilators and blowers and a paint shop, at a total cost of $14,000. At the end of 1907, the Ford Motor Company erected a heat treatment plant to treat parts made from vanadium steel manufactured elsewhere. A detailed site plan produced by the Detroit Fire Department around 1908 shows the entire property between the three-story factory building on Beaubien Street and Brush Street at the western edge. The plan shows an iron or steel-framed building approximately 75' wide and 175' long located on the edge of Piquette Avenue and labeled "Chassis Room." In the middle of the property was a one-story metal building, measuring 50' wide and 120' long, with the eastern part labeled "Grinding Room" and the western section identified as the "Furnace Room." This was almost certainly the heat-treating plant built in 1907. A brick warehouse, roughly 100' by 150', stood at the northwest corner of the property, with "unloading sheds" extending to the railroad spur lines at the rear of the property. The brick powerhouse dating from 1904 is shown at the north edge of the property, with an adjoining brick "Test House" approximately 35' by 65' overall. A brick building 30' wide and 90' long, located just west of the main factory building, is identified as the "Snagging Room," where rough edges were likely removed from castings or forgings by filing or grinding. The remaining outbuildings, all small, included a "Soldering Room, Oil House, Laboratory, and Wash Room," all placed in the midst of the other outbuilding. The Detroit Fire Department plan reveals a manufacturing complex jam-packed with buildings.

The Ford Motor Company moved most of its manufacturing operations from the Piquette Avenue Plant to the more spacious quarters in its new Highland Park Plant by January 1910, but kept some component production and most of its offices at Piquette Avenue through October 1910.