Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Ford's Department of Power & Construction

Although Albert Kahn has garnered much deserved attention for his designs of Ford Motor Company and other factory buildings, it is important to recognize that he designed envelopes around an assembly layout that took precedence over the building and that Ford officials were in charge of factory layout and design. The various tasks-plant layout, architectural design, as well as site selection and construction supervision-were the responsibility of an organization called Power and Construction. In the 1920s and the period during which the Richmond plant was designed and built, B.R. Brown was its head. Brown recalled:
“I always conferred with them [the Manufacturing Department] before we began the plant plans. I insisted that the Layout Department give me a layout so the column spacings would be correct and so there would be no interference with the assembly lines, drying ovens and other installations. In other words, we built the buildings around their layouts rather than building the buildings and then putting the equipment in. We did that because I remember in one plant we built before I had seen the layout, we had trouble fitting the paint ovens into the plant.”

Like so many of Ford's top officials at the time. Brown was not college educated. In fact, he did not even finish high school. Born in 1880 at Battle Creek, Michigan, he went to school there through the eleventh grade, after which he went to work in a local bicycle shop. Thereafter, he held a variety of jobs with employers who familiarized him with aspects of the construction business, including a plumber, a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures, a manufacturer of closet combinations, a lumber company, an electrical contractor, and a general contractor. In 1912, he took a job as clerk of the works for the W.E. Wood Company, which had a contract to build an addition to the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park plant. Brown's duties included accounting for all materials and labor used on the project. At the end of the project. Ford officials were so impressed that his figures on the $1,500,000 contract coincided exactly with theirs that they offered him the job supervising the Ford Motor Company's construction program. Initially his work was limited to maintenance and expansion of Ford's existing Highland Park plant, but by 1922, when Ford embarked on a major expansion program, he had charge of the company's site selection, the preparation of plans and specifications, and awarding of construction contracts. During more than twenty-one years of service with the Ford company, he was responsible for the construction of nearly 13,000,000 square feet of space in the U.S. and abroad at a cost of about $65,000,000. The 519,000 square feet of assembly plant at Richmond costing $1,845,000 was a fraction of his aggregate accomplishment.

During the period when the Richmond branch was designed, the Ford organization in charge of designing the physical layout within plants or within departments was called the Factory Layout Department, of which M.L. Wiesmyer was a prominent designer. Bom in 1899 at Whitmore Lake, Michigan, Wiesmyer grew up working for his father, a carpenter and contractor who built houses in the vicinities of Detroit and Ann Arbor. In 1918, shortly after graduating high school, Wiesmyer took a job as a machine hand at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park plant. The following year, the Factory Layout Department selected Wiesmyer to work on plant design. Despite his lack of drafting experience, he was selected to make small templates representing pieces of equipment and then to try various arrangements of the equipment on floor plans in a effort to find an efficient layout. Initially, Wiesmyer worked on reconfiguring existing departments at various Ford plants around Detroit (but not the branches) either to make more room or because the department was moving to a new location. In preparation for a particular redesign job he would visit the department in question and interview the foreman. He would also investigate the possibility of installing conveyors or other labor-saving equipment. When he first started in factory layout, configuring equipment with an eye to efficient connection to overhead line shafts was still an important parameter shaping design. Wiesmyer was transferred to the Upholstery Department in 1921.

In 1922, about the time that the Factory Layout Department took charge of designing the layouts of branch assembly plants. Max Wiesmyer was transferred back to that department. At the same time, the Ford Motor Company embarked on a major expansion of its branch assembly system, and corporate officials decided the company would switch from building multi-story assembly plants to single-story structures. This was intended to make the assembly lines more efficient and also to facilitate alterations to the process necessitated by car-model changes. Whenever possible, plants were also to be built along navigable waterways. Wiesmyer and the Factory Layout Department developed several standard features for the new plants, eventually built in places like Chicago, Louisville, Chester, Edgewater, Charlotte, Dallas, and Memphis. Ford management gave the department a production target (e.g. 300 cars per day), and then they allocated 700 square feet of floor space per car per day. They also set 300' as the standard width of a new Ford branch assembly plant. Various volumes of production were therefore accommodated by varying the length of the design for a particular branch. Once the size and layout of the branch plant had been determined, the Layout Department passed the design on to the Power and Construction Department, headed by B.R. Brown. Power and Construction in turn passed the design project to the Albert Kahn firm, who designed the structure that would serve as the envelope for the plant layout. Actual construction of the building and installation of the assembly-line equipment was under the authority of the Power and Construction Department. Throughout the process of site selection, layout, and construction, Charles Sorensen played a prominent supervisory role.

The Richmond plant differed from the typical Ford plants of the 1920s. It was a two-story structure rattier than one-story, and it had about 1,000 square feet per car per day rather than 700. In these aspects, Richmond was like the Buffalo and Seattle branch plants, designed and built at the same time (1930-1931). Each of the plants had its body department on the second floor. The Buffalo, Richmond, and Seattle group was the last major expansion built under B.R. Brown's supervision before he left the company in 1933. During construction of the Richmond plant. Brown made numerous trips to the Bay Area to check on construction. As was typical, Wiesmyer was responsible for the layout of the Richmond plant.

In his oral history, Wiesmyer tells an interesting story that reflects Sorensen's unquestioned authority within the Ford organization and, in particular, in the process of plant design. Wiesmyer, Brown, and others had been working on the layout of the Richmond design for some time, experimenting with various configurations that would address the site variables presented by waterfront, railroad track locations, etc. They were anxious to get Sorensen's approval of their proposed design before he left for a vacation in Florida. At a meeting in his office, they presented several design options, none of which he liked, so he sketched the configuration he wanted. Wiesmyer, who had been studying the problem for some time, interjected, "Mr. Sorensen, I think...." Sorensen cut Wiesmyer off, saying, "Well, who in the hell ever told you were supposed to think." Sorensen then left for his vacation, and Brown sent a re-oriented plant design, based on Sorensen's sketch, to Kahn's architects so they could design a building. When Sorensen returned from two weeks' vacation, however, he called for Wiesmyer and said, "You know, the more I get to thinking about the Richmond plant, the more I think maybe we ought to turn that building around and set it the other way." Contemplating the matter, Sorensen had come to realize that Wiesmyer and the others had recommended a configuration more appropriate to the site, so the Ford staff had to send a new layout to Kahn Associates and have the architects begin their design anew.