On my drives home from Detroit (in the days when I physically worked downtown), I would constantly seek out new routes, partly to avoid the godawful commutes on I-75, I-94 or the Lodge, but also to see what buildings I could find of Detroit’s illustrative automotive past. Sure, these buildings haven’t been in operation in my lifetime, but they were the foundations of what created the Motor City, and I was always delighted to at least see them for myself.
Unfortunately, not all of these relics and links to the city’s past are meant to survive far into this 21st century. While some automakers are investing in or making moves to return to the automotive roots that are in Detroit, many have left or are defunct. And the original automotive buildings those companies left behind remain derelict–soon to meet their total demise.
Now on the chopping block for city demolition, as reported by The Detroit News, is the American Motors Corporation’s original corporate headquarters and maybe the longest of the small automakers to survive outside of The Big Three.
AMC — or really, Chrysler — was actually the last company to occupy the space on Plymouth Road. According to this building biography from Architectural Afterlife, the 56-acre site and 1.5 million-square-foot space was originally built as the Kelvinator Appliance factory back in the late 1920s. The company’s appliances took off and expanded across the pond to Europe, so it needed more room to make things. The building was originally constructed as a three-story office complex (which you can see clearly from the road)—with a power plant in the back.
If you’re not familiar with the Kelvinator company, that’s okay. What’s important is the next few parts of the company’s history. Kelvinator merged with Nash Motors, a little auto manufacturer that started in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Nash-Kelvinator partnership granted another expansion of the Detroit location in 1940. The expansion also helped for the company to increase production during World War II.
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After the war, Nash-Kelvinator acquired another automaker, the Hudson Motor Car Company. Hudson, like many automakers, gave up auto production from 1942 to 1945 to produce parts for aircrafts and the Navy to “contribute to the war effort.” But Hudson, like many other small American automakers, returned to auto production following the war and found itself unable to make a mark against the likes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. For Hudson to remain in the fight at all, it joined Nash-Kelvinator and the American Motors Corporation was formed.
AMC did okay. Hudson and Nash stayed afloat until the company killed off the names, replacing those badges with the AMC label. There were definitely some notable vehicles that debuted under its moniker. Note the AMX, Hornet and Gremlin. AMC would sell its Kelvinator division in 1968. AMC would remain a brand name until 1988, when Chrysler bought the company and it became part of the Jeep Eagle Corporation.
The original AMC headquarters actually remained in operation until 2009, where it was closed after Chrysler sold the property. Remember, it was selling off property in liquidation after filing for bankruptcy in 2007.
While Nash and Hudson’s death for what became AMC happened to keep the old automakers alive for just a little longer, its storied fate wasn’t shared by other small American automakers. For instance, in an attempt to stay afloat, Detroit-bred Packard, would join forces with Indiana’s Studebaker for the Studebaker-Packard Corporation in the ‘50s. Packard would move vehicle production from Detroit to Indiana, only to stop making cars a couple of years later. Studebaker would end production of its vehicles shortly after that in 1966.
These are just a few of many automakers that were born, bred and saw their deaths in the city. Some of their buildings, factories and garages were absorbed while Detroit grew into its title of “The Motor City,” and then those buildings were promptly abandoned as citizens and the automakers promptly moved out.
Honestly, the AMC headquarters remained a working piece downtown much longer than I thought. But now it remains a shell of what Detroit automakers truly used to be–of what Detroit used to be.
And Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is not a fan, saying the old headquarters is a contributing “ruin porn” site that the city is “sick of looking at.”
Considering the building’s massive size and the sweeping acreage it occupies in the city, I get it. It’s a lot of space. Automakers needed a lot of space to create and make cars — and they still do. But what else can take up the headquarters’ original walls? Not much.
Unfortunately, the old Packard Plant is also in line for demolition, with Duggan saying a similar announcement to rid the city of that little spot of history (however much it is falling apart) is coming soon.
It’s a shame, especially considering Ford’s announcement not long ago to rescue and rehabilitate Michigan Central Station as a future home of its mobility efforts, or that old automotive buildings like The Rouge plant or The Cadillac Place still find ways to continue working, either within or outside of the automotive industry.
Hopefully some of these other old, “ruin porn” automakers’ buildings can hold on long enough to be appreciated and reborn in the future as a tribute or in association to their storied, automotive past. But many are likely to meet the same demise as the city and their former makers.