When it was built in 1903, it was considered the most advanced manufacturing facility in the world.
Today it’s simply 3.5-million square feet of vacant factory space, sitting on 40 acres of an abandoned block in Detroit. It’s been thoroughly scavenged and scrapped, and is now a hangout for graffiti artists, urban explorers and paintball fanatics.
The building followed the typical mill-style construction of its time, with cramped rooms, wooden columns, floors, and ceilings, all with very little natural light. Constructed mainly of wood, it was a massive fire hazard.
At the time, the Packard was seen as the pinnacle of high-priced luxury vehicles, exporting more cars than any other in its price class. By 1930, the company was selling almost twice as many cars overseas than any other company and from 1924-1930, they were the top selling auto brand, grossing nearly $22-million in ’28.
During WWI, the company shifted gears to support airplane engine assembly. And during WWII, car assembly was again halted to focus on manufacturing products for the war effort, hiring as many as 36,000 workers at the time.
But their success was short lived. After WWII, they found themselves unable to compete with the Big Three (General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Chrysler). Their first post-war vehicle was actually a 1945 model labeled as a new 1946 model, but in reality, just a slightly modified 1942 model. That was arguably the beginning of the end for the company.
In 1954, business was nosediving. In an effort to revive the company, Packard purchased the failing Studebaker company making it the fourth largest automaker in the U.S. However, Studebaker was perhaps not so honest over its financials and by 1956, the company, now named Studebaker-Packard, was a goner. They went out of business, selling off parts and leasing out the factory to retail and industrial tenants.
From 1960-1987, parts of the buildings were occupied. Tenants begin to abandon ship until the last tenant was gone by 2010.
By 2013, taxes were delinquent and the county held an auction with bids starting at $975,000. There were no takers.
A second auction was held. Bids started at $21k and closed at over $6-million. The new owner planned to refurbish the plant to assemble manufactured housing. But unfortunately, she missed the deadline for the first payment and had to forfeit the property. Then the second highest bidder failed to raise the entire sum. It was beginning to look like the building would be forever empty.
Toward the end of 2013, a Spanish investor purchased the buildings for $405,000, with plans to create a work space for local artists along with an upscale go-kart track.
Since then, he’s spent $4 million on pre-development and clean up, which has proven to be significant, with more than 14,000 yards of debris hauled away.
Today, there are additional plans for a brewery with work expected to be completed by 2020.
Kari Smith, director of development for the new owners said, “We’ve salvaged all the wood on the floors,” Smith said. “There are arches and dentil work on the bottom floor. That’s been kept. … There wasn’t much because it was scrapped pretty significantly.”
Everyone involved has just one goal. To see the space used thoughtfully and productively. Time will tell what actually becomes of the timeworn factory. Until then, the memory of what once was will live on through old photos and classic cars.