Standing tall on the city's far west side stands one of the last reminders of one of Detroit's biggest automakers.
This complex at Plymouth Road just west of Schaefer Road was built for the Kelvinator Corporation, which was founded in 1916 by engineer Nathaniel Wales of Boston as the Electro-Automatic Refrigerating Company. Wales had come to Detroit to pitch refrigerators to Edmund J. Copeland and Arnold H. Goss of Buick Motors. Wales did not invent the first refrigerator, but his design would become the model that made them practical and affordable for many Americans - the first "self-contained electric home refrigerator."
Two months after founding the company, the firm was renamed in honor of Lord Kelvin, the British physicist who established the Kelvin temperature scale. Kelvinator was a pioneer in refrigeration technology and made other household appliances. The company operated out of a factory on West Fort and Vermont streets.
In 1925, the Kelvinator Corporation produced the industry’s first self-contained electric home refrigerator, and its fortunes and manufacturing needs grew. This administration building and factory were built in 1927 and designed by the Detroit firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. The lead architects on the project were Amedeo Leoni and William E. Kapp.
The centerpiece of the complex was a tall office tower with a three-story factory and power plant behind hit. All in, the complex comprised 1.5 million square feet. Above the tower's main entrance was inscribed a quote from Lord Kelvin: “I’ve thought of a better way.”
Following the January 1937 merger between Kelvinator and Nash Motors of Kenosha, Wis., the building became the home of Nash-Kelvinator. With the merged company's merged production needs, the Plymouth Road site expanded the plant to 1.46 million square feet in 1940.
During the war effort in the early 1940s, Nash-Kelvinator assembled airplane propellers and hundreds of helicopters at the plant.
Nash-Kelvinator merged with Hudson Motors in 1954 to form the American Motors Corporation, which continued to call the Plymouth Road plant home. However, the complex was switched to serving as a design-and-research facility for cars, with the appliance manufacturing sited elsewhere. The appliance division was sold off in 1968, and AMC focused exclusively on cars. By 1960, AMC was selling more than 486,000 cars a year. Among the automaker's well-known makes were the Rambler, Hornet, Javelin and the infamous Gremlin and Pacer.
In 1975, American Motors relocated its headquarters to the American Center on Northwestern Highway in suburban Southfield. After AMC's move, the Plymouth Road complex building served as engineering offices for the automaker's widely popular Jeep line. But Jeep was something of a lone bright spot in the automaker's potfolio.
Chrysler bought out AMC in 1987, and the west side complex was rebranded the Jeep and Truck Engineering Center, also handling design and research for Dodge trucks. Some 3,000 workers operated out of the facility, designing vehicles such as the Dodge Ram pickup and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
However, nine years later, in 1996, Chrysler announced that it was leaving Detroit and building a new research and design center in Auburn Hills. Following the company's filing for bankruptcy in 2007, the Plymouth Road property was transferred to a Chrysler subsidiary charged with selling off the automaker's surplus properties. The site was listed for sale at $10 million; it would not find a buyer. Nevertheless, the facility was not closed completely until June 5, 2009. The last 900 workers at the facility were relocated.
In 2010, three years after listing it for sale, Chrysler let the property go for $2.3 million to a private buyer.
The complex later was bought by Terry Williams, who said he wanted to turn the office tower into a treatment center for sick children. But Williams' real plan was to scrap the complex's steel and use it as a scrap metal facility. He was charged with environmental violations and sentenced to two to three months in prison. The Plymouth building was seized by the 36th District Court on July 18, 2013, and scrappers and vandals continued to lay waste to the building. The land's title was transferred to the Wayne County Land Bank.
On April 5, 2018, the Wayne County Commission approved swapping the former AMC property to the City of Detroit in exchange for land along West Warren Avenue and I-75 to build a $533 million jail complex. The City would spend the next several years trying to find a buyer for the property.
Finally, on Dec. 9, 2021, Mayor Mike Duggan announced that NorthPoint would demolish the complex and replace it with a $66 million development.
"The city of Detroit is about to say goodbye to another massive vacant eyesore that will be replaced with a newly constructed employment center that will bring at least 150 new construction jobs and over 300 new permanent jobs to the city’s far west side," a press release from the Mayor's Office said in announcing the deal. "The city and Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority recently reached an agreement with Missouri-based NorthPoint Development to demolish the 2-million-square-foot former headquarters of the American Motors Company (AMC), which has sat vacant along Plymouth Road on the city’s west side for more than a decade. In its place will be a new campus comprised of 728,000-square-feet of new Class A Industrial Space that would be suitable for a new automotive parts supplier."
“One by one, we are taking down the massive vacant buildings that for too long have been a drain on our neighborhoods and our city’s image and putting something new in their place,” Mayor Duggan said in the release.
Under the proposed development agreement, NorthPoint would pay nearly $5.9 million for to acquire 56 acres of publicly owned property, including the City-owned AMC property, approximately 26 residential parcels owned by Detroit Land Bank Authority, and an 8.5-acre parcel immediately to the west recently purchased by the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.
NorthPoint is to undertake environmental remediation and demolition of the existing AMC complex and that cost would be credited against the purchase price.
“For far too long, this plant has come to represent the decline and disinvestment this community has endured for years,” said Pastor QuanTez Pressely of Third New Hope Church, which sits just a few blocks away on Plymouth Road. “However, this announcement today signals to community residents and stakeholders alike that we have not been forgotten. We hope that this investment will spark other businesses and corporate partners to see the great potential this community has.”
If approved in early 2022, demolition could begin in late 2022, and construction could begin by the middle of 2023. The new facility likely would open in late 2023 or early 2024.
More on this building soon.