Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Chrysler Jefferson Avenue plant

This east-side plant long outlived the automaker that built it. In fact, cars were assembled here longer than at any other plant ever built in the U.S.

The factory, built on the south side of East Jefferson Avenue at Conner, also was one of architect Albert Kahn’s earliest reinforced-concrete plants.

Long history short, Chalmers Motor Co. did well at first and built this huge plant in 1908. However, it made increasingly expensive cars that increasingly didn’t sell, and so it leased unused space to Maxwell Motor Car Co. By the late 1910s, the two companies were practically merged — but also practically broke. Their creditors appointed Walter P. Chrysler to take over, and by 1925, he had discontinued the two brands and reorganized the firm as the Chrysler Corp.

This factory became Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant, and from its opening in 1908 to its closure on Feb. 2, 1990, it made everything from DeSotos to Dodge Omnis. At the time of its closure, cars had been built at this factory longer than at any other U.S. auto plant.

It also played a crucial part in Detroit's role as the "Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II. During the war years, the Jefferson plant produced about 150,000 engines; 352 air raid sirens, 253 smoke screens, 9,000 pontoons, wings for fighter planes and more. This area of the city was home to a number of other automakers and parts suppliers: Hudson, Packard, Briggs, Dodge, Murray Body, American Body, Motor Products and more. These factories employed a combined 150,000 workers at their peak during the 1940s.

In 1988, Chrysler announced it would build a new plant across from the old, on the south side of Jefferson. At the time, the automaker promised to keep the old plant running through 1992, when the new plant was to begin producing SUVs. During a Jan. 16, 1990, meeting with the UAW, Chrysler officials said the automaker was selling only 160 of the 470 Omni/Horizon subcompacts built at the plant each day. Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca was to meet with UAW President Owen Bieber to discuss keeping the plant operating after the plant's announced closure of Feb. 2.

The closure meant 1,700 workers would lose their jobs.

"I always believed that after I had 21 years in at a company, I wouldn't have anything to worry about," Doris Murphy, one of the 1,700 Jefferson Avenue plant workers to be laid off, told the Detroit Free Press for a Feb. 2, 1990, story on the closure. "This makes you realize that nothing's permanent."

The layoffs followed 1,800 evening shift workers laid off 13 months earlier, including Robert Garnett. He told the Free Press, "After you've given a company 20 years of your life, they figure you're wore out. They want young people who won't break down on them."

The Jefferson Avenue plant's closure left the Motor City with only one auto assembly plant, GM's Poletown plant near Hamtramck.

The old plant was demolished in early 1991.