Fairfield: Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant

by Tim Gilmore, 5/1/2016

Looking through these wine-red rusted grilles of long-glassless windows at the tall red Mathews Bridge, I wonder if a single driver glances my way.

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Though most of this long slender building levers out over the river, it’s easy to miss. Many a driver who’s soared o’er the Mathews Bridge for years has yet to notice.

The Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant reminds Nick Thompson of his native Detroit. It’s a city he’s been away from for more than half his life, but he’s kept in touch from afar.

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Nick loves the brick and brawn, the grit and girth, of his hometown, and that means he loves Albert Kahn. Kahn designed so much of Detroit’s seminal urban architecture that he’s sometimes called “the architect of Detroit.” He also designed around 1,000 buildings for Henry Ford, including Jacksonville’s Ford Assembly Plant.

Nick recently wrote to Albert Kahn Associates, “still going strong after 125 years,” and they sent him a copy of the Jacksonville plant’s original rendering.

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courtesy Nick Thompson

The plant rides more on the river than it does on land. It shunts off from industrial Talleyrand Avenue, past a long side lane of sinking metal warehouses, then the other side of sand and railroad tracks and barbed-wire fencing. You crossed several no-man’s-land thresholds before you walk on water.

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When it was completed in 1924, the plant measured 576 feet long and was immediately extended.

Soon the building reached 800 feet long on 8,000 pilings in the river and employed 800 people.

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In its current derelict state, it’s hard to tell the initial quality the plant shared with Albert Kahn’s other industrial architecture—a strange congruence of muscularity and elegance. Though Ford workers produced 200 cars a day here, the plant seems to cantilever, to float upon the water, and though a band of brickwork runs along all sides of the building, its walls of strip windows, topped by clerestory skylights that span several hundred, once dominated its appearance. Sadly, today, almost all the glass is gone.

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The iron stairs leading to the toilets have long disappeared. Great iron gears wait still wound in the ceiling. A tugboat yaws in its mooring beneath the bridge.

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The face of the building is boarded. A straight brick column separates brick patterned herringbone from brick in basket-weave. Nick and I trespass each side of the other this Saturday.

I climb an iron ladder to the roof, security cage about me. The sun radiates octagonal above my head, 315 degrees Northwest, almost convinces me to leverage my walk right off the roof and over the river. I’d walk forever.

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Many of the rusted bones of the windows are cranked forever open, fallen at crooked angles, bent outward, holed through, collapsed dangling toward inner girders.

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There’s very little glass where glass was once most of all. Bright green mold carpets the concrete. A tractor trailer marked “Radioactive” slants down an interior bay.

When Nick was 17 years old, he and his friends wandered through Albert Kahn’s abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit. He describes it as “a different world. It had been closed for years and stripped and burnt, but you still could see that it was built to last forever.”

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When I ask Nick what he likes about Albert Kahn’s architecture, he begins listing Kahn’s greatest works as ecstatically as Walt Whitman lists the sites of each street in 19th-century Brooklyn: the River Rouge Complex—“the ultimate car factory,” the Detroit News Building, Edsel Ford’s personal residence, the old General Motors world headquarters, the aquarium and conservatory on Belle Isle, the Fisher Building—“a beautiful Art Deco skyscraper, the crown jewel of the city,” Temple Beth-El, and so on, and so on.

Nick says, “River Rouge is where Ford was able to handle all aspects of car manufacturing, from steel production to the end product. When I was a kid, we’d go to Boblo Island on the steamships at night. Across the river, we could see the molten steel pouring like lava.”

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courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Boblo Amusement Park has been called Detroit’s Coney Island, though located just above the mouth of the Detroit River in Ontario. Since ceasing operations in 1993, Boblo oxidizes and disintegrates into the earth and water around it just as does so much of Detroit.

Since 1950, when Detroit was one of America’s greatest cities, its population has dropped by two-thirds. By the 21st century, whole swaths of urban neighborhoods stood largely empty. Half the city’s streetlights failed. A thousand stray dogs roamed the streets, though urban legends claimed 50,000.

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courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

It’s appropriate that in walking Jacksonville’s Ford Motor Plant, I’d find so much of its dignity and poise sinks barely legible under layers of the mire of years.

Not long ago, the empty defenestrated structure served perfectly as impromptu art gallery with the moon looking in on temporary exhibits.

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The plant could serve as loft apartment space with attached dining and arts areas, similar to current redevelopments of Kahn’s Packard Building in Detroit. In 2012, Paul Davis Restoration of North Florida renovated Albert Kahn’s 1929 Chevrolet Parts Depot in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood.

When this plant opened in the 1920s, it helped mass-produce the Model-T, which accounted for half of global automobile sales. Ford left the plant in the late 1960s. Today it’s a storage facility for wooden pallets.

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On the way here, I watched concertina wire deface a billboard that asks, “Cheating Spouse?” and answers, “$399 Divorce.”

On my way out, past the “24-Hour Surveillance” warning signs, I stop to admire two white morning glory blossoms gorgeous on a chain-link fence, pure lush white petals on red vulnerable centers innocent of the surrounding desolation.

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I think to myself, “So this is where Albert Kahn’s windows have gone,” and then I see them see me.