The "Cathedral of Refrigeration"

If Detroit had never become the center of the auto industry, it would still be famous for one equally important but almost totally forgotten milestone--the invention of the first practical electric home refrigerator unit.


Somehow the more glamorous automobile has overshadowed the importance of this momentous innovation, and along the way these two industries have even become almost inextricably intermingled. The landmark Kelvinator Building on Plymouth Road was once (jokingly) referred to as the "Tower of the Cathedral of Refrigeration," though it was also home to American Motors, and later the Chrysler Corporation.


The transition from being the "Stove Capitol" in the 1800s to making either autos or refrigerators was an easy one, seeing as all the processes, raw material supply lines, and skilled labor force were already in place. Detroit ended up doing both.


An article from the Detroit Historical Society website written by Brent Maynard states that the Kelvinator Corporation had their roots in 1914. Bostonian inventor Nathaniel B. Wales came to Detroit to pitch his idea for an automatic household refrigeration machine to entrepreneurs Edmund J. Copeland (former president of Buick Motors) and Arnold H. Goss (former secretary of Buick Motors).


Though the first home refrigerator unit was invented a year prior by a guy in Indiana, it was the design developed in Detroit by Nathaniel Wales that was practical enough to become a commercial success. Just like with the automobile, Detroit did not invent the refrigerator--Detroit found a way to perfect it and make it a practical, marketable commodity for the common man.


By 1916, Wales had his first functioning model, and the Electro-Automatic Refrigerating Company was established, though they renamed it two months later to the Kelvinator Corporation.


As I said in my earlier post about that plant, the Wolverine Tube Co. had also been working with copper and brass tubing products since it was founded in 1916, and when the automotive industry's demand for brass parts began to wane in favor of other manufacturing methods and materials, Wolverine found itself a new market for its services in the up and coming refrigeration industry, whose coils, condensers, and compressors required lots of little copper tubes and wires.


Before this snazzy art-deco plant was erected, Kelvinator was housed in a much smaller old mill-construction style building on West Fort Street that I recently posted about. They began production by purchasing standard contemporary wooden ice boxes from the Grand Rapids Refrigeration Company in 1918, and modified them to be connected to a condenser unit that would provide the cooling.

According to the Sanborn maps of it, Kelvinator first occupied that plant as a place for machining, assembling compressor units, and japanning processes, then later as the Nash-Kelvinator parts & service department.


As explained in my previous post, Kelvinator Corp. had their first (listed) offices at 1507 Kresge Building in 1916, and then in 1918 at 104 W. Congress. The book The Technology Century, by Mike Davis mentions a (now demolished) machine shop on E. Jefferson Avenue at Chene as the place Nathaniel Wales's first refrigerating mechanisms were made in 1917, but I don't think he owned it; the Sanborn map indicates it was a regular machine shop.

They moved into the plant at 621 W. Fort in 1919, so that building was probably their first real factory.


By 1925, according to Brent Maynard Kelvinator came out with the world's first "self-contained electric home refrigerator," and sales were absolutely booming; it was time for Kelvinator to step up to a much bigger factory to meet demand. Of course, the Detroit auto industry by this time was already approaching the apex of its meteoric rise.

Kelvinator's own production and sales encouraged the corporation to expand its facilities and commission Detroit's premier architectural firm Smith Hinchman & Grylls to design them this new factory and headquarters.


According to the book Smith, Hinchman & Grylls: 125 years of Architecture and Engineering, 1852-1978, by Thomas Holleman this plant was commissioned in 1926 by the "Electrical Refrigeration Corp.," as their paperwork apparently still has Kelvinator's original name on it.


Notably, SH&G was extremely busy that year with some other touchstone commissions across the state, including the Union-Guardian Building in Detroit, additions to the J.L. Hudson store in Detroit and the American Seating Co. in Grand Rapids, as well as the Michigan Bell Telephone Co. central offices in Saginaw, Birmingham, Menominee, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Flint.


The website detroit1701 claims that the specific SH&G architects who worked on this complex were Amedeo Leoni and William E. Kapp, and that they in fact split the job in half--Leoni designed the office building while Kapp designed the tower. It does not say who designed the actual plant, perhaps they both worked on that too. Allpar.com states that it comprises 1.5 million square feet of space on 50 acres.


Holleman notes that the "broadly eclectic" William E. Kapp and the "scholarly classicist" Amedeo Leoni were both Beaux-Arts trained, but I have to admit I thought the plant was just another Albert Kahn design all this time. I also think that the carved reliefs on the front entryway look to perhaps be the work of Corrado Parducci.


Other Detroit landmarks that according to the AIA were designed by William Kapp include the Players Club on E. Jefferson, the Skillman Branch LibraryMusic HallUniversity ClubDetroit Historical Museum, and world-famous Meadowbrook Hall.


Also in 1926, Kelvinator bought out the Grand Rapids Refrigeration Co. and renamed it the Leonard Refrigerator Co., whose stylish high-end products Kelvinator added to compliment its own line.


According to the book The Technology Century by Mike Davis, Kelvinator also later bought up the Nizer Corp., the largest maker of ice cream cabinets at the time, and hired George W. Mason to be president. Mason was a former Chrysler executive, and also had experience under Kelvinator co-founder Edmund Copeland, who had already gone on to found his own refrigerator company, Copeland Products.


The innovations continued through the Great Depression, and Kelvinator produced the world’s first two-door household refrigerator in 1934. In 1935, Wolverine Tube invented the first "high performance heat transfer tube," revolutionizing the heating and cooling industry, and making more compact, more efficient, more practical home refrigeration units into a reality. So naturally it could be said that the success of Wolverine and of Kelvinator were somewhat parallel, or complimentary, and they depended upon each other to a great extent.


The book The Technology Century says that Kelvinator began exporting its units as early as 1924, with the first shipment going to Shanghai. Eventually Kelvinator had subsidiaries with plants in Canada, England, Italy, and Puerto Rico, as well as licensee plants in 17 more countries. Their distribution network reached 141 countries.


Other Kelvinator innovations outlined in that book included the first freezer across-the-top fridge (1935); the first top-to-bottom fridge (1948); the first automatic defrost feature without heating elements (1952); the first side-by-side freezer / fridge, called the "Foodarama," as well as the first disposable foil oven liners (1955); and the first fridge with foamed-in-place insulation (1960).


By 1936 the lines between the auto industry and the refrigeration industry became more blurred when Kelvinator was merged that year with Nash Motors, based in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The larger automakers began buying up Detroit-based refrigeration companies as early as 1919 when General Motors bought Guardian Refrigerator Co. (Frigidaire).


Walter P. Chrysler created the Airtemp Corp. in 1934 when he was looking for a way to air-condition his glitzy new Chrysler Building in Manhattan (the first-ever skyscraper with A/C). There was the Chrysler & Koppin Co., which doesn't seem to have been connected to Chrysler Motors but nonetheless lays claim to providing early refrigeration in the mansions of several auto barons (such as Fair Lane Estate and Meadowbrook Hall), and still operates today at 7000 Intervale in Detroit.

Ford Motor Co. bought into the refrigeration business later, acquiring Philco in 1962.


Anyway, Maynard (and others) asserts that this merger was designed by Nash so as to acquire the technical expertise of Kelvinator's president, George W. Mason.


The corporation was henceforth known as Nash-Kelvinator Corp., and production of Nash cars remained in Kenosha, while production of Kelvinators remained in this plant, whose line was expanded to include freezers, electric ranges, water heaters, air-conditioners, and disposals.

A commercial product line also included water coolers, beverage dispensers, and frozen food display cabinets (for grocery stores). The modern age of convenience had most definitely arrived.


The reasons for this merger were not simply to remain competitive in an age of increasing corporate conglomeration--Mason and Nash began immediately working on ways to integrate their technology.


In 1938, using Kelvinator refrigeration knowledge, Nash cars debuted an optional air-conditioning / heating system, which was a unique heater powered by hot water to work with fresh air according to allpar.com.


For the 1939 model year a thermostat was added, which Nash called the "Weather Eye" heater, the first thermostatic climate control system in a car. The first true built-in automobile air-conditioning however was not introduced until 1940, by Packard Motors.


In 1937 Nash Motors employees were still working for pretty low wages, and according to allpar.com, "as long as the line was running, men could get by, but the lines were shut down often; the minute they were idled, they went off the clock."

This of course made for a financially strained workforce. Another article on allpar says that Mason "caused some friction" in the early years by "effectively cutting salaries and bringing in anti-labor specialists."


Meanwhile, Charles Nash addressed 1,300 Kelvinator distributors and sales representatives at the Book-Cadillac Hotel on the 8th of January (a week after the merger), touting the fiscal health of the new company, saying, "With the rising tide of prosperity, I don’t see anything that can stop us. We are going to grow and you men are going to grow with us."


Kelvinator employees struck this plant on February 5th, 1937, demanding better wages--75 cents for men and 65 cents for women--a 25% increase for men and a 33% increase for women. The strike ended 11 days later, with management granting the increase.


Both Kelvinator and Wolverine Tube were eventually organized under UAW Local #27, which is the one associated with Walter Reuther. Other units in that local were Northern Electric, Bendix Westinghouse, Fruehauf Trailer, and GM Diesel.


The Technology Century makes the observation that appliance manufacturers like Kelvinator were subject to varying labor costs depending on the industry in which their parent company was established--in this case, Nash Motors and the auto industry, which of course meant the UAW. Other factory workers making electric appliances were usually "lower cost," being organized under electrical unions.


But brands like Kelvinator, Norge, and Frigidaire were all held under companies whose workers were organized under the UAW, which created a pay-scale disparity between workers who assembled fridges and workers who assembled televisions and radios. Naturally companies like Kelvinator felt this was unfair and that they should be able to have the cheaper labor costs of traditional appliance assemblers, which is where the friction stemmed from.


Kelvinator was even more susceptible to "non-competitive labor cost pressures" however, because its supplier plants in Grand Rapids and Evart, Michigan also supplied auto parts to American Motors Corp.--but I'll get to them in a second.


Kelvinator most definitely signed up for defense contracts in 1941, and in fact played a rather unique role in the Arsenal of Democracy by manufacturing the first helicopters ever used in war. According to the Detroit Historical Society again, Nash-Kelvinator produced over half of the Sikorsky R-6 helicopters used in World War II, which was the first time choppers had been put to use in a military application.


From what I have read, in 1944 the Air Force originally wanted 900 of the R-6 built, but Kelvinator was only able to get 219 built before war's end. Other materiel that Kelvinator produced earlier in the war included aircraft propellers, propeller governors, and bomb fuses.


At war's end the public went on a buying spree, eager to not only own new cars, but also modern home appliances, and again Kelvinator had to hustle to meet demand. They branched into even more areas, such as laundry washers and dryers.


Just like after the Great Depression, there was another spate of smaller car companies merging to stay afloat after WWII--many of which had already been subject to multiple mergers in the past. The Detroit Historical Society says that the largest-ever car company merger to that point occurred in 1954 when Nash-Kelvinator joined Hudson Motors to form the American Motors Corporation, or AMC.


Allpar says that AMC used this Plymouth Road location as their corporate headquarters, even though Kelvinators were still being produced in the plant under the AMC ownership until 1968, at which time the rights to the Kelvinator brand were sold to White Consolidated Industries.




White was subsequently bought out by A.B. Electrolux in 1986, though a Kelvinator brand is still being marketed today, and in fact many of Electrolux's products are being manufactured in former Kelvinator plants around the world.




Well, AMC wasn't doing so hot by the end of the 1970s as you might recall, so they partnered with the big French carmaker Renault, who had controlling interest in the corporation by 1983 according to detroit1701.

The old Nash Motors plant in Kenosha was retooled to start spitting out Renaults, but predictably, American car-buyers weren't really that into it.


Renault gave up after successfully selling one car to Hans Moleman, and sold AMC to Chrysler in 1987, which was how Chrysler ended up with this snazzy old building, and--more importantly--the lucrative Jeep brand.


Word has it Hans Moleman is still driving that very same car today. Wait, actually that looks like an AMC Gremlin...?


Anyway, neither AMC nor Chrysler ever manufactured cars here, but they did use it as an engineering facility, according to allpar. The "Cathedral of Refrigeration" had became the "Plymouth Road Office Complex" (PROC), the central engineering location for all of Chrysler's trucks and SUVs.


In other words, this was where design development for Jeeps (excluding the Patriot/Compass), the Dodge Ram, and the Durango was done.


When Chrysler Corp. went belly-up in 2008, this building was liquidated as part of the bankruptcy. Allpar says that about 1,600 people worked here at that time, and they were all shuffled over to the Chrysler Technology Center by 2009.


I don't know the actual sale price, but the original list price for the property was $10 million.


The current owner, some guy named Terry Williams, has a rather sketchy background from most reports. He had a prior conviction in 2004 for running a chop shop, and was seen stripping the copper and other scrappable materials out of this facility in 2013.


In light of the scrapping accusations, Williams claimed in the newspapers that he was merely converting the building into a "home for autistic children," but pretty much nobody believed that line.


Whether the sale price was low enough to make scrapping the building and walking away from it worthwhile I don't know, but he supposedly had received a grant for restoring this place, and at time of writing the building stands gutted and no signs of progress toward any kind of renovation are evident.


The 36th District Court seized the property on July 18, 2013, according to a notice taped to the door.


Free Press article from August 2016 indicated that demolition was on the horizon. Oh well, another Detroit landmark down the tubes.


You can see how much of the original plant Williams demolished before people started asking questions:


Here are some great historic photos of the plant, from the Virtual Motor City Archives of Wayne State University:
Group Signing Kelvinator Strike Agreement, 1930s
c.1926 aerial photo
Kelvinator Strike Ended, 1930s
Roy Abernathy, George Romney, Elmer W. Bernitt, 1960s


I wrote a lot about Michigan's connection to the history of refrigeration in other posts on this website:
'Welcome to the Jungle' ~or~ 'Reefer Madness'
Lambs to the Slaughter
How Detroit and the Yoopee Used to be Connected
Acme Jackson
Arctic Ice Cream


References:
Smith, Hinchman & Grylls: 125 years of Architecture and Engineering, 1852-1978, by Thomas Holleman & James P. Gallagher, p. 213
The AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric Hill & John Gallagher
http://www.reuther.wayne.edu/files/LR000371.pdf
http://wwii.detroithistorical.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Project_Guidelines.pdf
http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/kelvinator-corporation
The Technology Century, by the Engineering Society, edited by Mike Davis p. 208-210
http://www.allpar.com/corporate/airtemp.php
http://www.allpar.com/cars/adopted/nash.html
http://www.allpar.com/corporate/factories/PROC.html
http://www.chryslerkoppin.com/5.html
R.L. Polk & Co.'s Detroit City Directory, 1882 to 1920
Sanborn Map of Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheet 60
http://www.freep.com/story/money/business/2016/08/04/amc-hq-detroit-demolish/88033560/

3 comments:

  1. I worked there from August of 1977 thru August of 1985. Gerry Meyers, AMC President, was the money man with the NY bankers. By 1979 they were reluctant to loan any money for new product tooling. This allowed Renault (French govt. owned) to come in with 49% of the company. They got rid of Meyers & Roy Lunn, VP of Engineering, installing French execs who would do their 2 year tours of duty. They then brought in the R-9 from Europe, renamed it the Alliance, and proved you could always sell people a car once! The hatchback Encore became a failure soon after. The problem was sourcing more expensive parts from France that were of lower quality, but kept French people working. The Humvee was design won the Fed contracts about this time, but a defense contractor can't be a foreign government holding. The AM General Division was sold off to General Dynamics. Meanwhile, Renault spiraled down into bankrupting AMC. The larger Premier was never going to save the company.

    This building had been very well maintained over the years, modernized for office & lab spaces, & vehicle development. It later incorporated the Borman Foods warehouse (Farmer Jack) for more labs & shops. This crook that bought the building got hard time from the Feds for not remediating asbestos & other toxic substances in demolishing the powerhouse & other buildings. He scrapped out all of the administration building lithographed mahogany row walls & later steel 2x4s. Worst of all, they scrapped out the bronze railings & revolving door, light fixtures & marble from the restored 1926 lobby!

    I hope this guy is Bubba's girlfriend in prison!

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    1. I also worked at Plymouth Rd but from August 1981 to August 1985. Another member of my family worked there from 1962 until the end. Those Renault years sure were something...

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  2. Worked there doing CAD engine dres for only 5 months in 1990. It was known as the Chrysler Jeep and Truck Engineering Center. Absolutely loved the mix of the various architectures from the 20's to the 80's.

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