Fibre Deficiency

December, 2010.

At the corner of Hoover and State Fair is the "Hoover Avenue Plant" of National Automotive Fibres, Inc. According to the c.1933 Sanborn map, the address is 19925 Hoover, and the company made automobile upholstery, with a small machine shop up front. Just down the street was the Warner Aircraft Corp., a Michigan Bell Telephone Co. pole yard, and the M.H. Wilkins Co. Iron Works. Only the front building of this plant was complete at that time, and it appears as though several large additions were tacked onto it, expanding toward the west.


As it turns out the company history of National Auto Fibres, Inc. is tied into that of legendary Michigan boatbuilding firm Chris-Craft, and even famous singer / actor Bing Crosby. This was also one of the first factories to stage a sit-down strike.

The company was founded in 1928, which seems to be about the time this factory was erected, and was a small-scale supplier to the auto industry. They specialized in car upholstery, interior trim, carpeting, padding, insulation, etc., mostly for Chrysler, Ford, and Studebaker-Packard.


As so often happens with second-tier auto suppliers, their fortunes were subject to the often wild fluctuations in the auto industry, and such companies were especially susceptible to downturns, since they depend on it completely. In 1956 National Auto Fibres posted a million-dollar loss (despite having $46 million in sales) and was bought up by Wall Street investor Paul V. Shields, who decided to reorganize the company to be more profitable and less dependent on the Detroit auto industry.

If you are a devout reader of nailhed.com, you might recall that the Clinton Woolen Mill closed right around that same time, because automakers were switching to synthetics for upholstering their cars in the mid-1950s.


Shields rescued National Auto Fibres from that fate however, by trimming fat from their product line and branching them into other businesses such as oil and gas, and broadcasting. By the time the Clinton Woolen Mill was boarding up its windows, National Auto Fibres was posting record profits and had changed its name to NAFI Corp.

Note the fancy unique brick design and stepped concrete form here:


Holy crap, look at this!


FLAMES, MAN! I'm going to offer a halfhearted guess as to the architect of this factory and go with the obvious choice of Albert Kahn as usual. This might have been one of the ones he designed in his sleep...however I don't know what he would have thought of the gnarly flame job.


In September 1959 Bing Crosby and the NAFI Corp. teamed up to purchase KPTV, the first commercial UHF television station in the world, for about four million dollars. I wonder if that was the inspiration for the Weird Al movie, UHF?


By 1960 NAFI was strong enough to acquire the Chris-Craft Co., which was worth $50 million. Chris-Craft's founders got their start in Algonac, Michigan in the 1870s and their company came to be recognized for its sexy mahogany barrel-backed boats as the last word in prestige powerboating, much the same way Packard was the last word in motoring. Chris-Craft lays claim to building the world's first motorboat, setting several early world speed records, and building the first hydroplane.


By 1962 Chris-Craft had made NAFI Corp. so successful that they decided to change their name again to Chris-Craft Industries, Inc. The Chris-Craft boat division was again bought out from Chris-Craft Industries by investors in 1981 however, and again in 2001. Today Chris-Craft is based in Sarasota, Florida.

It doesn't sound like the parent company NAFI still exists, though I'm not sure when they would have folded. It sounds like they continued making upholstery materials for some time after parting ways with Chris-Craft, just as National Auto Fibres had been doing in 1928.


Rewinding for a minute...

Though it is probably mostly forgotten in the shadow of the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Plant's 1936 landmark strike, the workers of the National Auto Fibres plant staged a sit-down at the same time, according to a book by Sidney Fine. That was December of 1936, the first automotive labor strike in Detroit's history, one which heralded the coming of organized labor in the Motor City. The 1936 sit-down was started by Midland Steel, and joined by Gordon Baking Co., Aluminum Co. of America (Alcoa), Bohn Aluminum & Brass, Kelsey-Hayes, and National Auto Fibres.


It seems, based on some discussion I found, that National Auto Fibres switched over to making parachutes for airborne troops during World War II. A snippet view of a page in the 1943 Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record confirms this, and another book about WWII army uniforms indicates that NAFI also made raincoats and ponchos for the troops, in Detroit as well as in two other New York plants.


After the war, the Industrial Research Laboratories of the United States for 1946 shows NAFI as being based in Detroit with laboratories at 1851 E. State Street, Trenton, New Jersey. They kept a research staff and chemist on hand at both locations, and in Detroit their work consisted of studying car interior trim and insulation materials, sound deadening, adhesives, fibrous board, coated fabrics, and plastics, as well as testing such materials in vulcanized, extruded, and sheet form. Their Trenton lab focused on automobile carpet, namely working with synthetic suede, synthetic sponge, vinyl, as well as the coating and proofing of fabrics.

NAFI were still shown at the 19925 Hoover address as late as 1956, and the president of the company since at least 1946 was J.R. Millar.


The MacRae's Michigan State Industrial Directory for 1981 shows that this address was occupied by PYC-Davis Graphics, Inc. at that time, and a current Yelp.com listing shows the plant's address as most recently being home to a company called Nitro Graphics.


Based on the materials we were finding inside the plant I had already come to the conclusion that the place was last used by a printer or graphic design firm of some sort. Some more light Googling seems to indicate that PYC-Davis Graphics still exists, while Nitro Graphics has probably died off.


On my first occasion going into this plant it was essentially pristine except for some broken window panes, and only the very beginnings of metal theft were evident.


By my second visit, the structure was clearly spinning in a rapid nosedive. I am not even sure if it is still standing at the moment...


This is one of the more modern expansion wings of the plant:




Much of the plant was made up of open factory floor with high ceilings, and all-steel construction. The Kahn-style concrete building was towards the Hoover side.






A lot of office space had been added into the factory floor by subdividing with cinder block walls.




Up front in the section facing Hoover, we found most of the printing-related materials. I think this was the area marked as a machine shop on the 1933 Sanborn map:


There were plenty of draftsman's tables and tools; inks, paints, and other chemicals, and samples of printed matter that were either ready to ship or used for promotion.


My second visit was a month or two later, and things had changed a bit. There still wasn't any graffiti to speak of, but it was now possible to drive right inside of the plant, which made scrappers' jobs easier.


Here we have the discarded front half of a mid-1990s Ford Mustang...and in the background you can see that the ceiling is coming down due to a number of supports having been strategically removed:


A chopped telephone terminal, and some mysterious bubbling ooze:


More sagging evident from the roof:


This was a cool drafting room(?) space on the second floor that I hadn't seen the last time:


They don't build industrial buildings with windows anymore, and that's a travesty. Note the 1920s-era light fixture:


There were a lot of Carhartt promotional materials laying around, so I imagine that might have been one of Nitro Graphic's customers:


It looks like these goons were hard at work getting up to some mischief:


Don't even want to know...







References:
Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 22, Sheet 2334 (1933)
http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/138768-ww2-camo-parachute/
Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record, Vol. 71 (1943), p. 108
http://www.yelp.com/biz/nitro-graphics-detroit
http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/chris-craft-industries-inc-history/
http://www.chriscraft.com/main/company/history.aspx
Sit-down: the General Motors Strike of 1936-1937, by Sidney Fine, p. 131
Uniforms of the US Army Ground Forces 1939-1945, Addendum, by Charles Lemons, p. 288
Industrial Research Laboratories of the United States, 8th Ed., 1946, by Callie Hull, Mary Timms, Lois Wilson, p. 216
MacRae's Michigan State Industrial Directory, 1981, p. A-86

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