Fisher Body Plant 21, Part B: "Rekall"


The maze of stacked up shipping racks across the street from Fisher Body #21 seem to match the brutal geometry of the plant, and its surrounding population-less area...the only life forms in this neighborhood were machines: trains and stamping presses. The racks were presumably used for shipping car body panels, judging by the writing on this one, which says "DRIVER FRONT DOOR OUTER RIGHT QUAD":


I first set foot in the Fisher Body Plant #21 in early 2004. I've hung out there so many times since then that all the memories seem to blur together. I can recall how it was where I met my Canadian friends Donnie and Navi for the first time, or how I once snuck in when it was briefly turned into a city impound lot and waved at the surprised security guards from the water tower, or the time I almost found myself in the midst of a baseball bat vs. rusty pipe vs. machete fight here against some rivals that ended in nervous hugs of truce instead of open cranial injuries...(long story).

But enough of that; the next several paragraphs are my thoughts as I recorded them in March 2004 after my very first visit to Plant #21...


A tall fence surrounded a cracked parking lot on the south side of the large whitewashed building, plowed over by someone in a truck, no doubt driven by scrappers. The street was littered with rubble and other detritus, and next to an ankle-deep pothole sat a scorched car battery. Nearby, a fire hydrant leaked water directly into a storm drain whose iron grate had been stolen for scrap. The newest manhole cover was dated 1915 or so. 


Inside, the familiar industrial smell of various petroleum products seeped from the building's pores, and paint flaked from everything. 


I don’t know what it is about Albert Kahn factories...perhaps it's the anodyne, minimalist feel given off by their conical-topped columns and vast expanses of window sash, or their endlessly mass-produced repetition, but the bated silence of their desolation and steady drip-drip-drip of their insides can put one on edge easily. The never-ending forest of concrete pillars stretched out as far into the darkness as we could see.


That is—if nothing else—the one thing that anyone can take away from experiencing Kahn's industrial architecture...not only are these structures the houses of mass-production, but they themselves are an expression of it; a perfect paradigm of form following function. Walking through such a factory hammers home the point with brutal force, not unlike the starkly rhythmic pattern of a techno beat, or a stamping machine.


There were two piers running the height of the building containing the stairwells, freight elevators, and bathrooms on each floor with the giant, round communal sinks usually seen in auto factories. On some ceilings we found overhead conveyors, from which body panels were suspended by hooks as they went through various chemical dips or spray booths. 


When we got to the top floor is when we found the really cool stuff. All the machinery was still sitting there, unlike what we had seen at the Packard Plant.


A track for carrying body panels snaked back and forth across the floor from one end to the other, leading into and out of giant paint booths or drying ovens, then under banks of powerful inspection lamps. The ceiling on the top floor was incredibly lofty, twice that of the normal height I've seen in any other Kahn factory. There were vast instrument panels covered in buttons and gauges, massive ducts wrapped here and there, and amongst it all ran a steel catwalk going on top of and between the colossal apparatus.


I climbed up onto the catwalk and poked around on top of the machines, and found a 20-year-old styrofoam coffee cup crumpled up, with the proud "Napoleonic Coach" emblem of GM's Fisher Body Division emblazoned on it. Nearby sat a faded old porno-mag, looking as though it had seen a lot of rough service, and an empty pint of cheap cognac.


This was an industrial paradise...an eerily intact remnant of Ye Olde Assembly Line, a symbol of the Motor City's former glory and might. But at the same time that the silent archaic machinery around me engendered a certain pride, it was also a painful reminder of the economic collapse that has so profoundly characterized the city for my whole life.

Through the acrid reek of chemicals and charred metal, through the grotesque scenery of twisted iron, battered concrete, and broken glass, we looked out the massive window bay to the northwest and saw the glimmering tower of the Fisher Building and old GM headquarters, still-dazzling images of wealth and opulence, insulated from this industrial wrack and ruin.


A feeling of betrayal crept over me as I viewed those buildings in New Center, now beginning to light up as dusk fell, swallowing the old abandoned factory with it. For blocks and blocks around us lay nothing but a graveyard of factories, once pounding with the lifeblood of industry and labor. How many people lost their livelihoods when the Fickle Three pulled out of Detroit, abandoning it to ruin? I could see the shimmering lights of the affluent white-collar suburbs far to the north in Oakland County begin to come on, while here the streetlights flickered occasionally if at all, leaving the empty streets dark and cold. 


The only sound was that of a plastic shopping bag rolling down Piquette like a tumbleweed in the slight breeze, and the low roar of tires on the Ford and Chrysler Freeways as suburbanites fled home before the sun set. Every single one of them had parents or grandparents with roots in this city, yet they themselves knew almost nothing of it other than as a disinherited, shunned place; something to be feared, and visited briefly if at all. 


...Those were my recollections of exploring this plant for the first time, when I was still a young college kid from the inner suburbs just starting to explore the evil city on my own. Now, when I find myself sitting up there gazing out these windows on cold winter nights, this plant is like a lens through which I can meditate on how much the city and I have both changed since I first started immersing myself in Detroit.


As a youngster I was one of those people riding on that freeway in the backseat of my parents’ car, staring out the window into the creepy, mysterious darkness and ugliness of Detroit…I guess it was destined that I would eventually come to explore it, to find out what was hidden in the darkness. 


This city has undergone a massive change since I first visited this plant 15 years ago. The generational hopelessness that I saw in Detroit in 2004 has seemingly been replaced by a positive mood—albeit one tempered by a healthy skepticism. For the first time in my life there is a slight tingling of warmth in the extremities of the neighborhoods that had been given up as lost to frostbite.

Now people are actually flocking into Detroit to live here—many attracted to the allure of its darkness and toughness. But it is an image that they have been sold; a commodity, like evening wear—very trendy at the moment but easily discarded as soon as tastes change. If Detroit is reborn, it is in spite of any such buzz campaign...in spite of Dan Gilbert, in spite of Mayor Duggan, and in spite of the ex-Brooklyn hipsters coming here to glom onto our “gritty” scene and our low cost of living. 


I don’t have a problem with new people and developers coming here to join in, I just wish that they would give back more, instead of just taking. Consider the fact that Detroit is a working class city, while so far all the new development I see caters to entertaining upper class people, and securing corporate profit. In “saving” Detroit, the upper class is actually forcing out those lowly unwashed masses who gave Detroit the grit image that attracted them here in the first place, and, who incidentally held it together for the past 50 years. Overall, the hallowed "trickle-down" model of American economics has not really worked out all that well for Detroit, so I'm a little skeptical to see this much-touted revival being based on the same model.


Meanwhile, if one would seek to “save” Detroit, break out of the 7.2sq-mile bubble…there are plenty of great volunteer groups, block clubs, and church outreaches doing good work who need our help to fix the broken areas of the real D. Cast off the corporate trappings and silly slogans of the “New” Detroit™ and come see about the Old Detroit. You will like it. 


Speaking of development, German techno scene entrepreneur Dmitri Hegemann made recent news with his idea to turn Fisher Body #21 into a cultural complex like Berlin's iconic Kraftwerk. While it's nothing new for out-of-town freaks to posit hair-brained schemes for reusing Detroit's abandoned buildings (e.g.: the nutty Texas lady who almost bought the Packard Plant instead of Fernando Palazuelo), when I read the article about Mr. Hegemann's plan in the April 2015 Detroit Free Press, I actually felt like I could take it seriously; partly because it now seemed like the "Midtown" phenomenon was ready to continue expanding outward to something like Fisher #21.


Mr. Hegemann and his colleague Mario Husten of Berlin's Holzmarkt came here to take part in "Detroit Opportunity Sites," a trans-Atlantic workshop focused on devising strategies for reusing Detroit's vacant industrial property carried out by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in partnership with Detroit Future City and the Kresge Foundation. 


After World War II Berlin was a bombed-out shell of its former self, and its economy was in total shambles—much like the Detroit of modern times, it was a disinherited place where there was no money to fix up its plethora of ruined buildings. And again, after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 there were many large Soviet facilities that were abandoned, which stood as huge eyesores representing a very painful chapter in that city's history. Detroit too, wrestles with the oppressive imagery brought on by our abandoned buildings; they are reminders of failure, collapse, and of racial division. But Berlin was able to turn this around for themselves, and a burden became an asset.


Kraftwerk was originally an abandoned powerplant from East Berlin's Soviet era, and it is now a successful multipurpose event center. The equally famous Tresor club is also located in a former bombed-out abandoned building—one which Hegemann was in charge of converting. Many more of Berlin's most popular attractions are housed in buildings that used to be abandoned: 
Key attractions in Berlin include Berghain, located in a former East Berlin powerhouse like Kraftwerk. It is often considered to be the club capital of techno. There is also Stattbad, a club and event center in a previously bombed-out state swimming pool, and Golden Gate, a small after-hours club burrowed underneath a subway station. But it's not just clubs: The Berlinische Galerie, a modern art museum, can be found in a prior glass factory. Tropical Islands Resort, south of Berlin, is a tropical-themed waterpark repurposed from the world's largest airship hangar.

Today, Berlin is Europe's third most-visited city. According to the article, 74% of tourists visited Berlin for its arts and culture, 93% for its restaurants, and 35% for its nightlife. If only Detroit could attempt this kind of transformation...there is literally nothing to lose at this point, but if we keep tearing down all of our vacant buildings then there won't be anyplace for grassroots development like this to take root. Even in our current state of disarray, actual tourism to Detroit has started to become a thing, as hard as that is for some of us to fathom.


Hegemann argues that "We can use the power of abandoned spaces...I want people in Detroit to understand it's possible." According to the article, after the Berlin Wall fell and the former Soviet structures were left behind, it was the younger generation who were able to get past the ugly imagery and painful memory associated with abandoned buildings, and turned them back into something productive:
The youth of the divided city came together through fusing these spaces with art and entertainment, including techno music imported from Detroit—which represented freedom and an opportunity to start fresh, a chance to rebuild from the rubble.
Apparently this rebirth happened in Berlin much the same way it has here in Detroit—in a do-it-yourself fashion, where in the vacuum created by a collapsed or inept local government, the people themselves pick up the slack. Typically the renovations of Berlin's abandoned buildings were done by volunteers, according to the article, even though everything was done with uncertainty; if one idea failed, an alternative one was ready to take its place. They called it the "one-room" strategy, and this was one method that Hegemann hoped to share with Detroiters.


The proposed renovation of Fisher #21 would follow the same "one-room" strategy...renovating the plant's second floor first, by turning it into a 100-bed hostel, a Euro-American restaurant, and techno club. This would bring in revenue to fund the renovation of another floor, and another. Hegemann formed a partnership with University of Detroit Mercy's architecture program, whose students were designing potential layouts for the project.

Mr. Hegemann was also collaborating with the Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance, to work toward building a bridge between the two cities through culture, and would be returning for the second-annual Detroit-Berlin conference at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to continue exploring "the art of repurposing spaces." Although Mr. Hegemann has yet to purchase Fisher Body #21 or submit a formal proposal for its redevelopment, he was still in talks with Detroit City Council about the idea. 


Here's the quintessential "RenCen-through-the-dirty-busted-windows" shot that everyone always takes here...although I'm not sure it's generally seen taken at night.


Speaking of techno, I named this post after one of my favorite Detroit techno tracks, "Rekall" by Plastikman (one of the pioneers of the Detroit electronic scene, from the legendary Packard Plant raves in the 1990s). Not that I am some huge expert on techno, but there is just something about that album that goes perfectly with sneaking around huge darkened factories at night...it seems to take the many subtle ambient noises heard in abandoned buildings and turns them into musical notes, set to an assembly line rhythm. The title also seems to make a pun on the concept of an automotive recall.


Of course, one uniquely Detroit obstacle to following Berlin's lead would be all the privately-owned vacant properties being held captive by slumlords who are actively trying to ruin certain properties, and absentee real estate speculators who are scarcely even aware that they own land in Detroit, having never visited it. Luckily the Detroit Land Bank and other entities are currently working to combat this problem (even if the Ilitches are still being catered to).


During his time in Detroit Mr. Hegemann also visited with Fernando Palazuelo, the new owner of the Packard Plant, who shared both his interest in the city's history, and that of its future. "Detroit needs a creative lighthouse," he told the Free Press...whether it will get that lighthouse is probably a question of whether it comes organically from the community or not, since I doubt any contrived scheme with a cool corporate brand is going to fill that bill. 


Sure, it's been three years since that article was written about Hegemann's plans for Fisher #21, and it's been even longer since Mr. Palazuelo acquired the Packard Plant. It takes time for these things to get off the ground; you can't expect to reverse 40 years of decline in a weekend, unless you're throwing Dan Gilbert-sized paper around. Then again, Dan Gilbert isn't buying in the ghetto...it's a *little* more challenging to make big projects fly out here than in the 7.2.


As goes Fisher Body #21, so goes the rest of Detroit (to paraphrase Charles E. Wilson). Regardless of whether this plant is resurrected Berlin-style or not, Detroit will continue to be a laboratory for the future modes of the rest of the nation—for better or worse. “What is good for GM is good for America.”



References:
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheets 94 & 96 (1921)
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheet 92 (1897)
The Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER (1976), p. 60
"Fisher Body Corporation," in Smithsonian Institution, by Roger B. White
http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/f/fisher/fisher.htm
http://forgottendetroit.com/fisher/index.html
The Elgar Companion to Law and Economics, edited by Jürgen G. Backhaus, p. 150
http://substreet.org/fisher-body/
http://www.motorcities.org/pdf/yrt_tours_cent_cadillac.pdf
"Body and Soul," Detroit Metro Times, August 13, 2008
http://gmauthority.com/blog/2015/08/the-curious-case-of-the-cadillac-allante/
Materials Engineering, Volume 109, Issues 1-11 (1992), p. 9
"Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept., Public Notice," Detroit Free Press, September 25, 1992, p. 44
The Detroiter, Volume 7 (1985), p. 112
Help wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1956, p. 41
"Berlin Techno Entrepreneur Has His Eye on Fisher Body," Detroit Free Press, April 17, 2015, p. C4
"Talks Blocked in GM Strike," Detroit Free Press, July 7, 1939, p. 1
"A Factory's Epitaph: Good When it was Built, But No More," Detroit Free Press, December 5, 1982, p. 3A & 14A
"This Production Line Turns Out Six Cars A Day," Detroit Free Press, October 16, 1960, p. 72
"UAW Chiefs Set GM Target Date," Detroit Free Press, September 17, 1961, p. 3
Help wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, August 10, 1969, p. 37
"Out of Work But in the Game," Detroit Free Press, August 1, 1980, p. 31
"UAW Official Never Lost Compassion for Workers," Detroit Free Press, November 18, 1986, p. 15
Help wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, May 17, 1922, p. 20

Fisher Body Plant 21, Part A: "Most Inelegant"

In Part A of this two-part post, I will delve into the history of the Fisher Body Plant #21 itself. In Part B, I will share some of my hackneyed philosophical thoughts on exploring it for the first time. My photos are a mix of old and new—the oldest ones date from March 2004, and are scanned from 35mm prints.

Image from Google Streetview
For as much as it has changed, it's amazing how much Detroit's iconic Fisher Body Plant #21 has stayed the same. It is one place that I, and probably most other people have taken for granted (sadly I don't really have a decent exterior photo of it).

For the "urban explorer," the graffiti tagger, and the average miscreant it has generally remained accessible for almost 20 years, and for the freeway commuter it has served as a handy embodiment of everything that is to be loathed about Detroit's ugliness. In other words, it's a mini-Packard Plant with a better view from the roof and less of a chance that your car will get broken into while you're inside derping around; you could even say it's Detroit's "urbex kiddie pool"—super easy to find and get into. Despite being so heavily traveled, it is still one of the coolest hangouts on the Detroit ruin porn circuit—a major tourist destination, despite being illegal to visit.

Image from Google Streetview
In 2004 there was comparatively little graffiti to be found here at all, besides a bunch of old throwies and bubble-letters, DEAD KRAKHEAD, TURTL, some JLAW fangs, and the Wide-Open scrims. It more resembled the recently buffed Fisher #21 of 2016 than the state it had gotten to by 2015 with layers and layers of rich pieces on every available surface. Keep in mind there are also large parts of this plant that have been demolished since I first started going (some of which you can see in the next two photographs). There was also a major fire at the plant in 2016 which resulted in an elevator shaft partially collapsing (seen in the first photo above).

I like to say that if not for David Kohrman's old writeup on forgottendetroit.com, none of us would ever have known the true name (or number) of this plant; everyone (especially the media) would have probably gone on calling it "Carter Color" for the past decade and a half, because that was the name painted on the watertower (before it got covered in graffiti). Sanborn maps label it as #21, which was important, because in the Milwaukee Junction area of Detroit there sure were a lot of Fisher Body Corp. plants to keep track of, each with its own function.


The large open area on the south side of this plant that most people refer to as its "parking lot" was originally the site of Fisher Body Plant #7, which was torn down long ago. Plant #7 was older, and at least partially constructed of wooden beams; it was connected to Plant #21 by a skybridge on the second floor. The smaller Fisher Body #1, #6, and #22 plants were located across Piquette Street, interspersed along with apartment houses. Across St. Antoine from this plant was a warehouse owned by the Regal Motor Co., and the Auto Crankshaft Corp.'s finishing shop. This area, Milwaukee Junction, was the cradle of the U.S. auto industry.

You may also recall my older post exploring the Fisher Body #10 plant.


If I'm not mistaken that philosophical yellow sign was the work of a rather inventive acquaintance of mine, Billy Voo (you can see I had a bit of a shutter problem with my old film camera that day).


This part was torn down in 2007-ish, I think?


Anyway this is gonna be a long one, so you best crack a 24oz and settle in for a good hike...


Just before Plant #21 was built in 1919, Fisher Body's assembly methods were still very shop-like in character, in contrast to the advances in "assembly line" plant arrangement that Ford was developing. According to an article by Roger B. White, "every order was unique; dies had to be changed, new patterns for wood and steel had to be drawn, and the flow of materials and partially finished bodies among the Fisher plants had to be shifted." Much of their work was left in some stage of partial completion, to be shipped off to the various car companies (such as Ford) for upholstery, paint, or final assembly.


It was in this time period between 1919 and 1924 when Plant #21 came into being that the auto body making industry underwent one of the biggest changes in its history, when it shifted from wooden bodies painstakingly assembled by teams of highly skilled carpenters, to steel bodies stamped out instantly by a hydraulic press that could be operated by two fresh-off-the-boat immigrants.

Clearly there were major labor implications there, and the change did not come without some resistance. Much like a repeat of what happened in the 1860s following the Industrial Revolution, the proliferation of mechanization transformed crafts into industries, threatening the economic status of the craftsmen while enriching the owners of the factories.


One of the major reasons that the unionization movement gained traction in the Detroit auto industry was because of situations like that where entire job classifications could be eliminated by the stroke of a pen if a company decided that technological advancements called for changes in how they did business. Mechanization also allowed the rich industrialists to pit the middle and lower classes against one another by stoking racial fears of poor immigrants or freed slaves being able to take white workers' jobs at lower wages.

This c.1922 help wanted ad for painters at this plant brags, "wages are right if you are"...

Image from Newspapers.com
Once mechanization took over making car bodies from these skilled tradesmen, an entire job field was sent to the unemployment line unless they could somehow find another niche. Problem was those niches usually only had enough room for a few, and the work was often several steps down from the skilled, well-paid work those men were accustomed to, meaning that a middle class family could lose their house and be forced into a tenement again.


It also meant that Detroit was often saddled with large numbers of unemployed people, which was bad for the local economy, placed an unfair burden on the mercy of the taxpayers, and resulted in civil unrest. Industry was going to have to find a way to operate without treating the city's workforce merely as expendable cattle in the new mass-production economy, and long story short, the UAW forced them to do so. The huge demand for cars in the 1910s-'20s meant the owners of the Detroit car companies were becoming millionaires overnight, but it was at the expense of the assembly line worker, who often had to re-apply for his same job after every model-year when the factories shut down for retooling, and whose seniority would likewise be erased.


Could you imagine having to re-apply for your job every fall, starting over at base pay? It was only after the UAW fought for Detroit workers' rights that the American middle class was able to flourish by their example, resulting in large sectors of our cities being turned from overcrowded tenement slums to attractive homes, once the average American worker was actually able to become upwardly mobile. Admittedly, things with the UAW went astray in the second half of the 20th century, but that is hardly reason to take sides with the billionaire industrialists instead (who have already found work-arounds to regard us merely as expendable cattle again).


This c.1948 photo shows a pretty fancy little blade sign over the entrance, as well as a skybridge across the street that is no longer there. There was also a little bit of an architectural flourish at the corners of the roofline that is no longer there:

Image from Detroit Free Press via Newspapers.com
Designed by the prodigious Albert Kahn in his unmistakable "Kahn-cube" style, Plant #21 was a small part of a larger complex manufacturing body parts for GM vehicles at a time when General Motors had just purchased 60% of the controlling interest in Fisher Body, my colleague Dan at substreet.org writes. Before this plant was built, they received orders for say, 150 Cadillac bodies at a time; now, with GM holding both the purse strings and the bullwhip, they would be cranking out thousands of bodies per order.


According to the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), by 1926 when General Motors acquired the remaining shares of its company stock, Fisher Body owned or leased 40 buildings in the area of New Center and Milwaukee Junction, for a combined floorspace total of 3.7 million square feet—which was 0.2 million greater than that of the Packard Plant—and they employed more than 100,000 people. Fisher Body kept almost all of their operations consolidated in this part of town until the late 1920s. Coachbuilt.com has slightly different figures, citing that "by 1924 Fisher boasted 44 plants and 40,000 workers, and was turning out over half a million car bodies a year."


Plant #21 made bodies for Buicks and Cadillacs until 1925 when all Buick production was centralized up north in Flint, Michigan, at the colossal new "Buick City" plant. Cadillac bodies continued to be made here until 1929 when I imagine that production was moved to either the Fleetwood Body Plant on Fort Street or the Clark Street Cadillac Plant itself.

From 1930 to 1956 Fisher Body #21 stopped body work and became an engineering design facility. An article in the Detroit Metro Times from 2008 also says that during the Great Depression, Plant #21 was turned into a soup kitchen and homeless shelter. During World War II, the plant was retooled for manufacturing again, building army airplanes, including the P-80 Lockheed Shooting Star and F-94 Corsair, as well as assemblies for the B-25 Mitchell bomber. The HAER pegs the total floorspace of this plant at 536,000 square feet.


The operations of Fisher Body have been completely decentralized since the heydays of their 1920s empire here in Milwaukee Junction, and as of 1976 when the HAER wrote their report, less than one million square feet of floorspace was being used in this area by Fisher Body, with the earlier plants being demolished in the late 1950s to the 1970s. Plant #21 was the oldest remaining Fisher plant still standing back then, and naturally it still is today.


The Sanborn map breaks down the manufacturing processes that were originally set up on each floor of this plant when it opened in 1919. It lists the first floor as being stock room area, the second floor for varnishing, rubbing varnish on the third floor, the trim department on the fourth floor, finishing on the fifth floor, and final assembly on the sixth.


Somewhere along the way I imagine that the line went across the alley into Plant #7 which I mentioned earlier as having once stood right next to Plant #21, connected by a skybridge. The processes listed for Plant #7 are priming and leading on the first floor, with color and sanding on the second. And then of course, the long freight elevator ride back down to ground level to be shipped. Naturally the arrangement of the processes within the plant was altered many times over the years, but this is what was supposedly laid out in the beginning.


This part has been torn down too:


As mentioned earlier, starting in 1956 this plant produced Cadillac's limousine bodies, as well as ambulances and 12-passenger buses. Its workers were the hand-picked best from the regular plants, chosen to build GM's finest cars, the limousines. Every summer, according to the Metro Times article, the line workers "stopped making limos and learned how to assemble the new models that would be built at plants around the country." Reader Mike Grobbel explains what that meant:
I was employed by the Fisher Body Division of GM in the production engineering department at the Tech Center in Warren, MI from 1970 until the Division was reorganized out of existence in 1985. I spent approximately six months working at Fisher Body Plant No. 21 during the fall and winter of 1977-78. This was during the time that Plant 21 made a limited run of pre-production bodies for the 1979 E-cars (Buick Riveria, Olds Toronado, Cadillac Eldorado), and the 1980 X-cars (Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega, Pontiac Phoenix). 
Plant 21 would typically cease production of Cadillac limo bodies in the spring of each year and use the remainder of the year to make pre-production (pilot) bodies for the new vehicles that would be introduced the following year. The purpose for making pilot bodies was to validate the product and tooling designs in advance of the start of production at the assembly plant. My job during those six months at Plant 21 was that of "Rework Coordinator". Whenever there was a problem with the proper fit of mating parts, I would investigate whether the problem was due to the product design or the tooling used to make and assemble it. I would then provide feedback to the responsible engineers and devise a way to make the pilot parts usable.
Fisher Body #21 seen from the ruins of Fisher Body #10
Fisher Body #21 was already becoming obsolete by the time automation was coming into prominence, and this building supposedly couldn't support the new machinery. As a result the amount of work at the plant declined, and by November of 1982 GM announced that Plant #21 was going to be killed off. The last day was described by the Metro Times:
On April 1, 1984, Carl Pearson, plant manager of Fisher Body 21, arrived at work, chatted with his secretary, cleaned his office that overlooked the expressways, and made the rounds, surveying the factory floor he'd supervised since the late 1970s. The lines had stopped. The plant was quiet. Many of the 1,000-some employees he'd supervised had already transferred to the tech design center, taken early retirement or started in a university training program. Pearson, who had seen hundreds of limousine bodies come through the lines at Fisher Body 21—black or dark blue limos interrupted occasionally by a Mary Kay Pink limo ordered for the cosmetic firm's president—now headed off to the Fleetwood plant for a few years before retirement.
There was office space on a couple floors, always at the far east end of the plant:


After GM ceased using Fisher Body 21, it was occupied by various paint companies who used it until 1993, when it was finally abandoned for good. Dan at substreet.org observes that most similar plants and warehouses in the area were already abandoned by that time—"Ford down the street in one direction, Studebaker in another."


The manufacturing floors of the plant used to be covered in those shock-absorbing creosote wooden blocks just like the Packard Plant, but they were all removed during an environmental compliance cleanup (at taxpayer expense, I'm sure) in like 2008 or so:


Presumably Carter Color was the biggest of this plant's last tenants, who according to a trade publication called Materials Engineering, electro-coated 450lb automotive shipping containers. Other companies may have leased smaller portions of the plant at different times. Carter Color Coat, Inc.'s address was shown at 6051 Hastings, and did business under the name Cameo Color Cast, Inc.

The original address of Plant #21 was 601 Piquette.


The sign hanging from the ceiling in the next photo reads: "FORD CONTROL ARMS," and then lists off the different types that would have been stored in this area, or the colors they would have been painted perhaps. I presume this is work that Carter Color was doing for various automakers.


Carter / Cameo had gotten their start in this building in 1985 right after Fisher moved out, according to another journal, The Detroiter. "What could be more appropriate than a former Fisher Body Plant on Hastings," the article declared, where they were "gearing up to serve the new GM plant in Hamtramck." The journal of Detroit City Council proceedings in 1985 recorded that "This new company will offer the automotive industry an important process involving electrodeposition, or 'E' Coating of new metal parts." So maybe they painted the engines for the Allantés? (I discuss the Allanté more below...keep reading).


Carter Color Coat, Inc. was also found on the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department Industrial Waste Control Division's notice of violators in a state of "significant noncompliance" in regards to submitting timely reports on their discharging of wastewater and whether it was properly pretreated or not. Of course it probably didn't help that they had just filed for Chapter 11 in bankruptcy court in June of 1992. Carter / Cameo also once had a facility at 32501 Dequindre Road, in the suburb of Madison Heights, according to another search hit in a telephone directory.


A walkout by 500 tool & die workers here at Plant #21 occurred in July of 1939, which resulted in a strike that shut down four other plants and threatened to grow, according to a Detroit Free Press article. In the years immediately following the great "Flint Sitdown" at Fisher Body #1 in 1937—which precipitated GM's agreeing to recognize the UAW—one might assume that things between GM and the union would have been quiet for a while, but that was not the case.


Much still needed to be worked out between the corporation and its multifaceted labor force, and this strike in 1939 was one of the results. The UAW-CIO was threatening to call out up to 8,000 tool & die makers and engineering workers engaged in preparations for the new 1940 model cars if GM didn't agree to negotiate a supplementary agreement.

Strike votes were being taken at the Ternstedt Plant, the Fisher Body Fleetwood Plant, and the Fisher Body Plant in Cleveland when the article was written, but the company was steadfast in refusing to negotiate new agreements until the dispute between the UAW-AFL and UAW-CIO was cleared up in court first.


This plant's UAW tool & die men were represented by Local 157, based at the Finnish Workers' Hall on 14th Street, which I explored in another post.


Phillip Blaine Marrin was an employee of Fisher Body #21 who helped organize the aforementioned tool & die strike in 1939; his story is told in a Detroit Free Press article from 1986. Marrin was born in Norway, Michigan, in the iron mining range of the Upper Peninsula, where his Irish immigrant father faced the deadly dangers of the mines every day to support the family. He too worked his first job in the mines, and that presence of constant danger never left his mind, even after he came to Detroit to work in the auto industry.


Marrin once saw a coworker fall to his death down a mineshaft, and never forgot how tough the work conditions were there, how there was no job security, and how there was no one to speak up for the workers, since the unionization attempt in the Upper Peninsula mining lands had been crushed after the Copper Country Strike of 1913. He even played football with the Green Bay Packers during the Great Depression to make ends meet, way back before modern padding, sports medicine, lucrative player contracts, or the Super Bowl were invented.


It was this workplace experience that Marrin brought to Detroit, and that led him to be a UAW organizer at Fisher Body #21, eventually becoming president of Local 157 for 20 years. Marrin was one of the men who initiated the aforementioned 1939 strike of Fisher #21, which eventually spread to other body plants in Michigan and Ohio. He was 80 years old when he died of cancer in 1986, soon after Fisher Body #21 was closed by GM.


Plant #21 was being phased out in the 1980s along with Fisher Body #40 and #41 because of a car sales slump, and the fact that those three plants were considered obsolete. The 14-foot Cadillac limousines were built here and rolled out of the doors at a rate of one per eight-hour shift in those days, but even current plant engineer John Zammit criticized it, saying that "One of the most elegant cars in the world is being built in one of the most inelegant plants in the world."

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with that; in fact I view it as the very essence of Detroit.


After this round of closures only one Fisher Body plant was to remain open in what had once been the beating heart of the Fisher brothers' empire: Plant #37, which only held about 140 employees. You may remember it from the movie 8 Mile, where Eminem had a job operating one of the massive stamping presses that fill the huge factory.

The three plants scheduled to close in the 1980s—#21, #40, and #41—employed about 1,200 people at the time. Zammit said that body making processes were first moved out of Plant #21 in the 1930s, and it was relegated to the low-volume limousine assembly work in 1955, since the company only made about 1,000 of them per year.


Thinking back to the "one completed limousine per eight-hour shift" figure again...that's a lot of overhead for producing just one car. You have an entire shift of an entire factory running for a whole workday, and they only produce one car. Either those limos had a colossal pricetag or GM was losing its ass on each one. Or, the company was no longer spending any money on upkeep for Plant #21, intentionally scuttling it by letting it go to hell (as they often do to the best plants).


Ray Holman recalled hiring into the plant as a teenager in 1941, operating a grinding machine for $1.19/hour, and making parts for the B-25 bombers during WWII. He said four or five thousand people used to work here and live in the immediate area, and there was a bar and restaurant across the street. There was a streetcar line in front of the plant as well.


In 1960 however the speed of Plant #21's pace was six limos per day, according to an article from the time. In an industry where the idea of the assembly line was predicated on speed, this was perhaps the world's slowest. In most regular plants, each man was limited to performing one or two operations on each car, but here at Fisher #21 a single limousine worker could be responsible for up to 235 different operations per car, spending an average of 78 minutes on each body, using up to 30 different tools. It was as if this plant was going full circle, back to the days of its infancy when teams of skilled craftsmen moved from chassis to chassis, before mechanization and the assembly line took over Detroit.


In 1960 the car being produced here was the Cadillac Series 75, and since it was a limo 95% of them were painted black. There were lots of other custom specifications that often had to be adhered to however, which made each one different.


One such special order came from a customer who wanted his with extra headroom, a flat floor, and special footrests. Fisher #21 also set up the special bodies that would go on to third-party coach builders for conversion into hearses, flower cars, and super-stretch limos. Furthermore, all the parts being used in all of these applications were different than the standard fodder found on the floor of the average assembly plant, and had to be tailor made here. All this could only be done by specialized craftsmen, which explains why 1/4 of the employees here had been working for Fisher Body at least 25 years or more.


In 1961 there were 1,031 employees at Fisher #21.


These tags scattered on the floor in the next photo seem to have been used to identify parts or batches of parts that were going to be used in the Cadillac Allanté, an ill-fated car that was made from 1987 to 1993:


The Allanté was designed to be a low-production ultra-luxury model that shared no components with any other GM vehicle, and was meant to compete with Jaguar and Mercedes. I think the only people who ever bought an Allanté were GM executives and Detroit crack dealers.


GM partnered with fabled Italian coach builder Pininfarina by sending Cadillac chassis to build the Allanté bodies in Turin, Italy, to paint and trim them, and to install their convertible tops, according to gmauthority.com. The bodies were then flown back to Detroit on a jet airliner, where the sub-frames, suspension, drivetrain and other components would be installed at the Poletown Assembly Plant. No wonder the Allanté project was wildly unprofitable...sounds like the GM brass was doing a little too much coke when they thought this one up.


The presence of those tags on the floor perhaps implies that some part of the Allanté sub-assembly process was done here? But since the paint work for the Allanté was done in Italy, and since Carter Color was occupying this plant during the short time the Allanté was being produced, I'm not sure how much of a role this plant could have had in the Allanté project. Perhaps this building was just being used as a temporary storage facility for the Poletown Assembly Plant?


Anyway, the Allanté was a total flop on the market and GM discontinued it in 1993—the same year this plant was abandoned for good...which is what causes me to wonder if the cancellation of the Allanté contract was the thing that signaled the final death of Plant #21.


Carter Color must have been providing something integral to the process then, perhaps there was some sort of rack or crate specific to the Allanté process that they were coating for GM? Or maybe they painted the engines, or some other component besides the body panels.


According to the Sanborn map of 1921, this floor was the "final assembly" area. As just explained, it's been a long time since #21 was used as a body assembly plant; what we see here today looks like a paint line for partial assemblies at most, but it is fascinating to think about how this space would have been set up differently in the days of yore. I suspect the extra-tall ceiling is also a later modification to the building.


"Massive unemployment in Detroit has it's bright side" declared a strange article in the August 1980 Detroit Free Press, "...it is easier than ever to get nine people together for softball games on weekday mornings." The article went on to say that at least one third of the 54 people playing baseball that morning admitted to being jobless or laid off. A team from the Anchor Bar in the Fort Shelby Hotel, calling themselves the Anchor Bar-Barians, went up against a team comprised of Fisher Body #21's afternoon shift.


A view out the window shows a couple of the >100-year-old wooden streetlight poles in this part of town with modern lamps retrofitted on top of them:


The lot across the street was always a place for stacking shipping crates and parking Daimler-Chrysler's semi-trailers (remember when Dr. Z thought he could fix Chrysler?), and the Clawson Cement Plant can be seen beyond that:


Seen to the right in the next photo is part of Fisher Body #23, and beyond that is the original Ford Model T Plant, and then the Studebaker / E-M-F Plant, which burned to the ground in 2005:


Here is a much newer shot of the same intersection, Piquette & Beaubien:


A view of the former American Blower Corp. plant across the freeway:


These rubble fields are where the former Fisher Body Plant #9, #16, #8, and #15 used to stand. According to the Sanborn map of 1921, the five-story-tall Plant #9 was where windshield and sash glass making was done, as well as seat cushion spring and covering work. Plant #16 was a garage, and Plant #15 was a warehouse; both were one story tall. Plant #8 was six stories tall and its workers performed metal finishing and woodworking, as well as door paneling, hanging, and fitting. All of these plants were of steel frame construction with brick walls, and cement floors.


This guy had a shopping cart full of copper wiring that he then set on fire to get rid of the insulation, so that it would be worth slightly more at the scrap yard. Ah yes, the late 2000s...

There are still a few residences in Fisher #21's immediate vicinity as well, and the wall of the General Printing Co. plant is visible in the foreground:


Heading up to the roof. In 2004 you could still see the old "Carter Color" graphic on the water tower, before it was covered up with graffiti:


The base of the water tower contained a small room that made for a decent midnight party spot on a couple occasions:


One night we were out partying and suddenly had an unstoppable yen to barbecue up here, and somehow we came up with a pack of hotdogs and some charcoal, yet we didnt have a grill...


So I found a rusty old step on a fire escape that was ready to come loose, and I stomped on it until it broke off. I balanced it on some bricks and we built the fire under it, and cooked our party store hotdogs. Mad Max times.


Climbing up onto the catwalk...


Looking west:


A c.2004 view down Piquette Avenue...you can see the front of the Model-T Plant is still painted white:


Downtown:


You can see more of Fisher Body #23 in this photo taken from the water tower:


The spot where Fisher Body #23 stands now was once occupied by Fisher Body Plant #1, and Plant #22 according to the 1921 Sanborn map, which was a partially wooden structure.


One thing that can be said for Fisher #21 is that it had a lot of smokestacks still standing, whereas at the Packard Plant for instance, almost all of its smokestacks had long ago rusted away, fell off, or been removed.


It is kind of amazing how much metal still remains un-harvested at Fisher #21 after the scrapping frenzy of the late 2000s and early 2010s.


The view of the city from the roof of Plant #21 was excellent; as you will see in the next several zoom photos, there was a lot to look at.


A view of Midtown™ and Wayne State University, with the hollow "cheese-grater" of Michigan Central Station seen far in the distance:


The Russell Industrial Center, which once housed the Murray Body Co., seen behind the glass-walled Fisher Body #37:


An overview of the Virginia Park and North End neighborhoods, with Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church seen at center:


Wayne State University's Tartar Field, with the steeples of St. Leo's and St. Hedwig's seen in the distance, and the furnaces of Zug Island beyond that...


...At lower left is the former Cass Motor Sales building, before it was turned into the Carhartt clothing store.

Holy Rosary Church overlooking the world's first expressway interchange (M-10 / I-94), the Big Book Store, and a cute billboard for the Detroit Institute of Arts, with the Ford Rouge Plant looming on the horizon:


Here you can see 450 Amsterdam Street, King Solomon Baptist ChurchLee Plaza, and even the Parklane Towers out in Dearborn:


Looming behind the roof vents of Fisher Body #23, the tall building is Michigan Bell Telephone Co.'s Bethune Street central office, and beyond it is the Hotel Seward:


Useless trivia of the day: Fisher Body Plant #21's telephone number in 1956 was TRinity1-4100. The "TRinity" exchange (telephone numbers following the form: 87X-XXXX) was housed in the Bethune Street office seen above, as well as the equipment for time service.


The famous Jam Handy Studios, a Public Lighting Commission substation, and more of the North End neighborhood:


The I-75 / I-94 interchange, and Fisher Body #10, right after its devastating fire in 2014:


An old Detroit Edison substation, the old Acme White Lead Works, and the GM Poletown Assembly Plant filling up the background:


More of the incredibly vast Poletown plant, currently the largest factory in what's left of the Motor City:


The Russell Industrial Complex again, and the former Fisher Body Plant #37 (now called New Center Stamping if I'm not mistaken) in the foreground:


The Clawson Concrete Plant, Fisher Body #37, and American Axle's headquarters in the distance:


The former American Blower Plant in the foreground, I-94, and some of the Packard Plant in the distance:


This small "penthouse" level of the plant was not a production area; it looked almost like a designer's studio, for perhaps the Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild:


I wondered at how many sweet classic cars might've been drawn up in here. It actually seemed pretty swanky, if bare cement and factory sash windows can be called such. But it was separated from the din and dirt of the factory, and in daytime probably afforded beautiful spills of light coming in through the window bays.

Another unique feature of this room was the steel trap-door leading into a crawlspace under the floor. Recalling the huge records-vaults in the Packard Plant offices, was this a similar vault where the Guild kept its valuable concept drawings safe from fire and the prying eyes of Ford and Chrysler spies I wondered? I hopped in, but it was empty.


A small passageway built over the rooftop led to the freight elevator shaft, which makes me think this penthouse level was actually added onto the plant at some point after 1919.


On one of my more recent trips to the plant, I actually stumbled my way into a room I had somehow never come across before in all my previous trips. I think it had been converted and used as a break room before the plant closed down, or something like that. See if you can spot the illustration of the old automobile on the wall with all the graffiti:


Down a tight corridor from there I found an old bathroom that had clearly ceased to be a bathroom long ago and had been used instead for records storage by General Motors...boxes of old paperwork were stacked up in here:


Then I noticed a window in the bathroom that had been painted black, and when I opened it I saw that it did not look outside, but into a strange void within the building that must've been created at some point when an addition was built onto the plant. It was very strange, like looking into a time capsule at a part of the factory that hadn't been seen in decades:


Believe it or not, there is also a large auditorium on the top floor, nestled in a corner away from all the heavy machinery, but I can't find any of my photos from inside it. In 2004 it was in pristine condition, but now it is totally wrecked. Knowing what I know now about Fisher #21 being used for limo assembly, I imagine that it was probably used as a seminar room to teach the craftsmen the new procedures for the new models.

Returning to the ground floor...


Not many people know this about Fisher #21, but in the northwest corner of the first floor there was a room that had a pit about 10 feet deep, and in the pit was a bunch of pipes that led into a tunnel that went out under Piquette Avenue, presumably to Fisher #23 across the street.


Again, I think most people don't really hang out much on the first floor of Fisher #21, so this little detail has escaped notice. The tunnel is also hard to see because of all the pipes.


Unfortunately it was bricked-off after about 20 feet in. I imagine that was done after Plant #21 closed, and Plant #23 remained open, to keep people from breaking in. Although now I wonder how many more tunnels there might've been running between the 40-some Fisher Body plants that once stood in this area. I have not noticed any on the Sanborn maps.


A week before Devil's Night of 2014, this plant suffered a major fire. A fireman was injured while fighting the massive blaze after he jumped from the bucket of Ladder 7, when the elevator shaft began collapsing towards him. The fire was considered arson.

This strange photo below shows the partially collapsed elevator shaft, sitting awkwardly detached from the building but still standing, towards the lower right. It is also visible in the first photo at the top of this post.


CLICK HERE to go to Part B


References:
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheets 94 & 96 (1921)
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheet 92 (1897)
The Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER (1976), p. 60
"Fisher Body Corporation," in Smithsonian Institution, by Roger B. White
http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/f/fisher/fisher.htm
http://forgottendetroit.com/fisher/index.html
The Elgar Companion to Law and Economics, edited by Jürgen G. Backhaus, p. 150
http://substreet.org/fisher-body/
http://www.motorcities.org/pdf/yrt_tours_cent_cadillac.pdf
"Body and Soul," Detroit Metro Times, August 13, 2008
http://gmauthority.com/blog/2015/08/the-curious-case-of-the-cadillac-allante/
Materials Engineering, Volume 109, Issues 1-11 (1992), p. 9
"Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept., Public Notice," Detroit Free Press, September 25, 1992, p. 44
The Detroiter, Volume 7 (1985), p. 112
Help wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1956, p. 41
"Berlin Techno Entrepreneur Has His Eye on Fisher Body," Detroit Free Press, April 17, 2015, p. C4
"Talks Blocked in GM Strike," Detroit Free Press, July 7, 1939, p. 1
"A Factory's Epitaph: Good When it was Built, But No More," Detroit Free Press, December 5, 1982, p. 3A & 14A
"This Production Line Turns Out Six Cars A Day," Detroit Free Press, October 16, 1960, p. 72
"UAW Chiefs Set GM Target Date," Detroit Free Press, September 17, 1961, p. 3
Help wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, August 10, 1969, p. 37
"Out of Work But in the Game," Detroit Free Press, August 1, 1980, p. 31
"UAW Official Never Lost Compassion for Workers," Detroit Free Press, November 18, 1986, p. 15
Help wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, May 17, 1922, p. 20