The Commonwealth Corridor

It is often cited how the Milwaukee Junction and Belt Line Railroad area east of Detroit's New Center has been thought of as the "cradle of the automotive industry," but it seems that Commonwealth Street just west of New Center used to be something of an automotive innovation hot spot as well. A string of vacant industrial buildings huddled together on Commonwealth's 5700-5900 block are all that remain to attest to this brief chapter in Motor City history.

With several spurs peeling off of the main railroad trunk lines that cut right through this area, it appears destined to have been an industrial haven by the turn of the century. Through-rail access to the other automobile manufacturing sectors of the city such as Milwaukee Junction seem to have made this area ideal as the hub of a light manufacturing and supply industry, and for smaller carmakers who relied on large components (such as motors) from other suppliers. It also stood on the edge of the popping New Center area that was rising in the 1920s as the inner sanctum of General Motors, which was soon to be crowned by the towering Fisher Building.

Some of the supply-related or brassworking companies clustered in this vicinity included Detroit Lubricator Co., Penberthy Injector Co., Detroit Auto Specialty Co., Schroeder Paint & Glass, Monarch Foundry, Acme Brass Foundry, Crescent Brass & Pin, the Detroit Brass Works, and the Westinghouse Electric & Mfg. Co. Meanwhile, the Warren Motor Co. (a short-lived carmaker), and Scripps Motor Co. (a marine engine manufacturer) were also located in this corridor. You may recall my older post exploring the nearby Caille Motor Co., another marine engine maker and pioneer of coin-operated machines. Furthermore, Burroughs Corp. was also close by; one could think of this area of the city as a sort of extension (or predecessor, rather) of what is now being branded as "Tech Town" in the northern Cass Corridor. explains that it was because of the abundance of these sorts of "parts makers" and the skilled workforce they employed here that Detroit was destined to become the center of the auto industry; we had already been producing these sorts of mechanical accouterments for the carriage, bicycle, railroad car, and ship building industries since the mid-1800s. But the story of the Commonwealth corridor (or at least this block of it) is really the story of a nearly forgotten inventor from Detroit's golden era, by the name of Joseph LaVigne.

Mr. Joseph P. LaVigne (also seen spelled "Lavigne;" I'm not sure which is correct) is not found in the usual social registers of notable Detroiters that I checked, but he was in the newspapers a fair bit, and held no less than 385 patents when he died. He lived with his wife and daughter at 521 Lincoln Ave. (renumbered to 5465 Lincoln after 1921), which stood about three blocks southeast of here. LaVigne was once quoted as saying "Don't call me an inventor. I am a designer; nothing more."

His LaVigne Manufacturing Co. used to stand here on Commonwealth where these buildings are now, and made brass items such as radiator valves, unions, elbows, oilers, and other such fittings used on early gasoline engines. Its success was heralded by the Detroit Free Press as an example of the boom in brassworking firms in Detroit (you may recall my older post exploring the Roberts Brass Works, which also boomed during the same period).

By the way, these buildings you're seeing here were actually erected later by the Commonwealth Brass Corp., which took over LaVigne's company sometime around WWI.

Organized in early 1906 to handle his automobile-related inventions, the LaVigne Mfg. Co. started with just his patents—some of which were contested in a lawsuit by his former employer, Detroit Lubricator Co. (which incidentally was located one block over, on Trumbull; they also made brass items such as valves and oilers). Mr. LaVigne seems to have been in court rather often based on a lot of the search engine hits I was seeing, but let us suffice it to say that it was fairly common back then for employers to try to *appropriate* the innovations of their employees. Sadly, it is often still the case today.

LaVigne was a stockholder in the Universal Wheel Co., and served as an officer of the National Union of Cyclecar Makers. He also ran the Liberty Mechanical School out of the rear of his home—over the profits of which he was sued again by a partner. Almost all of LaVigne's patents were in use however, which is pretty impressive.

Among the more lucrative of his patents: a quick-opening hot water valve, a carburetor, and a steering gear (for the manufacture of which he formed another company, the LaVigne Gear Co. of Corliss, Wisconsin). He also designed several embroidery attachments for sewing machines that were in common use, and in 1906 he was working on a way to reduce the price of cars by eliminating the need for a transmission. Had LaVigne been successful in this, it might've given him the chance to compete with Henry Ford's Model-T for the title of most affordable car, right before it exploded in popularity. Almost all the machinery in his factory on Commonwealth was "automatic," and designed by LaVigne himself, the Free Press said.

Besides the LaVigne Mfg. Co., Mr. LaVigne also founded no less than four automobile companies, all of which were headquartered on this block of Commonwealth Street at some point. According to the book How Detroit Became the Motor Capitol by Robert Szudarek, Mr. LaVigne founded the Griswold Motor Co. in 1907 directly across the street from LaVigne Mfg. Co., based in a building that I suspect has been incorporated into the one that stands here now (the pre-1921 address was 656 Commonwealth):

Griswold Motor Co. was sold to the C.H. Blomstrom Mfg. Co. the same year, mainly to acquire the rights to his idea for a vertical-crankshaft friction drive setup, which Blomstrom marketed as a safer alternative to crankstarting. LaVigne designed its vertical-crankshaft engine, which was pull-started by a lever from the driver's seat to eliminate the danger of injury from the crank's dreaded "kickback." The "gyroscope" engine, as it was called, still never took off. Incidentally, the compendious website explains that the Griswold Motor Co. was not to be confused with the separate Griswold Body Co., which also moved to a location somewhere on Commonwealth St., in 1909.

The April 23, 1908 Detroit Free Press carried a story, "Blazes Away at Cat, But Pinks Neighbor," describing the time Mr. LaVigne was accidentally shot while reading the paper on his back porch by an unhinged neighbor aiming at a troublesome cat. Mr. LaVigne recovered from the minor injury, and returned to the automobile industry in 1913 with the LaVigne Cyclecar Co., and the LaVigne Motor Co. He had built a promising prototype in a small shop behind his house (his wife was apparently just as accommodating of his boyish tinkerings as Clara Ford was to Henry).

The LaVigne Cyclecar was a light, air-cooled "underslung" car that was built in his plant here on Commonwealth. There was a roadster, a coupe, and a touring, ranging from $425 to $500—decidedly on the cheaper side of things. It also had a unique electrical setup where the headlights were integral to the front fenders, which turned with the front axle. The 1914 New York Auto Show yielded a promising contract for 5,000 units, but the "cyclecar" craze soon died down, so LaVigne marketed it as a "light car." Unfortunately the market for light cars collapsed as well, signaling the end of this venture.

There is a somewhat famous photograph of his seven-year-old daughter Olive LaVigne seated in the "Le Petite" car her father designed, and she created something of a sensation in those days by being seen piloting it around town (undoubtedly so as to advertise the ease with which her father's invention could be operated).

Olive later drove a 10-ton truck, and according to local historian Richard Bak she bragged that by 1955 she had driven over 500,000 miles in her "automobubbling" career. It is probable that she was even more famous than her father, and was heralded as the "first female driver," although I am not sure that is technically true. She later became a notable employee of the Detroit Recreation Department in the 1930s and 1940s.

Traveler Motor Car Co. was another separate venture of Mr. LaVigne's in 1913, which was initially also building cars in the same plant as the LaVigne Cyclecars on Commonwealth, although Traveler was financially backed from different sources. They manufactured two full size five-passenger touring cars and a roadster (marketing from $1,100 to $2,500), but despite being a full-size car, Traveler Motors also failed in 1914 and LaVigne was forced out of the auto industry again.

A blurb in the Detroit Free Press from May, 1921 reported that LaVigne and salesman E.J. Kleist had been held up by robbers on the Dixie Highway near the suburb of Trenton, while stopped at a train crossing. The "four thugs" got away with $1,500 in cash and diamonds. What LaVigne was doing down on the Dixie Highway carrying that much money (and diamonds!) during the Prohibition Era I don't know, but we can all certainly have fun speculating.

A Sanborn map from 1950 shows Commonwealth Brass Corp. then owned these buildings on the west side of the street where LaVigne Mfg. used to stand, from 5787 to 5947 Commonwealth. Commonwealth Brass Corp. actually did similar work as LaVigne, producing brass items for radiators, valves, etc. for steam and pneumatic applications; perhaps the corporation originally purchased LaVigne Mfg. and consolidated it with other smaller local firms. I suspect they took over LaVigne's foundry sometime around WWI.

In 1918 a young man named Milton Donahey went to work at Commonwealth Brass, where he advanced to a foreman position. Commonwealth Brass was a cutting edge firm that innovated the process of forging brass instead of using cast brass for their fittings, which was the industry standard at the time. There, Donahey produced the second brass forging die ever made in the United States.

Commonwealth Brass was part of UAW Local 157, which included tool & die workers from plants such as Fisher Body #21 and #23, McLaughlin Co., Ternstedt Mfg., etc. In 1950 Donahey decided to start his own company, United Brass Manufacturers, which still operates today, located out in the suburb of Romulus.

I personally think these buildings were erected sometime between 1930 and 1950. This is the one labelled "press shop" on the Sanborn maps.

Another notable Detroit inventor to make this block of Commonwealth his headquarters was James Kermath...

An article by Max Homfeld at says Mr. Kermath was part owner of Eclipse Manufacturing Co. in 1907, a small machine shop where he built engines on contract for the Detroit Auto Marine Co. He operated in the Boydell Building in Greektown, alongside the Dodge Brothers—who at the time were still building engines for Henry Ford before they went into business for themselves (I went to a pretty cool loft party in the Boydell many years ago).

"The Detroit auto fever must have infected Kermath," Homfeld writes, "for he built an experimental automobile in 1907," but his destiny was in engines for boats. In 1910 he formed the Kermath Manufacturing Company, and soon the first Kermath marine engine was introduced, a four-cycle four-cylinder rated at 12 horsepower.

Kermath Mfg. produced many different models of reliable engines over the next few decades, from single cylinders to V-12s, which were commonly used by such prominent local boat builders as Garwood, Chris Craft, and Matthews as well as many others. Kermath also often converted conventional automotive engines for marine use, such as the Lincoln Zephyr V-12.

A Sanborn map shows the Kermath Mfg. Co. based here at 5900 Commonwealth, a building which had expanded to swallow up Mr. LaVigne's old Griswold Motors building:

Counting the Scripps Motor Co., and the Caille Motor Co., that makes at least three marine engine manufacturers that were based in this area of the city (despite being located nowhere near a body of water). Some of this building's additions shown on the map were built as late as 1950. Kermath Mfg. stopped production in 1958.

Don't be fooled by the corrugated metal siding on the building; that's just cladding that has been added to cover up the ugly old brick...yuck—brick looks so old, right gang? Metal is modern! And modern is good!

It appears that the most recent tenant of 5900 Commonwealth was Commonwealth Industries, Inc., a company that did heat treating and other metalworking according to the journal Air Travel News, of April, 1929. The book Corporate Power and Urban Crisis in Detroit seems to indicate that Commonwealth Industries, Inc. was later absorbed by the Masco Corporation, which is today one of the giant conglomerates of the Detroit automotive supply industry.

How all this junk got here is perhaps another question, but there sure was some interesting stuff in here to wander around and look at. Yes, I habitually hang out in junkyards.

According to Sanborn maps, the Talbot Coal Co. (started in 1906 by Cash W. Talbot) originally occupied the footprint that is now filled in by this junkyard.

Now let's go back to the "other" Griswold company that was based on Commonwealth, for a minute—the one that wasn't started by Joseph LaVigne...

The M.E. Griswold Co. was formed in the 1890s making bicycles with stamped sheet metal, which was a new method at the time. However, according to the compendious website, Griswold soon found greater profits in stamping automobile parts, and moved to Detroit in 1909, to Commonwealth Street, in a building that had previously been the King Stock Yards Hotel (what the hell kind of a name is that for a hotel?). It was destroyed by fire in 1911 but was rebuilt with the large brick structure we see today. From 1912 to 1930 Griswold stamped bodies for many early Detroit car and truck makers such as Columbia Motors, King, Chrysler, Jewett, Paige, Willys-Knight.

When Graham took over Paige-Detroit, they cancelled all outside contracts, and Griswold lost a large chunk of their business. Their "swan song" however, as put it, was in 1928 when they built a one-off body for the Auburn Automobile Co., which was famous for their iconic boat-tail speedster. Griswold's "Cabin Speedster" concept body was advertised in Auburn's catalogue that year as "...tomorrow's automobile design," blending the concepts of "racing car and airplane," designed by famous aviator Wade Morton.

Griswold's Auburn speedster was a sensation at the New York and Los Angeles auto shows, but unfortunately the concept car was lost in a fire. Griswold did some production bodies for Willys-Knight in 1929, but after that it was pretty much a wrap.

I wrote before about another similar street on the city's west side that was dedicated to the automotive supply industry, in a post entitled, "The Epworth Corridor."

Other buildings I have explored in the area of Commonwealth are Redeemer Episcopal Church, and the National Biscuit Co.

Our visit was cut short when we noticed a police car of some sort parked in the gravel lot between the buildings, two officers outside casually poking around. I waited until the officers had their backs turned before I made a swift and silent emergence from the doorway my partner and I were watching them from, so that they would not actually see us exiting a building.

Walking around the corner just as they turned back to face my direction, I could see that they were actually Henry Ford Hospital Police (it says "POLICE AUTHORITY" on their cars; I was under the impression that they were just glorified security guards and had no jurisdiction in off-campus matters, but they appeared fully equipped.)

I greeted the officers with perfect nonchalance, and they naturally asked what we were up to. I explained that I was showing my visiting New York friend around the city and photographing graffiti, while noting that the officers were still quite at ease, and apparently not about to do anything to us. They must have stopped when they saw my ramshackle pickup parked, thinking it was a stolen vehicle, or that I was a scrapper? Thankful that we didn't *fit the description,* we were allowed to continue on with our day unmolested.

Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 6, sheet 30, 43, 44, 45, 60, & 70 (1910)
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 6, sheet 43 & 44 (1910-1951)
Polk's Detroit City Directory, 1941
How Detroit Became the Motor Capitol, by Robert Szudarek, p. 130-131, 283-285
Domestic Engineering and the Journal of Mechanical Contracting, Volume 98 (Mar. 25, 1922)
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Volume 5, by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 904
Air Travel News, Volume 3 (April, 1929), p. 103
Corporate Power and Urban Crisis in Detroit, by Lynda Ann Ewen, p. 156
"Michigan Companies," Detroit Free Press, February 7, 1913, p. 12
"Only an Infant but Full Grown," Detroit Free Press, October 29, 1906, p. 9
"Found Rear Door Open," Detroit Free Press, May 27, 1921, p. 22
"National Union of Cyclecar Makers Formed in Chicago," Detroit Free Press, January 28, 1914, p. 9
"Wins in Patent Case," Detroit Free Press, April 1, 1908, p. 8
"Detroit Inventor Made Defendant in Suit," Detroit Free Press, March 24, 1918, p. 5
"Ingenious Oil Pump," Detroit Free Press, February 19, 1906, p. 14
Detroit: 1900-1930, by Richard Bak
Journal of the Common Council, City of Detroit, Vol. 2 (1932) p. 1818
Michigan!, by Grace Kachaturoff, p. 168
Detroit's Coming of Age, 1873 to 1973, by Don Lochbiler, p. 90
"Wins in Patent Case," Detroit Free Press, April 1, 1908, p. 8
"Blazes Away at Cat, But Pinks Neighbor," Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1908, p. 7