Cutting Patterns for the World, in Michigan

April, 2005; photos scanned from film.

For a long time I had some friends in Lansing who I would visit on my trips up north, and one familiar landmark along East Saginaw Avenue (M-43) was the tall brick smokestack that spelled out the name "PRUDDEN," towered over the former home of the Prudden Wheel Company:

Below it was an abandoned Albert Kahn-style plant, though some of it had lately been converted into the Lansing Police North Precinct, as well as for use by other tenants if I'm not mistaken. This was a year before I ventured into the Oldsmobile VerLinden Plant.

Eventually the four-story concrete section of the Prudden plant was also renovated, and converted into loft apartments. As part of that loft conversion a historic district was designated, and a study published on its significance, the Final Report for the Proposed Prudden / Motor Wheel Factory Historic District, by Christine Reed.

The W.K. Prudden Company (later known as the Motor Wheel Corp.) was founded in 1903 it says, and by 1934 "it controlled 1/3 of the entire nation's wheel business, more than any other single wheel manufacturer." They were one of Lansing's biggest employers for decades. It is fascinating to note that it was supposedly the first company in history to be formed solely for the manufacture of automobile wheels, according to the book Lansing Unlimited, by Arthur Russell Lauder.

For what it's worth, I believe similar claims are made of the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Co. being the number-one wheel manufacturer.

William K. "Billie" Prudden was a horse breeder and harness-racer from Georgia who moved to Lansing to attend the Michigan Agricultural College (MSU) in 1875. He got a job in the real estate field here in Lansing after graduating, and eventually moved to Chicago. The racing hobby apparently never left his mind however, and that expertise led him to tinker with ways in which to improve wheel performance.

In 1898 he quit his profession in real estate in order to move back to Lansing and go into the wheel-making business. He started a factory making sulky racing wheels designed for rubber tires, but he also had the wherewithal to apply his knowledge of wheel physics to the auto industry, which just so happened to be exploding after the turn of the century.

That was right about the same time the Oldsmobile factory in Detroit burned to the ground, and Ransom Eli Olds was looking to relocate himself. Olds chose Lansing as the new capitol of his empire in large part because he already contracted his wheel-making work through Prudden (and if I'm not mistaken because he had gotten sick of the politics in Detroit). 

Mr. Prudden had been involved with the Lansing Wheel Co. as far back as the mid-1880s as its secretary and general manager. It was after this stint that he became president of the new Michigan Wheel Co. at 701 May Street in 1892, before going on to found his own W.K. Prudden & Co. around the corner in 1903, but that plant was demolished in order to make way for this larger plant. Supposedly even that famous first 1897 Oldsmobile--the world's first production automobile--had Prudden's wheels on it, according to Dave Pfaff, historian at the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum.

With the new plant came a new name, and W.K. Prudden & Co. was changed to the Prudden Wheel Co.

Reed's report says that William Prudden was considered "the forefather of the wheel industry," as well as a generous philanthropist and prominent Lansing businessman. However, I imagine that to a large extent Prudden's legacy exists merely in the shadow of that of Ransom Olds, since Oldsmobile is what most people immediately think of when they think of Lansing's industrial heritage.

Reed also lists Prudden as one of the original investors in the Ford-Malcomson Co. in 1903, predecessor of the Ford Motor Co.

Mr. Prudden was appointed "Fuel Administrator" during World War I (whatever that means), and he was a prominent crusader for paved roads, who saw to getting the first paved stretch of highway outside of Wayne County laid; it connected Lansing to East Lansing.

That "stretch of highway" became M-43, and passes directly in front of this plant. The world's first modern paved highway was of course Woodward Avenue in front of Ford's Model-T Plant; this was the second.

But according to page 8 of Reed's report, Prudden's most significant innovation was that of the wooden "artillery" wheel around the turn of the century, a milestone in automobile development that also later earned him a military contract worth $3 million in 1917. Prior to that, cars had wire wheels like those of a bicycle.

I can't find much else on the internet regarding the invention of the artillery wheel, except for this article, which claims it was invented in the 1820s by Walter Hancock, but doesn't cite any sources. Via Google Books I found that the book Science: The Definitive Visual Guide corroborates the 1820s claim, but does not go into detail.

I believe we are to assume that Prudden merely took the "artillery-style" of wooden wheel and adapted it to automobile use--that is, adapted it for use with rubber tires. Reed cites an earlier study, Thematic Survey of Early Automotive History in Lansing, Michigan from 1890 to 1930 by Mannik and Smith Group, which seems to confirm this.

Nontheless, Prudden's application of the stout artillery wheel technology to automobiles facilitated the development of larger, heavier, faster cars by putting them on wheels that could withstand the increasing forces exerted on them.

Construction started on this new structure at 725 E. Saginaw in 1916, and it was dubbed "Plant 1;" its assembly line finally lurched into motion in 1918. The address was later changed to 707 Prudden Street, on the other side of the building.

Though Reed mentions Kahn's style of architecture several times in her report, she does everything but specifically name who was the architect of this plant. According to Sanborn maps shown in Reed's report, this building was the machine shop of Prudden Wheel. The one-story shop floors with the sawtooth roof is labelled as the "Rim Dept," and it looks like part of it was stockroom space as well.

Though you're undoubtedly looking at these photos of this factory and thinking that it's just another typical "Albert Kahn box" like you see all over Michigan, the mwlofts website astutely points out that this type of factory architecture marked the first time in history that American architecture would influence European architecture instead of vice-versa, as had traditionally been the case. 

The versatility of reinforced concrete as a material for both road paving, and building construction was an idea that was proved in Michigan and is still ubiquitous the world over. Whether this was a good thing or not is hard to say; sure it is a very efficient, long-lasting, and economical building style, but it helped spell the end of the fancy classical architecture that had dominated the world up until the 20th century.

While I have to admit that I love the blank, geometrical repetition of the Kahn-style factories, today's modern buildings--which build directly off of that archetype--are an exercise in clean lines and complete boredom, and there appears to be no path to go back to the way things used to be.

The book R.E. Olds and Industrial Lansing by Michael Rodriguez notes that Prudden eventually conglomerated with Lansing Spoke and Auto Body to become the Motor Wheel Corporation, in 1920. The Michigan Wheel Co. also became part of Motor Wheel Corp., as well as Auto Wheel and Gier Pressed Steel.

Motor Wheel went on to produce truck wheels, hubs and flanges, brake drums and discs, as well as rims and other stampings, and was billed as "largest exclusive manufacturers of wheels for motor-driven vehicles in the world." They had four plants in Lansing and a total of thirteen across the United States. By 1964 Motor Wheel had become a subsidiary of Goodyear.

Motor Wheel Corp. continued to be an innovative company under Goodyear, debuting products such as the "RunFlat" which was made famous on the "Humvee" military vehicle.

Other innovations of the Motor Wheel Corp. included the chrome-plated "Hollywood" construction wheel (1963); the Polycast Wheel, styled urethane fascia molded to a steel wheel (1970); the first full-face steel wheel (1986); and the first commercially available composite (FRP) automotive wheel (1988).

This plant was closed up in 1975, though Motor Wheel remained in Lansing. The Eyde Company attempted to refurbish this building for commercial use in 1985-88, but the plans fell through.

In 1996 Motor Wheel was acquired by Hayes Wheel (their old competitor) for $1.1 billion. The former Kelsey-Hayes Wheel had itself recently been taken over.

Originally this building stood three stories tall; the fourth was added prior to the 1950s if I'm not mistaken.

The downtown skyline of Lansing, Michigan's capitol:

The Michigan Department of Transportation once occupied some of these buildings as well:

Today the old Prudden Wheel plant is reborn as new loft apartments...

...Apparently green ones.

Final Report for the Proposed Prudden/Motor Wheel Factory Historic District, by Christine Reed
R.E. Olds and Industrial Lansing, by Michael Rodriguez, p. 21
Lansing Unlimited, by Arthur Russell Lauder, p. 80
Science: The Definitive Visual Guide, by Janet Mohun & Kathryn Wilkinson, p. 21

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