"The Works"

Photos are from February 2009 and later.

This great old structure at 5435 West Fort Street used to be the Roberts Brass Mfg. Co. Works—apparently not to be confused with the C.A. Roberts Co., who were distributors for the National Tube Co. which dealt in stainless steel tubing, and who had a plant on Bellevue according to Clarence Burton's History of Wayne County. Surprisingly I was not able to find any reference to Roberts Brass in any of the books on my shelf, though I did uncover an unusual number of Detroit Free Press articles on it via the Detroit Public Library's ProQuest search engine.

In the summer of 2005 I believe, there was a small fire in this building that my friends and I happened to witness while passing by...we were about to dial the fire department to report the smoke when we saw a ladder truck come rushing around the corner with sirens blaring. The firemen got out their gas-powered demolition saw and sliced their way through the back doors to stretch lines inside and go to work. We hoped they would leave the backdoor unattended for our casual entry later, but they surprisingly re-secured the building. That sure would make things easier if I could just roll around with a demo saw at my disposal to make an instant entrance whenever I needed one, but it was another couple years before I got to explore this place.

Exactly 100 years earlier, in August of 1905, a Mr. Dugald H. Roberts, vice president of the McRae & Roberts Co. was resigning from that firm to start his own new company, according to a couple articles in the Free Press. His new Roberts Manufacturing Co. would manufacture a line of brass fittings for steam, water, and gas apparatus in this plant. These kinds of items were needful in those days, for the many types of machines that were being built in Detroit and elsewhere, such as engines, radiators, steamships, stoves—and soon, automobiles. According to the man himself, "a number of prominent business men" had become interested investors in this venture.

The old McRae & Roberts brass works, by the way, stood a couple blocks away from here at the corner of Campbell and Henrietta (near Driggs), and they too manufactured "steam brass goods." But Mr. Roberts made the choice to go into business on his own solely for the reason to set his five sons up in the business, although this new company would avoid competing with the line of products that Mr. W.D. McRae's firm currently made.

The handsome new brass works was projected to open May 1, 1906, and was designed by the local firm Pollmar & Ropes; F.C. Pollmar was the architect who had recently designed the older half of the Madison-Lenox Hotel downtown in 1901. Here is Pollmar's conceptual rendering of the original Roberts works, as seen in the Detroit Free Press article:

A "long basement" would be included, the article stated, to "allow for some modern methods in handling raw material, and the finished products of the company at the lowest possible expense." The 1921 Sanborn map shows first and second floor utilized as "machine shop" area for pretty much their entirety.

The Detroit Chemical Works, Plant No. 1 was shown at the south end of the block at the railroad tracks, manufacturing sulphuric acid, nitric acid, and aluminum sulphate—possibly chemicals used in metalworking? Sandwiched in between these two lovely industrial sites was the Bellefontaine School, at 251 Morrell Street as well as plenty of homes. This rear view of the Roberts works shows the foundry wing:

An article in July 1910 declared "Detroit Firm Makes Airship Fittings," and that Roberts Brass currently had an exhibit at the Detroit Industrial Exposition showing off the many articles they could manufacture, including the many different types of gauges that were often found on things like boilers, as well as various safety valves, gas cocks, tees, elbows, unions, compression bibs, etc.

Most of their work was in small parts, except of course in regards to steam fittings, and the article boasted that they probably offered the most complete line of air cocks produced in America (for what that's worth).

For gasoline and automobile engines, their products were "as extensive and varied as the manufacturers' requirements"—for instance, they made 40 different types of priming cups alone. Perhaps the items that were the most bragged about were Roberts' fittings for hydrogen airships, also known as dirigibles, or Zeppelins.

According to airships.net, there had already been a few airship disasters before this c.1910 article was written, so apparently safety was already a concern, but airships would continue to be filled with dangerous hydrogen gas for many years to come. The famous Hindenburg disaster did not occur until 1937.

The display at the Detroit Exposition Pavilion also contained examples of all the raw materials that Roberts Brass used in making their metal, including virgin copper (no doubt shipped in from Michigan's Copper Country), lead, spelter (crude smelted zinc), and tin.

As automobiles and combustion engines of all types started to become more complex, requiring more and more fine and specialized internal parts, the need for dedicated suppliers to the nascent automotive industry likewise expanded, and Detroit underwent the change from the stove-making and ship-building capitol to become the Motor City.

A March 1916 article in the Free Press announced that plans were in the works to triple this plant's capacity by building a new foundry, adding a third floor along its Fort Street frontage for offices (finished in quartered white oak, marble, and tile), extending the machine shop, and installing elevators. The work was to be conducted by the original architects again, Pollmar & Ropes. When these expansions were completed the plant took on the enclosed square shape that we see here today, with a courtyard in the center:

From Bing Maps.
The south wing of the plant that extends along the alley is the foundry, which was unique in that it was put on the second floor of that building to assure maximum natural lighting and ventilation. It also helped facilitate movement of castings to the cleaning and grinding department on the floor below (which is seen in the next photo):

These newly-added sections were built of fireproof reinforced concrete, and integrated directly into the old brick-and-timber portions of the original 1906 plant.

The Sanborn map of the brass works shows that a 75-foot steel watertower of 32,500 gallons capacity used to stand in the middle of this courtyard:

These four chimneys most likely went to the four furnaces that were also shown on the Sanborn map as being once located along this side of the foundry:

As you might've guessed, that large vacant circular hole near the crest of the plant's front facade shown in the first photos of this post once held a large clock. It had an illuminated face eight and a half feet in diameter, and was installed to be a landmark along West Fort Street. After a brief search, I could not find a historic photo showing this clock intact, but I came across a post on detroityes.com by a person claiming that the clock had been auctioned off several years ago and found a new home.

The rubble in this corner was most likely from the coal bin and engine room that, according to the Sanborn map, once stood here:

Notice the 110-year-old wooden window sashes on the c.1906 portions of the brass works:

During World War I the executives of Roberts Brass reportedly refused to make any materiel whatsoever related to military production, which would have been an unusual move for an industrial firm in those days; no doubt they stood to make a boat-load of money on such contracts.

Most companies proudly signed up for war work (and the guaranteed revenue that it represented), but it would seem that perhaps the Roberts family business took a hard-line pacifist / isolationist stance, and might have even withstood some harsh criticism for being "unpatriotic." Then again, Henry Ford was also a self-professed pacifist too (although he eventually took on a Navy contract for building sub-chaser boats).

But according to the Free Press, Roberts continued to manufacture items for "an interesting domestic trade," including brass valves and special parts for cars, trucks, stationary and maritime engines, tractors, airplanes, gas stoves, steam engine and boiler accoutrements. At that time the company vice president was Earl W. Roberts, the secretary/treasurer was William H. Roberts, the general superintendent was T. Herbert Roberts, and there's one more I can't make out from the faded newsprint, but I have a feeling his last name might have been Roberts.

A 1908 Free Press article said that Roberts Brass held its second annual employee retreat to "Bois Blanc," undoubtedly meaning Boblo Island. A similar article in 1914 showed that the tradition was still going after eight years. Sounds like this was a pretty good company to work for, by outward appearances anyway. This was during the height of the era of corporate paternalism, so I'm sure that there was give and take.

Rounding a corner we found ourselves within one of the original c.1906 parts of the plant, which was still constructed entirely of wood beams.

Aside from the Boblo Island trips, there was also an employee baseball team. Some of the most interesting search results I turned up on ProQuest about the Roberts Brass Works were newspaper stories from the sports section covering Manufacturers' League baseball games, which the company not only took part in but was apparently rather successful at.

Yes, in the olden days many larger companies had baseball teams who would compete in league play around the cities of America. I guess it is still a tradition for some companies, but I don't think any inter-company leagues still exist anymore; nowadays it's more of an excuse for a day off work to engage in mandatory "team-building exercises" and eat hotdogs. Anyway, it is fascinating to look at all these old names of Detroit companies that no longer exist—like Northway Motors, Packard, Timken Axle, and McCord Radiator—and think of them as a baseball league; it's somewhat comical actually, in an extremely old-timey sepia-toned sort of way.

The highly nostalgic headlines also read like they're straight out of some old-time radio announcer's snappy Mid-Atlantic-accented banter..."Batting Rally in Final Inning by Motor Boys Defeats Roberts Brass Company;" "Triple Play Helps Beat Gear Grinding Squad;" "Burroughs Reserves Lose to Kelsey Wheel Co., While McCords Nose Out Timkens;" "Kelseys Lose to M'Cord in Manufacturers' League;" "Northways Defeat Gear Grinders While Burroughs Trim the Timkens in One Sided Contest;" "Hudson Motor Car Co. Beats the Brewers;" "Burroughs Outfit Toys With Detroit Wire Spring Contingent, Handing it Trimming"...I'm not exactly certain what being "handed a trimming" means in today's English, but in the olden days I'm sure it added up to some pretty scantless smack-talk.

An "airtight game" was played in June of 1910 against the Hayes Mfg. Co., who beat Roberts Brass in an interesting duel, which the article described as "a pitcher's battle." Doyle, on the mound for the Roberts team, allowed four hits and fanned six men. The lone run of the game was scored by the Hayes team, and was played at the Burroughs Adding Machine Co.'s new home field.

Roberts Brass later walloped a "listless" Northway Motors Co. team that August, by a score of 12-0. Miller was the heavy hitter, scoring a run and a single. Roberts also stole 12 bases to Northway's 4. Another article in 1911 titled "Brass Workers Down Home Boys," mentioned that attendance at the game was an impressive 500 fans. In that match Roberts Brass defeated the Home Telephone Co. "in a game that was interesting until the last man was out." Players Halling, and Gutchow for the Roberts Brass team "featured with the stick," together tallying a total of seven hits.

A book called Baseball: The People's Game points out that company baseball teams "instilled pride" in the hearts of other non-playing employees, who saw their coworkers on the field representing their factory against teams who were competitors not just on the field, but in the world of business as well. By creating this pride factor, employers sought to raise both the morale and the company loyalty of their workers.

Some fancy mosaic tile flooring here by the front entrance:

This was a large driveway entrance allowing vehicles to pull in off Fort Street into the plant's "courtyard."

Nice riveted steel window sashes, and stout walls made of paving brick:

An entry on waymarking.com says that this fallout shelter had capacity for 1,052 people, and the last time it was inspected by the state was in 1988, at which time the plant was owned by "Universal Laboratories." By digging through Google Books I was able to find corroboration that a company called Universal Scientific & Industrial Supply was based here as late as 1993. That might explain this cabinet full of chemistry lab type stuff:

I was actually good friends with a man named Ron Charney (RIP), who was affiliated with one of the more recent owners, and had helped clear out this building several years ago before it was abandoned. I have since occasionally noticed however that the gates to the plant have sometimes been left sitting open, and at other times closed and locked again, as if trucks were coming in and out.

According to a post on the detroityes.com message board, the previous owner of this building owned a salvage company in Wyandotte, and had this place packed full of old lab equipment and other various antique things, most of which was disposed of.

The bay window projection along the driveway (seen above) might have been an office check-in window for truck drivers making or picking up deliveries, perhaps?

The "courtyard" area was actually paved with asphalt, before it was overgrown and covered in debris, so I would bet it later served as an employee parking lot as well:

The basement was kind of low-clearance if I recall correctly, and I didn't take any photos down there so it must not have been incredibly interesting:

Remember, these concrete stairs were added during the 1916 remodeling of the brass works:

Taking the stairs up to the second floor, we find the aforementioned foundry:

Clearly, it has not been a foundry for a long time.

The steel girders that made up the roof trusses were riveted, and now that I look closer, I don't see any evidence of an overhead crane, which is odd for a space like this.

There had been serious plans to convert this old plant into residential units at some point (I believe local "slum lord" Dennis Keffalinos was/is the developer), and by 2012 much of the interior space was actually framed-out with metal studs and some plumbing for apartments, but apparently that project fizzled. 

I was stunned to see that whoever was in charge of this project saw fit to ruin the vast open foundry space by subdividing it all up with what was obviously going to be drywall office or apartment walls, as seen in my colleague's photo...

Seriously...what in the living f#$% were they thinking?

The rear of the office wing, showing the piecemeal blending of old brick vs. new concrete construction:

Again, up here on the second floor it was almost exclusively machine shop space during the 1920s. With the number of various different brass items the company made, I'm sure that they needed quite a variety of different machine tools to shape them to the desired specifications.

Here on the northeast corner of the second floor, I noticed a large section of the roof appeared to have been recently replaced with new lumber, while splintered scraps of the old framing and decking lay scattered on the floor below:

Even back in early 2009, this was my first clue that maybe this building had not quite been totally abandoned yet, and that someone was stabilizing it while holding out hopes of restoration. I wonder if it had anything to do with repairing damage from that fire we witnessed here back in 2005.

The big arched windows faced out onto Fort Street:

Interesting juxtaposition of modern factory steel window sash on the left, and old wooden sash windows on the right:

Stereotypical detritus:

There were several square skylights on the western side of the building, all of which had since been covered over:

These white globes mounted near the tops of the support pillars were some sort of chemical fire suppression apparatus:

I imagine they may have been working with some pretty gnarly old-time chemicals in this plant, and being that half the place is timber construction I'd say fire safety was pretty key. But the fact that it is still standing here intact after 110 years says something.

Up ahead and around the corner, we could see the office wing on the third floor come into view:

I was surprised at the lavish decor of the business office area, and even more amazed that it still survived basically in its original state since 1906:

A close-up of the mosaic tile pattern on the floor:

This tile floor was completely stripped out by Keffalinos, or whoever it was doing the c.2012 renovation work. I think all the fancy wooden paneling may have also been gutted out, but it's been so long since I've been to Roberts Brass now that I can't accurately remember.

The corridors once had a stamped tin ceiling no doubt, but it had since fallen away:

This snazzy bannister was another high point of the tour:

Since this was a brass company, I wonder if it was made of brass?

And here was the president's office, where Mr. Dugald Roberts himself, and his line of heirs sat at the helm of this industrial enterprise until its final days...

Honestly this looks every bit as lavish as the well-known Packard Plant's executive offices.

And here was the company vault, where all their records and brass-working secrets were kept:

It even had the company name stenciled on the top:

An obituary in the November 9th, 1947 Detroit Free Press announces the passing of Thomas H. Roberts, then current president of Roberts Brass, which was still listed at this address. He had fallen suddenly ill in his office here, and died a few hours later in Harper Hospital. He was only 69 years old, lived at 2271 Edison Street (west of 14th), and was a member of the Detroit Athletic Club. Thomas was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, and at least one of his brothers, L.B. Roberts, was still living at the time.

There was a set of doors leading from the executive offices out onto the roof, which featured a nice porch:

Seems awfully quaint.

...Or perhaps it was the Roberts family's way of being able to easily walk around on the roof and spy on employees through the skylight windows to make sure they weren't slacking off?

Anyway, it seems like after T.H. Roberts passed away, the company was most likely bought up or liquidated in the late 1940s or early 1950s, because that's when their name stops coming up in searches.

Other hits on Google Books show the old Robert Brass address as held by Verbiest Publishing Co. in 1953, and Dodge News Magazine from 1958 to 1973, sort of confirming what I had heard about there once being a printing business in here during later years. In the 1950s the old Roberts Brass Works was renamed the Prince & Company, Inc. Building, under the management of Fred A. Prince, who I assume leased out sections of the old plant to different small companies. Old issues of data processing trade journals list Automatic Data Processing of Michigan at this address in 1969, and The Data Processing Center was headquartered here in 1964.

From the roof, the campanile of Holy Redeemer Church is seen in the distance, up at Vernor Avenue:

The view west down Fort Street, with the smokestacks of the Marathon refinery in the distance:

The crowded house-tops and apartment blocks of Mexicantown:

The Ambassador Bridge and downtown skyline to the east:

To the south is the Public Lighting Department's Mistersky Power Station:

And here we have the back of the clock housing, with a flagpole rising behind it:

Another view toward the bridge shows the "Boblo Terminal" on the horizon to the right:

This fancy brick chimney in the next photo may have originally been built for the core oven on first floor, shown on the Sanborn maps...the gangly, black protrusions of Zug Island's steel furnaces loom in the background:

Overall this building is fairly sound, and a terrific candidate for rehabilitation.

It also sits just outside of Mexicantown in a decent part of the Delray neighborhood that could use the boost.

Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 1, Sheet 103 (1921)
History of Wayne County, Vol. II, by Clarence M. Burton, p. 1471
"New Factory for the Roberts Brass Co. Will Be Erected," Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1905, p. 23
"New Brass Goods Firm," Detroit Free Press, August 29, 1905, p. 5
"Surprise for McRae & Roberts," Detroit Free Press, May 21, 1902, p. 5
"Industrial Plant Expands Largely," Detroit Free Press, March 12, 1916, p. C11
"Detroit Firm Makes Airship Fittings," Detroit Free Press, July 1, 1910, p. 6
"Northways Win Out in Ninth," Detroit Free Press, May 22, 1910, p. 21
"Airtight Game Won By Hayes," Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1910, p. 20
"Roberts Brass Co. in a Shutout," Detroit Free Press, August 21, 1910, p. 22
"Brass Workers Down Home Boys," Detroit Free Press, May 7, 1911, p. 23
"Burroughs 10, Roberts Brass Co. 4," Detroit Free Press, May 14, 1911, p. 23
Baseball: The People's Game, by Dorothy Seymour Mills, Harold Seymour, p. 230
Commercial Car Journal, Vol. 85 (1953), p. 626
The Author and Journalist, Vol. 42-43 (1958)
Data Systems, Vol. 10 (1969), p. 180
The Writer, Vol. 86 (1973), p. 33
The Michigan Architect and Engineer, Volume 29 (1954), p. 17
Data Processing Magazine, Volume 9 (1964), p. 71
Regional Industrial Buying Guide: Greater Michigan (1993), p. 683
Obituary for T.H. Roberts, Detroit Free Press, November 9th, 1947, p. 59


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  2. Hi there. I'm the new contractor assigned to restoring this building. I'd love to talk with you to learn more about the history and architecture of the Roberts Brass Building. I've already learned so much useful information just by reading this entry. Shoot me an email at mniko12@gmail.com

    1. I'm afraid I don't know anything else about it that I haven't already written here.

    2. Niko what are your plans for the building? I've lived in this are my whole life. Would be nice to see it opened.

  3. My grandfather, a Polish immigrant, worked there as a ‘milder’ in, at least, June of 1917 according to his “Registration Card”. I know nothing else.

  4. The owner in the 90's was a Lebanese gentleman who worked for Henry Ford. Henry Ford had selected him to work at the HF museum Greenfield Village that building was filled with rare antiques from the museum that they got rid of i remembering seeing a Telsa Magneto, Model T car, a handmade spark plug from HF it was given to this gentleman (he kept it in his front pocket), a letter sitting on his desk from T. Edison to H. ford with Edison Lab letterhead. I do not remember the gentleman's name he was quite old in the early 90's I remember going in there on Saturdays with a friend of mine who was friends of his. There always a few guys hanging around I was told they were waiting for him to pass to take all of these items because he had no family. It was like walking in a museum these items where valuable


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