Age Is No Handicap

Photos from May, 2008.

Normally when I research a factory it becomes clear pretty quickly what the primary address of the facility was, and it usually points to the plant's front office building—in the case of the Detroit Insulated Wire Co., neither was true. Almost every mention of the company in books or newspapers referenced the intersection of Wesson and Albert (Nowak) Streets rather than an address. It took a long time to figure out, but the only real address I ever saw the place referred to by was 4647 Wesson, which was not the front office, but one of the warehouses on the corner.

In 1906 under the supervision of Reuben Sloan, superintendent of the Solvay Process Works, the first buildings of this factory were built on the site of "the old west side brick yard," with the bottom of the old clay pits "forming a solid foundation" according to an article in the Detroit Free Press. I'm not sure why Solvay was involved in this, but that's what the article said.

The c.1897 Sanborn map shows this block as empty land, and by the c.1910 map, only one building was erected, right on the railroad spur. A city atlas from 1885 corroborated this being the site of an old brick yard.

The three-story office building (seen at left, above) was built in 1920, while the big four-story concrete structure wasn't even built yet on the c.1924 map. Most of the complex was made up of single-story buildings with shed or "sawtooth" type roofs.

Detroit Insulated Wire Co. was organized and incorporated in 1906 by ex-Pittsburghers who came to the conclusion that Detroit was the ideal place to put a copper wire factory due to its proximity to the copper supply chain, rail and waterway shipping, and a ready labor market. They started small, just making wire for "code and telephone" cables (I assume "code" means telegraph use). They eventually expanded production to include wire gauge sizes from as fine as a strand of silk to as large as two inches in diameter, most of it insulated with rubber coating. Many of their products were used in the automotive industry as well, and they were covered in cambric varnished tape and saturated varnished braids. They also produced "armored" wire cable, which I presume to be the old-timey equivalent of today's "Greenfield," which is a flexible metal conduit.

The article said that Detroit Insulated Wire Co.'s products could be identified by the presence of three uncolored threads laid parallel between the rubber insulation and the braid. This company was the only one of its kind in Michigan, and only one of three west of the Alleghenies. It had nonetheless become the largest exclusive manufacturer of rubber insulated cables in North America, with an output of a million feet of wire per day.

Detroit's position directly along the export route of pretty much all raw industrial production copper in the world made it a natural place for a wire-making firm. So it's a wonder this was the only one, seeing as every other manner of malleable metalworking firm has existed here since copper was first being mined in Upper Michigan by white settlers in the 1840s.

The company president of Detroit Insulated Wire was Joseph H. Hunter, who began his career with the Allegheny County Light Co., managed the Pittsburgh Light Co., and later became general manager of the National Cable & Wire Co. He was also manager of the Ferrous Chemical Co. of Pittsburgh, where he was associated with Professor Julius A. Koch. The company superintendent of Detroit Insulated Wire was John S. Lucock (of National Cable & Wire Co.), its secretary Charles C. Gray (of National Cable & Wire Co. and Westinghouse, Pittsburgh & Allegheny Telephone Co.), and its treasurer was William G. Dalgleish.

Detroit historian Clarence M. Burton wrote that Mr. Hunter was hailed as a leader amongst the men of industry called to Washington D.C. in WWI to help aid the war effort, for his idea in distinguishing different branches of the Signal Service on the French front. Hunter held a few patents for electrical appliances, and also had a keen interest in photography.

In 1913 the plant's floor space was 60,000 sq.-feet, and their products were known "from Canada to the Panama Canal" according to the Michigan Manufacturer & Financial Record that year. They also had bowling and baseball factory teams. In the 1920s the plant employed around 350 people.

Having been a one-time electrician myself, and having spent plenty of hands-on time working with vintage wiring from this time period while restoring my c.1887 house, I'm familiar with this type of insulated wire. It's amazing to me that this stuff is still around in houses that are still lived in, and it is still being used for electricity, over 100 years later. Left alone, it can function admirably for a very long time, but as we handymen know, rarely is anything in a house that old left alone.

Usually when you find this stuff in a house now, it dies when you touch it. The "rubber" insulation crumbles like hard clay, and the ends of the copper conductor have become so fatigued with being spliced and re-spliced over the decades that it is unworkable and prone to breaking. To say nothing of its other inadequacies and dangers. That said, when I bought my c.1887 house, that is the type of wire that was in active use for electrical service...I painstakingly replaced all of the "knob & tube" circuits with new wiring that I *hope* will last as long.

Thanks to the magic of Google Books, I was able to learn something more about Detroit Insulated Wire. The 1973 Senate hearings on the Industrial Reorganization Act regarding the Communications Industry in revealed that prior to 1930, the Bell System met all of its insulated wire and cable needs from seven different suppliers to Western Electric, of which Detroit Insulated Wire Co. was one (the other cable suppliers were all based in New York, Massachusetts, or Connecticut). So in other words this ragged factory most likely helped supply the grand construction program that facilitated the linking of the United States by telephone at the dawn of the Technology Century. It produced telephone cables not only for Detroit, but most likely for greater Michigan and the Midwest.

After 1930 however, all of the Bell System's wire and cable was manufactured by Western Electric, and all other supply contracts were cancelled. As a result, all of the former wire suppliers were out of business by 1935, except Whitney-Blake and General Cable Co. Mr. Hunter sold the Detroit Insulated Wire Co. in 1932, to General Cable Co. of New York. Production of wire most likely ceased at that time, because the next occupant of this facility seems to have been the Great Lakes Thread & Yarn Co., judging from a help wanted ad from May 1934.

That company remained here until at least 1944. Other help wanted ads during WWII called for men with machine-operating experience for war work, declaring, "Age is no handicap." Great Lakes Thread participated in war production, and also participated heavily in the drives for war bonds. I don't know what exactly the company may have produced for the war effort, perhaps things such as military uniforms, vehicle seats, backpacks, or tents?

Later news blurbs in 1955 and 1961 seemed to imply that the Cadillac Motor Division had been using the plant, so possibly the facility was split between them and Great Lakes Thread? Cadillac said in 1961 that it would discontinue manufacturing of army tank transmission parts at this plant by mid-June. Due to the low volume, the work would be taken over by GM's Allison Division, for which Cadillac produced the parts. Sixty-five men worked here under Cadillac, and the future of the plant itself was not decided yet at the time of the article.

Cavemonkey, a colleague of mine from Colorado who is also a WWII buff tells me that if Cadillac was using this plant for manufacturing tank transmission parts, it would have been for the M5 Stuart and later the M24 Chaffee tanks. As a matter of fact, Cavemonkey was with me the day I explored this factory. Cadillac also produced Allison aircraft engines in Detroit, so that could have been done here as well, he said.

Meanwhile, another entity had moved in as well, as evidenced by a help wanted ad for a printing press operator in 1955. I believe that this is when the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit came to own at least part of the factory. The Bible Press Company was listed here from about 1955 to at least 1962, and the Church and School Equipment Co. was listed here from at least 1961 to 1965, both of which were in some way affiliated with the Archdiocese, which owned the property. Ads in newspapers offered products from these companies, including tubular steel folding chairs, tape recorders, and "Cathedral Hi-Fi Tape," as well as a "catalogue of over 900 Redi-Recorded tapes."

From then until the 1970s I was only able to come up with one other tenant for this building, from a help-wanted ad for a machine repairman that was posted in the May 1970 Free Press, indicating it was then occupied by the Detroit Parts Warehouse, Inc., which seems to have stocked automotive parts.

It looks like the firemen employed heavy equipment to bash holes in the walls to get water on the blaze. The church seen above is St. Francis d'Assisi, a once large Catholic parish for this once densely Polish neighborhood. It was built in 1903, making it three years older than the plant. I have been inside the church, maybe one day I will post my pictures. They have a very decent fish fry (and homemade pierogi) during Lent.

You may recall that I also explored the abandoned firehouse of Detroit Fire Department Engine 22 nearby, in an older post.

This factory complex met its doom on October 16, 2005, in one of the worst fires in Detroit's recent history. These days the Detroit Fire Department rarely calls out five alarms, even for fires that other cities would consider cataclysmic, but this one merited all five bells (you may recall that the old Studebaker Plant #5 was also destroyed that same year by a five alarm blaze). Had the old Engine 22 firehouse—which is less than two blocks away—not been abandoned, it is likely that this factory may have had a different fate.

This entire complex was annihilated by burning plastics and other troublesome fuels...the thing about plastics fires is that they really don't want to be extinguished once they start burning. And with Detroit's notorious issues with non-working hydrants and low pressure, it's a miracle the fire was put out at all. I remember the day it burned...I happened to be driving on Warren Road, over 20 miles to the west, and I still saw the towering column of black smoke rising from this disaster scene as if it were just a few blocks away.

I did not explore the upper levels of this factory; after viewing the completely crumbled condition of these support columns, I decided that there couldn't be much on the other floors that was worth my life to see. Of course, the building proved to still be much sturdier than I calculated...I thought the place would collapse if I farted too loud, but even in this condition it remained standing another decade. Reinforced concrete is incredibly hard to defeat.

The building was still owned at the time of the fire by a Bloomfield Hills-based company called Intermet, which had been cited often by state officials on storage of tires and other waste, going back to 1993. Intermet paid no fines at the time because the violations were corrected, according to the Free Press. Intermet owner Julius Rim expressed remorse to reporters that the fire had occurred, which sent noxious smoke into surrounding neighborhoods and cost the taxpayers plenty of money to extinguish. Intermet was an automotive supplier for Ford, Delphi, and Daimler-Chrysler, making brake and suspension parts, and they had just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy exactly one year prior to the fire.

Fire officials stated that the fire was fueled by propane tanks in the buildings, as well as mystery drums of unknown liquids, and old junk cars. The fire started in a single-story warehouse-turned-junkyard, and then quickly spread to a plastics company in the taller building.

Yes, that brick is f@#$%ing melted. Brick. Melted.

The remaining ruins of the plant were torn down by 2017.

Sanborn Maps of Detroit, Vol. 12, Sheet 49 (1924)
Sanborn Maps of Detroit, Vol. 5, Sheet 9 (1910)
Sanborn Maps of Detroit, Vol. 5, Sheet 9 (1897)
E. Robinson Atlas of the City of Detroit and Suburbs (1885)
"Employment for 1,500 Men," Detroit Free Press, November 12, 1906, p. 9
"Adds Sprinkler System," Detroit Free Press, March 13, 1913, p. 16
Michigan Manufacturer & Financial Record, Vol. 13, No. 16 (April 1913), p. 49-51
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Volume 4, by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 58-60
The Book of Detroiters (1908), by Albert Nelson Marquis, p. 213-214, & 243
The Industrial Reorganization Act: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 93rd Congress, First Session on s.1167, Part 2: The Communications Industry, (July 30-August 2, 1973) p. 628
"J.H. Hunter, Industrialist, Dies at 84," Detroit Free Press, August 26, 1952, p. 2
Help Wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, May 13, 1934, p. 1
"This Message Sponsored by These Public Spirited Firms," Detroit Free Press, November 15, 1942, p. 10B
"War Bonds To Have and to Hold," Detroit Free Press, May 14, 1944, p. 4-8
Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1955, p. 40
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press Roto, April 13 1958, p. 8
"Cadillac Drops Tank Parts Work," Detroit Free Press, May 24, 1961, p. 35
"Churches Pay Full Taxes On Outside Properties," Detroit Free Press, Mar 20, 1962, p. 3
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, March 13, 1964, p. 10B
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, December 19, 1965
Help Wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, May 23, 1970, p. 6B
"Officials See No Concern Around Detroit Tire Fire," Detroit Free Press, October 18, 2005, p. 3B
"Auto Supplier Intermet Files For Bankruptcy Aid," Detroit Free Press, October 1, 2004, p. 1C
"Big Blaze Is Seen For Miles," Detroit Free Press, October 17, 2005, p. 3B

Toys in the Attic

Photos from June, 2013.

I don't always set out to get into places I don't belong, but sometimes it just happens. This was one of those times. 

Every year I go to the Irish Festival at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, which is near Orchestra Hall in Detroit. My exploring partner Sloop has family who have been involved in the parish for many years.

The story of St. Pat's is a little confusing...the original St. Patrick's Church was in the Brush Park neighborhood, at 124 Adelaide. The parish was begun in 1862 as Irish moved northward from Corktown. The original church (seen below) was completed in 1871, designed by Jordan & Anderson, and was at first considered by parishioners to be too extravagant. Founding Pastor James Hennessey disagreed, prophesying that St. Patrick's would someday become the Cathedral of Detroit. He was proven correct almost 20 years later in 1890, when Bishop Foley designated that church on Adelaide as the diocesan cathedral. At that time it was also renamed Saints Peter & Paul Church, however. It reverted back to being regular St. Pat's in 1938 when the cathedral was changed to Most Blessed Sacrament on Woodward, and Detroit was designated as an archdiocese.

Image from DUCP
While St. Pat's served as the city's cathedral, they built a parochial school uptown on Parsons Street in 1892, named St. Therese School (seen below). The walk from school to mass for the students was eventually considered too dangerous as Detroit became more congested, so in 1926 they built a chapel next to it, the Chapel of St. Therese of the Little Flower (seen in the top photo).

St. Therese School closed in 1969, and in 1972 the rapidly shrinking St. Pat's parish moved into this smaller facility on Parsons Street; the Chapel of St. Therese of the Little Flower became the new St. Patrick’s Church. One year later the former St. Therese School was reopened as the St. Patrick Senior Center and food pantry, to minister to the elderly of the Cass Corridor. They have also hosted the St. Patrick's Irish Festival here every June, a tradition that celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017. The school was designed by local architect Leon Coquard:

Image from DUCP
Meanwhile, the old St. Pat's church on Adelaide had been sitting abandoned since 1983. 

Photo by Mary Schroeder / Detroit Free Press
It finally burned down in 1993.

The entrance to the St. Therese / Patrick School is flanked by two rather extensive stone carvings.

As the St. Patrick Senior Center the building has been serving the senior citizens of the Cass Corridor for the past 45 years or so, ever since Sister Mary Watson opened the doors to cook a decent meal for a handful of needy old folks in 1973. The center now provides a wide range of services, activities, and classes for elderly people of all denominations, and boasts an outreach that extends to over 2,000 residents. I am surprised that many seniors citizens even remain in the Cass Corridor in light of the thorough regentrification of the area.

According to its website, St. Patrick Senior Center offers a comprehensive health and wellness program, a clinic, transportation assistance, as well as classes in art, technology, exercise and dancing, healthy living, and social activities. It sounds like everything a retirement community tries to be, but it's a 501c3 non-profit. The Detroit Area Agency on Aging even dubbed it a model for senior centers in the region.

The inside of the old parish school is beautiful, and centered around an old, intimate auditorium.

Here is where the bands play during the Irish Festival, kids and old folks dance on the dance floor, and I sit up in the balcony and drink Guinness. The attendees of the festival are an even mix of black and white, which seems odd at first since you don't usually find too many black Irish Catholics anywhere. But, as with many of these obscure Detroit things, we take all kinds.

The balcony creaks loudly with its antique wooden construction, and the chairs are probably c.1892 originals. This place is a total time capsule.

Incidentally the window in the 2nd floor men's room has a unique view of the sanctuary next-door...

The chapel here on Parsons was built in 1926, although it closed as a church in 2015. I think I heard that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra sometimes uses the chapel as a practice space, or once did a small concert or recording there.

"Oh, there you are!"

Now having gotten a bit of the barley in us, our mischievous streak inevitably began to take hold...

Pretty soon we found ourselves in the cavernous attic...because that's what we do, I guess.

Unimpressed with the large assemblage of rummage sale fodder being stored up here, I quickly turned my attention to the breezy attic window on this muggy summer day. I was pleasantly surprised by the view above the trees:

As I often do, I leaned further out and tried to get photos of this building's architectural details. Hey, there's gargoyles or something up there...

As I gazed up at these hidden little stone faces, I thought that they looked a hell of a lot like the grotesques at the entrance doors of Ste. Anne's Church. As it turns out, this school was designed by the same architect who designed Ste. Anne's, which explains why these look so familiar. He also designed the Soldier's Monument in Grand Rapids.

The rear of the Masonic Temple, and the Cass Plaza Apartments:

The Hotel Charlevoix and Hotel Park Avenue were still standing when I took these shots, and the ruins of the Scott Mansion had not been rebuilt yet:

Motor City Casino, Zug Island, King's Arms, etc:

The train station, before the fake windows:

Looking down Woodward towards Orchestra Place and the Bonstelle Theater:

I have a hunch that the history of the Chapel of St. Therese of the Little Flower is somehow connected to the famous/infamous Shrine of the Little Flower up at 12 Mile and Woodward in Royal Oak...they were both started the same year, and are both named after the same saint.

It's hilarious that for someone who can best be described as an agnostic ex-Catholic, I spend so much time at so many church festivals. I just like the buildings. And the beer tent.

In all seriousness, I do enjoy supporting the many historic church fundraisers in Detroit, whether it's the excellent fish fry at Ste. Anne's, or Pierogi Fest at Sweetest Heart of Mary, the German dinner at St. Joseph's, or the incredible music programs at Old St. Mary's, St. Paul's Cathedral, or Fort Street Presbyterian. Even St. Hyacinth has a Banana Festival that I've been meaning to check out...

Photo by Mary Schroeder / Detroit Free Press
Support your local historic church.

Catholic Churches of Detroit, by Roman Godzak, p. 32
Detroit's Historic Places of Worship, edited by Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krueger, Dorothy Kostuch, p. 237
"Empty Church Up In Flames," Detroit Free Press, May 5, 1993, p. 1

Old Mack

Photos from June, 2009.

If you follow Mack Avenue out across Detroit's east side just before Conner it goes up over the rail yard on a huge modern overpass at Chrysler’s Mack Stamping / Budd Wheel Plant, but tucked off to the side there was a row of buildings that used to stand on Mack before the grade-separation was built. On today's maps it is called "Mack Service Road," but I've also seen it called "Old Mack." It's a dead-end road now, a stub cut off from its parent by the big overpass directing traffic elsewhere, leaving it to die.

Ruins from one collapsed building were spilling over into Manz Playfield:

As of 2018 most of these buildings have been demolished, so here is a brief run-down of some of their history.

The building on the right in the next photo still bears a date-stone in its cornice, reading “1919” was originally the Pitman & Dean Co. (coal & ice supply) at 12165-69 Mack. The sign under the FOR SALE sign says that it used to be the ____ Cold Extrusion Corp. It was occupied from at least 1977 to 1986 by lmerman Industries, Inc., who also did metal extrusion work, according to hits I found via Google Books.

...The building on the left was originally part of the J.A. MacIvory Lumber Co.'s Mack Avenue Yard. The c.1929 Sanborn map of this street shows the following other businesses here at that time: the McDonald Coal & Brick Co. Yard at 12017 Mack, the C.P. Steinheiser Co. (builders' supplies) at 12035 Mack, and the Grace Harbor Lumber Co. at 12081 Mack. None of them still stand.

Sadly, the c.1910 map does not cover this area, indicating that it was not developed land yet. This spot was still a couple hundred yards outside city limits in 1910, in what was then considered the Village of St. Clair Heights. This block would have been located right under the map key, across the tracks from the Lozier Motors plant:

Image of 1910 Sanborn map from
The Lozier Motors plant once stood at 11801 Mack, a small luxury car company that was started in 1910 to rival Packard. According to the book How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, Henry Ford and James Couzens visited Lozier Motors frequently to watch the assemblers working on the chassis line in the Albert Kahn-designed plant. Lozier fizzled out in 1915 when Cadillac essentially put them out of business. Their plant was bought by the Motor Products Corp.

Here is a snapshot of the area in 1929...we are standing right under the number "61" at center:

The vacant patch where 55 is used to be a Hudson Motors factory. Across the street on the south side of Mack from us there was mostly empty space in 1929, behind the Budd Wheel and Hudson Motors plants...which were later turned into Chrysler’s Mack Stamping Plant.

On a later second visit to this street I found there to be massive damage done since I was here last…scrappers got at it. In fact, they were there while we were there.

Talk about wrack & ruin...Edison poles chopped down and the whole bit. Keep in mind, this is mid-2009 near the height of the scrapping epidemic. After my first visit, the remnants of this street spiraled very rapidly into complete dissolution.

So much for the roof…scrappers “Packardized” that one (ripped out the iron trusses and let it fall). It looks like that is what's getting ready to happen here too, with the iron posts exposed and ready to be notched with a cutting torch, just like lumberjacks felling a tree:

I believe I remember hearing that at least one of these structures was set ablaze too. A cell tower site sits in the middle of the ruins:

More missing roof trusses:

Whoops, bit of a flood here...

The blue paint mark "W/O" in the next photo means that the water has been shut off to the building by the city (probably after the pipe froze and burst, causing that flood in the photo above):

This yellow building, at 12121 Mack, was the Foam Distributing Co., at least according to the sign on the front of the building, and a reference to them in a 1997 business directory.

That grey stone building on the far end, at 12101 Mack (which I now regret not going into), used to be the UAW Local 212 union hall. Here it is on Google Streetview, in 2013:

Image via Google Streetview
It was also the location of a popular barn dance every Saturday night...the heart of industrial Detroit seems a weird place to find a shindig, but according to a couple books I searched online, this building was sort of like a country equivalent of the Grande Ballroom on weekends. Local bluegrass pioneer Cranford "Ford" Nix was a member of Local 212 and helped Casey Clark secure the hall for his dances. Besides hosting the "Lazy Ranch Barn Dance" here Casey Clark was a fiddle player who even had his own TV show on CKLW-TV, and deejayed a country show on WJR radio in the 1950s, according to The Birth of the Detroit Sound: 1940-1964.

Image via Google Streetview
It probably sounds weird to think that Detroit ever had a country music scene of all things, but don't forget that in the Postwar, post-Depression era, Detroit was flooded by an influx of poor Appalachians looking for work in the factories, and they certainly brought their banjos and fiddles with them. Ford Nix himself worked at the old Chrysler plant here on Mack Avenue. Local 212 was the biggest and strongest UAW local on the east side back in those days, and they represented the Briggs Mfg. plants around here, which were the scene of several major battles in Detroit's organized labor movement.

Image via Google Streetview
This Google Streetview image (above) from October of 2011 shows that like many buildings in Detroit during the Great Recession someone painted "NO COPPER" on the front entrance when it was boarded up, to indicate to would-be scrappers that all the valuable metal had already been removed, in hopes that it would spare the building from being ripped open. Little did they know, skyrocketing metal prices would soon lead the scrappers to come for the actual iron structural members of the buildings.

Since learning all this history about the humble little building at the end of a dead-end street, I decided to pay another quick visit in early 2019 so I could actually go inside. I was surprised to find a somewhat decorative entryway (above). 

Once inside it looks like there was a small bar here, which is strange because I know that no UAW members ever drink any alcoholic beverages at all! ;)

These three doors led into the large gathering space in the rear of the building, which is collapsed:

I imagine that this is where the old union meetings and "Lazy Ranch Barn Dances" used to be held, back when Detroit had about a million more people living here.

Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 19, Sheet 61, etc. (1929)
Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 8, Sheet 95 (1910)
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, by R. Szudarek
Automotive Engineering, Volume 86, p. 149
Michigan Manufacturer's Directory, (1997), p. 139
The Birth of the Detroit Sound: 1940-1964, by Marilyn Bond and S.R Boland, p. 33
Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies, by Craig Maki, Keith Cady, p. 307
American Directory of Organized Labor (1992), p. 528