May 21, 2009 at 5:37 pm

MotorCities National Heritage Area

Ford's Highland Park plant a manufacturing pioneer

The assembly line Henry Ford developed was fully realized at the Highland Park plant, where the assembly time for a Model T plummeted from 728 minutes to 93. (Courtesy of MotorCities National Heritage Area)

In 1908, Ford Motor Co. developed plans for a new facility, one that had a worldwide impact on manufacturing. It was Ford's Highland Park Plant, which still stands at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Manchester Street. Legendary architect Albert Kahn created the factory. He had built a modern plant for Packard using many of the same materials and concepts later employed in the Highland Park plant.

Kahn used reinforced concrete for the construction, which allowed for large, open rooms that could efficiently accommodate machinery. More importantly, he included large windows and louvers that admitted fresh air and sunlight into the work spaces. This allowed a much more pleasant environment for Ford workers. Kahn also designed the building to be easily expanded to add capacity.

"It was called the Crystal Palace because of the use of plate glass," Ford corporate historian Bob Kreipke said. "It was the largest, most modern factory in the world at its time."

Ford put the factory in Highland Park because it was outside of the city and more or less on the outskirts of the urban area, according to Kreipke. This was also an attempt to avoid Detroit's extremely high city taxes. However, Ford almost immediately realized it had made a mistake. The factory was landlocked, with the only real shipping access to the site being via railroad (this predated the prevalence of trucks as a shipping medium). A railroad strike soon after the plant opened convinced Ford it was important to have water access for shipping purposes. That led to the construction of the Rouge Plant in Dearborn less than a decade after the Highland Park plant opened.

The Highland Park plant was not only notable for its architecture; it truly made its mark in history as the site where Ford introduced the moving assembly line. This reduced assembly time for a Model T from 728 minutes to 93 minutes and allowed Ford to produce vehicles in great volume and at ever more reasonable cost.

The modern plant also saw the inauguration of Ford's sociology department. With many immigrants coming in to work at Ford plants, the department oversaw English classes during lunch hour. It would even make visits to workers' homes to ensure they were keeping a properly run household.

"Henry Ford was quite fanatical on living the clean life and having a nice place to live," Kreipke said.

Although the sociology department is considered paternalistic and intrusive by modern standards, thousands of people learned English who might otherwise have struggled. Charles Berlitz, of the famous Berlitz language schools, said Ford Motor Co. was responsible for more people learning English than any other institution.

Ford's interest in his workers' home lives had a positive, lasting impact on Highland Park as well. Blocks north and south of the plant were lined with beautiful, well-built old homes that the company helped fix up for its workers.

Ford was instrumental in closing down many of the bars in the town as well, Kreipke noted with a laugh. At the time the plant was built, there were four times as many bars as there were churches in Highland Park, which was an affront to teetotaler Ford.

The Highland Park plant also included a factory hospital to treat on-the-job injuries, a film plant to document the manufacturing process and a tunnel that until recently ran underneath Manchester Street to the bank across the street. The tunnel facilitated the movement of tens of thousands of dollars in cash every day.

The plant was visited by President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke to more than 20,000 Ford employees gathered there. Tours were also offered to the public.

After completion of the Rouge plant in the 1920s, the Highland Park plant was used for trim fabrication and tractor assembly. It gained National Historic Landmark status in 1978. Ford sold the building in 1981 to a management company, but Ford still rents space for storage. A large shopping center called Model T Plaza opened in the 1990s on several acres of the land.

For more on Ford's Highland Park plant and other historic sites, visit MotorCities National Heritage Area's at http://www.motorcities.org">www.motorcities.org

Ford's Highland Park assembly plant was designed by legendary ... (Courtesy of MotorCities National Heritage Area)
Ford employed some 20,000 workers at the Highland Park assembly plant, ... (Courtesy of MotorCities National Heritage Area)