Floodwaters from the Mississippi River lapped up to the edges of the old Ford plant outside of New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina and filled it with two feet of salt water. While the decades had swept away pretty much any trace of the Fords built in the plant, what still stood – Albert Kahn’s nearly indestructible design – wasn’t about to relent to the flooding and this month joined a dozen other Ford facilities on the National Register of Historic Places.
While many histories of Ford’s expansion during the Teens, Twenties, and Thirties point to monumental demand for the company’s low-priced cars as the driver behind the three dozen or so satellite plants that Ford built during that time, Henry Ford likely had plenty of capacity to meet the demand in Detroit, even before building the River Rouge plant. Instead, Ford’s pursuit of efficiency led him to assemble cars in far-flung corners of the country. As historian Richard Campanella put it in an article on the New Orleans plant for The Times-Picayune:
Ford realized that if all parts were manufactured identically, there was no need to assemble and test automobiles in Detroit and ship the unwieldy cargo to dealers nationwide, as was done previously. Better to ship smaller components to plants across the country, which would then assemble, test and deliver the vehicles to regional dealers.
So starting in the mid-Teens, Ford planned and built assembly plants in Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; Richmond, California; Seattle, Washington; Edgewater, New Jersey; and dozens of points in between (not to mention the various Village Industries factories that turned out smaller components). His interest in New Orleans — specifically in the area known as Arabi just east of the city — had just as much to do with establishing an assembly plant for export to Central and Southern America as with the location that offered easy access to both the Mississippi River and to rail lines. According to Campanella, Ford had previously exported to Latin America from its New York City locations.
Construction of the 227,000-square-foot building on 16 acres on the north shore of the Mississippi began in 1922 according to Kahn’s design which called for a reinforced concrete structure with an open ground floor design and a second story facing the river for administrative offices. A half-dozen gabled roof monitors over the main assembly floor provided light and ventilation.
Assembly operations began at Arabi the following year and — aside from a yearlong shutdown to switch over to the Model A in 1927 and another shutdown in about 1930 — at peak production as many as 1,000 workers turned out as many as 300 cars per day there until 1933. It “looked like a little bit of the Motor City in the Crescent City,” Campanella wrote. After the company discontinued assembly operations at Arabi, Ford converted the facility into a parts and distribution center and then during World War II leased the plant out to the U.S. Army for use as a warehouse.
After the war, Ford transferred the plant to a local dealership, which continued to run the plant as a distribution and service center until the early 1970s, when Southern Service began shipping Toyotas and Mazdas into the facility for preparation prior to their delivery into Midwestern markets. That use lasted until 1977, when the building became a freight storage facility, then for a decade or so after Katrina it stood empty.
More recently, its owners have once again offered warehousing and storage space out of the former plant, but they have also put it up for sale with an initial asking price of $4.75 million, later dropped to $3.7 million. The St. Bernard Economic Development Foundation also has the site listed as available, though with a negotiable price.
As pointed out in the National Register of Historic Places application for the plant, “A former Ford employee would certainly recognize the plant if he were to visit today.” The structure of the plant remains unaltered from its original 1922 plan with no additions or renovations, and only some pieces of trim and decoration — most notably the rooftop “Ford Motor Company” sign — have gone missing over the 96 years since its construction.
Andrew Jacques, the executive director of the St. Bernard Economic Development Foundation, said there are no immediate plans for the still privately owned plant, though it’s “open to any possibility” thanks to recent rezoning in the area intended to create a more walkable riverfront area.
“It’s an incredible place,” he said. “It still has the original signs for the bathrooms and a lot of other neat fixtures.”
Other Ford facilities already on the National Register of Historic Places include the assembly plants in Richmond, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Louisville, Kentucky; Omaha, Nebraska; Edgewater, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Seattle, Washington; as well as the River Rouge, Highland Park, and Piquette Avenue factories in Detroit.