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The houses that T built (and that built the T): Tracking down the assembly plants of Ford’s first distributed production effort

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company.

These days, the automobile company that operates out of just one assembly plant is rare. A century ago, however, it was commonplace, and like many other automobile manufacturing innovations, the practice of operating multiple plants simultaneously derived from the popularity of the Ford Model T.

Ford Motor Company, however, didn’t just open one or two assembly plants here or there to handle the increased demand for the T. Instead, in the years before Peter E. Martin helped develop the moving assembly line for Ford, the company opened as many as 30 plants across the continent to churn out Ts like there was no tomorrow.

The initiative began in December 1911, when Ford’s board of directors sent James Couzens to California in “the interest of establishing Branch Houses, Warehouses, or to make other arrangements for the handling of our business as may seem necessary.” Rather than follow their exact orders, Couzens came back with the suggestion to build smaller factories across the country that would assemble Model Ts from parts supplied by Ford’s foundries and stamping operations in Highland Park, thus saving Ford from the expense of shipping completed Model Ts all over the country. Couzens even went ahead and bought four properties (in Seattle; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Los Angeles) figuring the board would agree to his suggestion.

While Albert Kahn designed the aforementioned Highland Park and, later, the River Rouge plant for Ford, the company turned to Seattle-based architect John Graham to design its Model T assembly plants, all in more or less the same multi-story, factory-slash-showroom pattern. Parts get delivered to the upper floors, usually via rail and a crane system, and down to the ground floor rolls a completed Ford Model T, either for sale in the assembly plant’s showroom or for distribution to regional dealerships.

Construction of the assembly plants began in 1912 and lasted only until 1915 or so, when the assembly line made the multi-story format impractical. But in that period, annual Model T production skyrocketed: Year-over-year production increased by about 80 percent during the Model T’s first few years, then jumped to 125 percent in 1912 and 140 percent in 1913. By comparison, the rate of production increases for Ford slowed to 46 percent in 1914 and seven percent in 1915 (the first two years of Model T assembly line production), indicating that widescale distribution perhaps had more of an impact on Ford’s ability to meet demand and thus on the Model T’s popularity than the moving assembly line.

The company even noted as much in a 1915 booklet that, in part, discussed the Model T assembly plants:

This great output would be impossible, were it not for the Ford Assembling Plants and Branch Houses, twenty-eight in number, located in the principal cities of the United States. To these assembling plants are shipped parts for Ford cars in carload lots, and the cars are assembled at the different plants and supplied direct to dealers in the surrounding territory. While the factory at Detroit is able to average 1,200 cars per day of eight hours, the assistance of the assembling plants makes possible the attainment of a daily average of approximately 2,000 cars.

All this intricate organization and investment of funds is designed to accomplish two objects. First, the system makes it possible to ship parts from the main factory to definite points for assembly, obtaining a more rapid and more economic distribution. Second, the location of the assembling plants aids in giving prompt, reliable and economical service to Ford owners, besides very greatly reducing the freight costs for delivery of cars, etc. The strategic location of the assembling plants makes for a handy distribution of parts and supplies, and there are no vexatious delays for the owner of a Ford car while a part is forwarded from the home factory.

Yet, even though these Model T assembly plants were so instrumental to Ford’s success, they’ve all been cast aside by the carmaker in the century-plus since their construction, which means there’s been no real effort to catalog them until now. We’ve made an effort to not only list each of the Model T assembly plants built under Graham’s oversight, but also to determine their exact locations, how long Ford used them, and what’s happened to them since. So, in alphabetical order of the cities in which they were built:

Atlanta, Georgia699 Ponce de Leon Avenue; built 1914 to 1915, assembly ended and building sold 1942; added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and redeveloped into apartments and retail shops.

Buffalo, New York2495 Main Street; built 1915, assembly relocated to Fuhrman Boulevard plant and building sold 1931; redeveloped into the Tri-Main Center.

Cambridge, Massachusetts640 Memorial Drive; built 1913, assembly relocated to Somerville 1926; renovated, currently home to Boston Biomedical.

Chicago, Illinois3915 Wabash Avenue; assembly relocated to Torrance Avenue plant 1924, further history and current use unknown.

Cincinnati, Ohio660 Lincoln Avenue; added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, renovated 2002, currently owned by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Cleveland, Ohio11610 Euclid Avenue; built 1915, assembly ended 1932, building given to federal government circa 1941; added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, renovated, currently home to Cleveland Institute of Art.

Columbus, OhioCleveland Avenue and I-670; built 1913 to 1914, closed 1939; currently in use as a bakery for Kroger.

Dallas, Texas – (Contemporary sources give 2800 Williams Street as the address, though no such street exists in Dallas. A second plant was built on East Grand Avenue in 1925 and assembly was shifted there.)

Denver, Colorado920 S. Broadway; history and current use unknown.

Detroit, Michigan – (Contemporary sources list an assembly plant at 1550 Woodward Avenue, though no further information has been found.)

Fargo, North Dakota505 North Broadway Drive; built 1915, assembly ended ????, sold 1956; renovated into multi-use building 2006

Houston, Texas3900 Harrisburg Road; built 1913 to 1914, sold circa 1942; most recently occupied by Atlantic Coffee Solutions.

Indianapolis, IndianaEast Washington and North Oriental streets; built 1914, assembly ended 1932, sold circa 1942; currently under mixed-use redevelopment.

Kansas City, Missouri – (Contemporary sources list locations at 1710 Grand Avenue and Winchester at 11th, neither of which appear to be the actual location.)

Long Island City, New YorkHoneywell and Northern Boulevard (formerly 564 Jackson Avenue); built prior to 1914, assembly relocated to Kearney (New Jersey) plant 1917; currently The Center Building.

Los Angeles, California2060 East 7th; built 1913, expanded 1923; currently under mixed-use development.

Louisville, Kentucky – (Contemporary sources list locations at 931 South Third Street and 2400 South Third, neither of which appear to be the actual location.)

Memphis, Tennessee495 Union Avenue; built ????, assembly ended ????, building sold 1932; building demolished circa 1975.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin2185 North Prospect Avenue; built circa 1916, assembly ended 1932; currently mixed-use development housing the Peck School of Arts.

Minneapolis, Minnesota420 North 5th Street; built 1913 to 1914, assembly relocated to new St. Paul plant 1925, building sold circa 1945; currently home to the Ford Center. Reportedly the tallest building ever constructed for the purpose of building automobiles.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma900 West Main Street; built ????, assembly ended 1932, sold 1968; redeveloped into the 21st Century Museum Hotel.

Omaha, NebraskaCuming and 16th streets; built circa 1916, assembly ended 1932, sold 1955; added to National Register of Historic Places in 2004, renovated into luxury apartments.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania2700 North Broad Street; built 1914, assembly relocated to new Chester plant and building sold 1925; currently vacant and for sale.

Pittsburgh, PennsylvaniaBaum Boulevard and Morewood Avenue; built 1915, assembly ended 1932, sold 1953; added to National Register of Historic Places in 2018, currently under redevelopment into a medical center.

Portland, Oregon – (Contemporary sources give 481 East 11th Street as the address, though no such street exists in Portland.)

San Francisco, California2905 21st Street; appears to have been demolished.

Seattle, WashingtonValley Street and Fairview Avenue; built 1912 or 1913; redeveloped circa 1998 into storage.

St. Louis, Missouri4100 Forest Park Avenue; built 1914, expanded 1916, assembly ended and building transferred to federal government 1942; added to National Register of Historic Places in 2001, redeveloped circa 2006 into mixed-use.

St. Paul, Minnesota117 University Avenue West; built 1913 to 1914, assembly ended and building sold by 1920, assembly transferred to Mississippi River plant 1925; state of Minnesota purchased in 1952 and has since renovated as the Ford Office Building.

Of note, while Albert Kahn seems to have erroneously been credited with the design of some of the above (including Buffalo, Omaha, and St. Louis), he did indeed design some Model T-era factories for Ford (such as Chicago’s Torrance Avenue, the Jacksonville, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana factories), though those came later, in the early 1920s. If you have any additions or corrections to the list, let us know and we’ll edit where appropriate.