Five years ago, the future for the sales and service building at the former Ford Highland Park assembly plant — where the company first implemented its automotive assembly line — seemed bright, with plans for preservation and even an auto museum. With the building now going up for sale, however, the building’s future is once again in doubt.
As Detroit’s dbusiness reported earlier this week, the Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3) has hired Plante Moran REIA to market the four-story 54,000-square-foot building adjacent to the assembly plant along Woodward Avenue.
Originally built in 1921 according to an Albert Kahn design, the sales and service building — often mistakenly referred to as the assembly plant’s administration building — sat adjacent to the 100-acre Highland Park plant that Ford built in 1910 after Model T production exceeded the capacity of the company’s Piquette Avenue plant. Three years later, not long after the company built as many as 30 assembly plants across North America, Peter E. Martin and others adapted the assembly line model to produce automobiles at the Highland Park plant leading to Henry Ford’s famous $5-a-day offer.
Though Model T production eventually moved to River Rouge, the Highland Park plant continued to build tractors for decades afterward. In 1973, it made its way onto the National Register of Historic Places, followed by National Historic Landmark status in 1978.
The WA3 — a group of business associations, local governments, and preservationists tasked with the revitalization of the entire 27-mile-long Woodward corridor — had hoped to reverse that deterioration when it stepped in and bought the building in 2014 for $550,000 from National Equity Corporation. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, the purchase was largely funded by a $400,000 Michigan Department of Transportation grant, a $100,000 investment from the Highland Park Tax Increment Financing Authority, and $42,000 from a crowdfunding campaign.
Along with restoring and preserving the building’s architectural elements, the group’s initial plans, estimated to cost $7.5 million, called for converting the ground floor into an automotive heritage welcome center and refitting its upper floors into office space. Longer-term plans called for a test track, wind tunnel exhibit, automotive museum, and permanent home for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America as well as world heritage designation.
While the WA3 listed the Highland Park building as a priority in February 2016 when the group announced a new president and the departure of its executive director, by October of that year WA3 officials had scrapped their plans for the automotive heritage welcome center, citing a lack of interest in the project from potential funding sources.
“Funding is something that is crucial to any project, and there are currently other cultural attractions that celebrate Detroit’s rich auto history,” WA3 spokesperson Karen Mejia told Crain’s. “WA3 will have offices there, and there will be some kind of educational component, but the entire building will not be an interactive, historical automotive museum.”
Even those scaled-back plans seem to have fallen through, judging from the building’s listing, though the WA3 seems not to have forgotten its former plans: In the marketing brochure for the building, Plante Moran suggests office space and a museum among the potential uses for the building.
The WA3’s main line has been disconnected and calls to WA3 directors for this story were not returned. No asking price for the building was listed.