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Studebaker Buildings -

Detroit, MI




This is going from being detroitblog to being Lost Detroit History blog. From Scovel Memorial Church to the Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church to the Statler and Madison-Lenox hotels to the recently torched Studebaker plant, it’s becoming hard to keep up with what is being destroyed around town so far this year. I can only imagine what the second half of the year will bring, as Superbowl pressures reach a crescendo.

As reported extensively elsewhere, an entire city block containing the old Studebaker plant burned to the ground Monday night, taking several businesses with it. So, once again, a brief history of something lost:

The plant that eventually housed Studebaker was built in 1906. The building was originally home to the Wayne Automobile Company, which was founded in 1901 by Charles Palms, who named the company after General Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War hero whose name also graced the county.

In 1908, Byron Everitt, the company’s president, formed a partnership with Walter Flanders, a former Ford production manager and the Wayne auto company’s manager, and Bill Metzger, the founder of the first Detroit Auto Show, and organized the E-M-F automobile company, which took over the Wayne plant, and renamed it the E-M-F 30 Plant.

The Studebaker Automobile Co. entered into a partnership with E-M-F in July 1908, with Studebaker distributing the E-M-F vehicles through their dealers.

But the E-M-F cars had significant problems, and the acronym E-M-F came to be called, among other derisive titles, as “Every Morning Fix-it.” Studebaker took control of the E-M-F plant in 1910, and began putting the Studebaker name on the autos produced at that plant. By 1911, the company became the Studebaker Corporation.

The plant produced Studebaker autos until 1928. After that it went through a number of uses, including as the U.S. Army’s 182nd field artillery armory and as a parts plant for Chrysler until the 1960s as its John R plant. For a time, the Detroit Public Library’s Automotive Collection was housed there. The western part of the complex was left to rot after that, while the eastern half was used by meat producers, furniture stores, storage facilities and other assorted businesses.

I had put off exploring the Studebaker plant because it seemed it would be there forever, and there really wasn’t much of historical value left to see. Luckily I went with some other explorers a mere two months ago, just in time, it turns out.

The Studebaker plant consisted of two halves – one occupied by functioning businesses, the other abandoned. This resulted in the striking effect of having a single structure with a dividing line down the middle, separating decay from preservation.

The roof of the abandoned portion of the building had collapsed long ago and sent the contents of the upper floors plunging downward through the wood-beam floors, even to the first floor in some spots. While exploring I climbed no higher than the third floor in one spot, but since the building looked like a strong gust of wind could send more debris through the floors, I went no further.

The building served mostly as a canvas for graffiti and as a hiding place for junkies nodding out in the middle of the day. Out in the courtyard a hobo wandered around, urinating, scratching himself, wandering dazed in the spring sunshine. The usual hobo activities.

After the overnight fire, I had to wait until after work to head over there. It was an utterly surreal scene. A rain shower had just finished, and though it temporarily dampened the smoldering ruins, smoke began billowing upwards and outwards as soon as the rain would stop, filling the neighborhood with a pungent, burning odor. The streets surrounding the old plant were tainted russet because of the pulverized brick powder settling to the ground in a drizzle from the firehose water. The steel beams of the building were bent and twisted in U-shapes, and mixed in with thousands of loose, red bricks.

I started talking to some firefighters, and one of them, seeing my camera, said it was OK to go “to the other side,” meaning the other side of the fire truck on the street, but I took that to mean “go ahead, you can have full access to the entire structure.” Why, yessir! I don’t argue with my interpretations of the words of first responders! So despite being ridiculously underdressed, I headed past the piles of bricks, past the firemen, into the courtyard.

Before the fire, the abandoned portion of the old auto plant was so crumbled and decayed that there isn’t much contrast between the pre-fire photos and the post-destruction shots, except for the blackness of the charred wood. The first three photos in this post are before the fire, the rest are after. Hard to differentiate in some cases.

The courtyard atmosphere had a quality that can best be described, without being overwrought and college poet, as apocalyptic. Standing in the center I was surrounded by smoking ruins and pretty much total silence except for the sound of water from the fire hoses. A passing rain shower and the impending sunset made the sky various gloomy shades of red and purple, with the rising smoke adding a grey veil.

Charred embers smoked on the open concrete of the courtyard, and various large pieces of metal, ejected from the building by the intense fire, were lodged in trees, still steaming. I had never been inside a freshly burned building, let alone in the center of a destroyed city block, and it was bizarre.

Eerily enough, the many small trees that managed to grow over the years in the cracks in the concrete still stood, slightly singed but still mostly green despite being surrounded by an inferno just hours before. Small plants remained upright.

I stepped inside the only building in the complex that still had a roof attached, and took a couple of quick photos, but the whole building creaked loudly like it was on the verge of collapse, so I gingerly crept out of it and away from the scene, and made my way off that block, back to more breathable air.

While other cities take great pains to preserve their history, especially something as significant as a piece of the birthplace of a worldwide industry, in Detroit history is left to rot, or be taken out quickly and cheaply by arson.

For the most part, buildings are saved not by the city, but only when private citizens do it themselves, as with the Ford Piquette Plant next to the Studebaker, another remnant that almost caught fire Monday night, but which was likely saved by the efforts of a handful of people, its caretakers, who don’t even live in the city but had to drive in to save it. How sad.



From this

To This....

About 2 miles north of downtown Detroit is an area that some call the "Cradle of the Automobile". In three blocks you could find a former Studebaker factory, Fisher Body and the birth place of Ford's Model T, the Ford Piquette Avenue building.

This is the Studebaker factory or what remains of it. About 10 p.m. on June 20 a fire broke out that spread across all floors of the massive block size 500 x 200 foot (150 x 60 meter) building. It quickly became a 5 Alarm fire that could be seen for miles in the night sky. Approximately 150 firefighters using 20 engines and 8 aerial units to were called to fight the blaze. By 1:15 the the fire was under control but the building was a complete loss as its wood frame fueled the flames sending its beautiful brick facade crashing into the street. But two days later the ruble was still smoking as fire trucks remained watering down the debris. But because of the excellent skills of the Detroit Fire Department they were able to save the buildings across the street, including Ford's Model T facility.

The building had been mostly abandoned for years. Built 100 years ago it saw many uses, first by the Wayne and EMF automobile companies, then Studebaker. It served as the Piquette Armory and then as a warehouse for some time before it was abandoned. Parts of it were still used for storage and part of the eastern end was used as the Piquette Meat Market.

Here someone who looks like a chief monitors the situation. The fire department did a remarkable job containing the blaze which, when seen from the air, was a wild and raging inferno with flames spitting into the night sky. Luckily only two of these brave men and women were treated for very minor injuries and there was no one in the building at the time of the blaze.


The long abandoned former Studebaker plant dominated this vista at the corner of John R and Piquette with its terra cotta brick facade. A wood frame building, for the most part, the roof had rotted through and collapsed at several points. Nonetheless efforts were being made to convert it into residential lofts and at the far end a thriving market and furniture store operated. After the fire, below, little remained. This image is from April 2005.

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