Shootout at the Ford Factory
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I had the unique opportunity Saturday to visit the old Ford factory down at the Talleyrand shipyards in Jacksonville. Many people will know this structure as the large, rectangular warehouse below the north side of the Matthews Bridge.
A tour sponsored by DOCOMOMO/US (an organization dedicated to advocacy, registry, documentation and conservation of modern architectural sites) and the building’s owners was held Saturday morning. A fairly good-sized crowd showed up to get a peek inside of this historic structure. I took my camera and tripod along.
DOCOMOMO/US provided a very informative and interesting brochure on the history of the building.
The building was originally built in 1923 as a Ford assembly plant. Ford purchased 10 acres of the former Bentley Shipyards and spent roughly $2 million on construction and creation of the plant. The architect was Albert Kahn whose approach to designing factories was close in line to Henry Ford’s idea of optimal efficiency. Kahn is perhaps the most well-known industrialist architect in history. Though he dismissed the idea of Modernism in his own work, he was a big inspiration in the Bahaus Movement which emerged later in Europe. Many artists were also inspired by his factories which show up in paintings by Charles Sheeler, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and more. Kahn is also sometimes referred to as The Architect of Detroit – his first factory was for the Packard Motor Car Company in 1907 which was what caught Henry Ford’s interest in the first place.
Kahn was born in Germany in 1869 and immigrated to Detroit at age 11. His father was a poor rabbi who struggled in various occupations to provide for his family. Kahn worked for an architectural firm as a teenager and later won a scholarship to study in Europe. It is said that later on he was considered as Frank Lloyd Wright’s replacement at Louis Sullivan’s design firm in Chicago. Kahn turned the offer down.
The brochure brings up an interesting point: Despite that it was widely known that Henry Ford was an anti-Semite, the two men got along very well. It claims Kahn did over 1,000 buildings for Henry Ford. I suspected this was a typo and may be the total number of structures he designed as he was quite prolific in Europe as well. If the 1,000 figure for Henry Ford, alone, is true, I am very impressed! During the Depression, Kahn did most of his work in the Soviet Union and Europe. When I read his Moscow firm designed 521 factories between 1930 and 1932, I realized 1,000 buildings for Henry Ford was probably not a typo. Yes, I am very impressed!
The Jacksonville plant operated until 1932 – a rather short run as a factory – and later served as a parts warehouse through 1968. According to the brochure,”The city of Jacksonville’s Landmark Designation report for the plant argues it is one of the most significant industrial buildings in Florida, fulfilling five of the city’s seven criteria for landmark designation.” It is hoped that someone will come along and create a project to convert the structure into a retail / hotel / cruise ship complex that can “open the door to further development north of the stadium along the St. Johns River, while preserving an important landmark, and restoring a part of Jacksonville’s sense of place.”
A fun piece of trivia is that I actually worked here in the early 70’s. Right out of high school and unlike most of my peers, I chose not to go off to college but to become independent young man. I got an apartment and I got this job at the shipyards working for an imported car company. After a year working there, I was told that if I stayed on a few more years and worked hard, I had a good shot at becoming manager of the wash rack. Later that very chilly evening as I was at my parents house for an extra blanket (my roommate & I could not afford to fill the fuel oil tank for heating our apartment) and a home-cooked meal, I woefully told my parents I thought it was maybe time to go to college. Not surprising, they whole-heartedly agreed.
The company I worked for imported Honda, Subaru, Mitzubishi, Datsun (Nissan), Fiat, and Peugeot automobiles with the occasionally stray Jaguar and Alfa Romeo or two. Many of you in Jacksonville will remember looking down from the bridge and seeing the rows upon rows of colorful cars. My job responsibilities included pulling specific automobiles from huge parking areas and also loading them onto tractor trailers and rail cars. The majority of my co-workers were labor pool workers contracted on a semi-temporary basis. Handy Man, was the company, I believe, and you could spot those particular workers by a strange little fashion statement: many of them wore these odd little billed caps with polka dots which looked like the kind of headgear only a cricket player would wear…Some were very good people; others had questionable backgrounds. Based on my relationships and experiences with them, I probably have enough material for a good novel…
The rail cars were on the north side of the old factory next to the bulkheads on the river. Driving cars up onto the train cars was a real thrill: It felt like you were driving straight up into the air as all you could see was clear blue sky; as soon as you hit the top and saw the river, you stepped on the brakes and came to an abrupt stop. On a frigid morning, the wind would whip up off the river and create a miserable experience while I dealt with the large, rusted chains we used to ratchet the wheel bases of the cars onto the train cars. It seemed I never had gloves when I needed them and my hands were rust-colored and cold. I longed for the 10:00 a.m. break when I could go across the street to warm up at the bar of the decrepit Talleyrand Hotel with a grilled cheese sandwich and a hot cup of coffee. My fellow customers were usually well into their third or fourth Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Though I jumped at any chance to work overtime, I thoroughly hated my job and I watched the clock as breaktime, lunchtime, and quitting time slowly approached.
The Peugeots were stored inside the old Ford factory. To weather the transatlantic crossing, they were sprayed with a protective coating which seemed to attract grit, dust and grime. I believe the factory’s windows were all intact at the time and, they too, were covered with grit, dust and grime which made for a dark, creepy warehouse. The Peugeots were infamous for their dead batteries and when it came to pulling specific automobiles from the warehouse, you could bet your money (possibly at the bar of the Talleyrand Hotel) the target car was always 20 or so deep. That meant you had to jump 21 cars. You may not have gloves but you never went without jumper cables.
The factory today is a lot brighter inside now that the glass panes no longer exist in the windows. The building, despite being in poor shape, is structurally sound. Probably the biggest concern would be the environmental cleanup. I made the mistake of wearing shorts and flip flops to the tour. I wonder how much questionable toxic material I came in contact with while I was there…
When I uploaded the images this morning, I was disappointed to note that I did not take any exterior shots of the building. This was probably because it was rather flat and uninteresting in the harsh mid-morning light; the interior shots were much more interesting. This only makes me want to return early one morning to shoot the exterior in good light.
An interesting piece of Jacksonville history that, up until Saturday, I only knew part of!