MINNEAPOLIS HAS a bad history with the wrecking ball, but a funky old former Model T factory has managed to hang on for nearly a century in the city’s North Loop.
It’s a quirky old character, this red-brick fortress known as Ford Center—at once sensible and eccentric and shabby-chic in the extreme … sporting a battered water tower on its head and looking out at the city through a thousand wavery panes of glass.
Completed in 1914, just after the start of the First World War. And here it is in 2010, perched so close to the Minnesota Twins’ brand-new Target Field it might as well be a locker room.
Mostly an artists’ hub for two decades, the 10-story red-brick building at 420 North 5th Street (historic address was 412–428 5th Street North, per the City of Minneapolis) was built specifically to make cars for the Ford Motor Company. Since 1989, Ford Center (originally known as Ford Centre) has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District—which is almost certainly why it’s still standing after waves of warehouse-district loft projects, the arrival of the big North Loop light-rail station, and the construction of Target Field.
As a piece of the city’s heritage, it’s hard to do better than Ford Centre. It was the very first assembly plant Ford built in the Twin Cities, constructed just 10 years after Henry Ford got things rolling in Detroit. (In anticipation of the project, the company did lease temporary digs a few blocks away, waiting out construction from 1912–14 on the first four floors of Minneapolis’s’ Great Northern Implement Building, 616 South Third Street. It had about 100 employees, who assembled 7 to 10 Model Ts each day by hand.)
About the Ford Center Building
(Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t groove on architectural details … and if the future of the Ford Centre is what most interests you, zip to page 2)
The Ford Centre (later Ford Center), 268,000 square feet in all, is a utilitarian-classical structure with “curtain walls,” best described as a solid concrete rectangle finished in red pressed brick (minimally trimmed with cream terra cotta).
It also includes roughly 300 huge multi-paned industrial steel windows in true divided-light style, 20 or 40 individual panes fitted into each window, a couple of them with ventilating handles. (The offices and showroom originally had plate glass, according to Minneapolis Tribune reports at the time of construction.)
Minneapolis architects Frederick Kees and Serenus Colburn designed the Ford Centre (with Splady, Albee, & Smith as general contractors).
Other notable Kees and Colburn projects in Minneapolis include the Grain Exchange Building (1902, 400 S. 4th St., main building of what was originally the Chamber of Commerce Building), Northern Implement Building (aka Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. Building), Thresher Square (aka Advance Thresher Co. Building and Emerson-Newton Plow Co.), the Pantages Theatre, and Loring Theatre (now the Music Box Theatre).
In St. Paul, Kees and Colburn designed the Rossmor Building (originally built as a shoe factory for the delightfully named Foot, Schulze and Co.) and the splendid Lowry Building.
Kees and Colburn also designed an assembly building for the Ford Company at 117 University Avenue in St. Paul–a predecessor to the large St. Paul assembly plant in Highland Park (more on that in a minute). In an earlier collaboration with Franklin B. Long, Kees also designed some of Minneapolis’s most exalted archi-treasures, including Minneapolis City Hall, Flour Exchange, Lumber Exchange Building, Wyman Building, and the first Minneapolis Public Library (a much mourned “lost treasure,” 1889–1961).
The Ford Motor Company spent $50,000 to acquire the land and another $300,000 ($400,000, a City of Minneapolis report says … $700,000, another report says—take your pick) for the building. Overseen by the Ford Motor Company’s supervising architect, John Grahm, the Minneapolis Ford assembly plant was one of the largest auto plants in the country when it was constructed.
The Ford building has a “flat-slab” structure typical of many warehouse and industrial buildings of the era. The floors are reinforced-cement slabs supported by many 28-inch-diameter columns of structural steel encased in concrete.
Lest there be any worry about sturdiness, the Trib duly recounted that the Minneapolis Ford plant used 108,000 sacks of cement, 2,200,000 pounds of structural steel, and 1,422,530 pounds of reinforcing steel—plus “2,000 50-foot Norway pine piles in the foundation.”
Original features included 26 motors to drive machinery, a massive forced-circulation hot-water system, a 100,000-gallon water tank in case of fire, four freight elevators and one for passengers, and a high-speed dumbwaiter “to facilitate handling of parts,” as the Minneapolis Tribune put it. Railroad tracks ran under one end of the building to bring supplies in and ship completed coupes out. Completed coupes also were wheeled directly into an on-site showroom.
The Minneapolis Ford plant opened at the end of November 1914 and operated until just 1925. At its peak, it employed about 600 workers working eight-hour shifts (a now-standard labor practice pioneered by Ford Motor Company) and turned out 287 cars a day, according to contemporaneous news accounts in the Minneapolis Tribune (100 cars a day is the upper figure trotted out in many articles, but it’s unclear why. The plant had a maximum capacity of 300 cars a day; news accounts suggest it generally operated at something less than that, but the “up to 100” reference seems incorrect).
Most of its workers were what the company called “common laborers,” who earned the company minimum wage of $6 a day.
In its first seven years, the Trib reported, 254,111 automobiles were produced at the Minneapolis Ford assembly plant. By closing day in 1925, the total had risen to around 600,000.
Henry Ford’s innovative horizontal assembly line is legendary, but this was a “vertical assembly plant”: Manufacture started on the top floor, with cars moved down a floor at a time via elevator until the completed Model Ts were driven out large doors on the east side of the building (or directly into a ground-floor auto showroom).
The sales prices, by the way, weren’t bad: A Model T Coupelet (as Ford called it), was priced at $750 in 1915. That’s roughly $16,000 in today’s dollars. A Town Car was $690; a Touring Car, $490; and a Runabout (roadster), $440 (about $9,400 today).
A little booklet published by Ford in 1912 offers an overview of operations in the company’s landmark production park in Highland Park, MI. It was perhaps 10 times the size of the Minneapolis Ford plant, but it gives a sense of what automobile assembly was like at the time. This “1912 Ford Factory Facts Booklet,” kindly made available by the Model T Ford Club, includes some great photos and makes fun reading.
The End of the Minneapolis Ford Plant: In 1923, after a protracted squabble with Minneapolis over alley rights near the Fifth Street facility, the Ford company announced that it would shift its operations to St. Paul. It acquired land along the Mississippi River, with lots of room to expand and convenient access to nearby silica deposits good for making windshields.
Best of all, the new site was poised next to a new U.S. government dam—and Ford successfully snagged the license for its hydroelectric rights, outmaneuvering the mayors of both cities. In 1925, the St. Paul Ford factory opened—and the Minneapolis assembling plant was no more.
By the time the Ford Motor Company signaled its intent to leave Minneapolis, an infuriated Minneapolis Mayor George Leach had had it. He denounced Henry Ford at length in a public hearing as a greedy capitalist who had made his fortune off the exhausting toils of others:
“I am here to tell you that one thing Henry Ford knows, and the only thing he knows, is how to tie up a man to a machine so that he can get twice as much out of both of them than any other man in the world.” (Minneapolis Tribune, December 23, 1922).
The St. Paul plant, in the Highland Park neighborhood, remained in operation through the end of 2011, producing Ford Ranger and Mazda B pickups. When Ford closed the sprawling St. Paul facility, it was the country’s oldest Ford plant still operating. Its shutdown ended nearly a century of Ford auto manufacture in the Twin Cities.
Future of the Ford: Continue reading on next page»