Fisher Body Plant 21
Detroit, MI

Fresh truck tracks crossed the sidewalk, a generation-old slab of concrete obscured by broken 40s and nondescript plywood scraps, recalling the city’s last effort to seal up the auto plant.

Note the rails in the floor that guided cars to the coating line, the side of which is lined with the windows in the center of the image.
Note the rails in the floor that guided cars to the coating line, the side of which is lined with the windows in the center of the image.

See, these things all come down to effort; if scrappers wants to get into this abandoned auto plant on the outskirts of downtown Detroit more than public servants want to keep them out… just follow those truck tracks to find out who wins. They go over the sidewalk, up a makeshift ramp built from a former barricade, and into the dark of the first floor.

Dry dirt covers the concrete foundation and every step kicks up brown clouds. By the time we find our way to the staircase the bottoms of our jeans are brown and the beams from our flashlights look as solid and bright as fluorescent tubes.

Getting Off The Ground

Years of scrappers using the two staircases to move out every bit of metal from the buildings have rounded the edges of the steps. Moving through the shadowy, boxy space is not dangerous, as these things go, but it requires attention, as even the railings have been sawed, pounded, and torched out place for their by-the-pound value. I don’t mind, honestly; better to have scrap steel feeding families than rusting away in the darkness.

More than 50% of the windows are still in place, which will probably be surprising to my readers for two reasons. Half of you will ask, “Only that many? Why so few?” and the other half will say, “Wow, in that condition to have so much intact glass is remarkable.” Why? Because bored teenagers usually break glass out of buildings, not so much scrappers.

Call it professionalism.

In either case, the effect of the spray paint on the panoramic swaths of heavy industrial panes is pleasing; the otherwise expansive emptiness of repeating mushroom pillars splashed with green here, blue there. The only other glass is in the occasional assembly line status light. Red for problem, green for good—the only indication of the history of this hollow, devoid—beautiful—factory.

The entry point for the painting shed on the top floor. Cars would have a few feet in between them before they entered. Separate sheds would prime and add color.
The entry point for the painting shed on the top floor. Cars would have a few feet in between them before they entered. Separate sheds would prime and add color.

The Auto Boom, Depression, and World War II

This factory represents a sort of milestone in the evolution of the company it served, Fisher Body. When it was built in 1919 at the edge of Detroit’s Polish neighborhood, General Motors had just purchased 60% of the controlling interest in Fisher. A decade before, the ‘The Fisher Closed Body Company”, received its first order from GM for 150 finished Cadillac bodies. Now it would use its relationship with GM along with the productive power of 25 plants to build thousands of GM bodies.

That was the situation when Plant 21 broke ground. It would be tooled to build more Cadillacs, but also some Buick models over the following decades, a high-tech operation in a cutting-edge building.

Unlike the dark, divided spaces that were the norm for auto plants at the time, the architect Albert Kahn incorporated load-bearing rebar pillars into each floor, so that the outer wall could be used for windows, rather than as superstructure. The result is a bright, wide-open workspace where an assembly line could wind like a snake inside the grid of heavy pillars. This design would become the international industrial standard.

1926 saw the purchase of all remaining stock in the company by GM, and with it a guarantee of two things: that as long as General Motors did well, so would Fisher, and that if things got uncertain in the US car market, Fisher would likely fall. That darkness you see on the horizon? Foreshadowing.

1920s, Fisher 21 in center, (Wayne State)
1920s, Fisher 21 in center, (Wayne State)

This is not to say that Fisher 21 did not differentiate—that’s not exactly true. During the Great Depression, when the economy was diving, the factory served as a homeless shelter, and it was packed. Then, when World War II sucked the country into Asian and European battles, the assembly line was retooled to produce parts for military plans, the P-80 Shooting Star, F4-U Marine Corsair, and the B-25 Mitchell.

That last plane, a famously effective bomber, was the model that carried my grandfather over the Philippines.

#67, one of the only lockers that is not crunched to the point it refuses to open. In the corner of the small office area.
#67, one of the only lockers that is not crunched to the point it refuses to open. In the corner of the small office area.

Through the Last Retool

After the war the plant was a sort of odd-and-ends kind of facility, turning out limos and ambulances between the 1950s and 80s. The reason that there were not Cadillacs or Buicks or other passenger cars rolling out of Fisher 21 had more to do with the new machinery introduced in the 70s. They needed room and reinforcement, more than the 1919 factory floors could handle.

In November 1982, this was the primary reason Fisher cited for their closing the plant.

Obviously, there were other factors as well, such as foreign competition and rising gas prices. Fisher’s success or failure was wholly tied to GM, a company struggling through a recession by cutting union packages (see: Flint, Mich. plant strikes). Its new production line was going to be largely automated, the carmaker decided.

One of the only extant assembly line tracks in the body painting department. No photographer leaves Fisher 21 without capturing some version of this spot; hope you like mine.
One of the only extant assembly line tracks in the body painting department. No photographer leaves Fisher 21 without capturing some version of this spot; hope you like mine.

The building did not rot when Fisher moved out, however; when they left paint manufacturers moved in. Fisher 21 was used thus until 1993 when the last tenants moved out. Most similar plants and warehouses in the area were already abandoned by that time—Ford down the street in one direction, Studebaker in another.

Today, Ford is a museum and Studebaker is an empty lot with traces of its ashes. Fisher is somewhere in between, and, knowing Detroit, it will be there for some time.

References »

  • (1921). The Commercial and Financial Chronicle, 112, 177. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=unEdAQAAMAAJ
  • Bakhause, J. G., ed. (2005). The elgar companion to law and economics. (p.150). Edward Elgar Publishing. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=EtguKoWHUHYC
  • Cleaver, S. (2008, Aug 13). Body and soul, the story of fisher 21. Metro Times. Retrieved from http://www2.metrotimes.com/culture/story.asp?id=13124
  • Martelle, S. (2012). Detroit: A biography. (p.100). Chicago: Chicago Review Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=aGCTBkJcEAoC
  • Sloan, A. (1990). My years with general motors. (p. 161). New York: Random House. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=3Z_pR4v4VMMC