Significance of the Hamtramck Plant
Dodge Main is a monumental example of a fully integrated automobile manufacturing and assembly plant constructed in Detroit in the 1910s, the decade of greatest growth in the automobile industry. Along with the contemporaneous Highland Park plant of Henry Ford, Dodge Main exemplifies the industrial architecture and plant engineering of the early twentieth century. Other automobile factories like the Packard complex are slightly older than Dodge Main and Ford's Highland Park plant is certainly better known, but neither produced automobiles as long as Dodge Main, with its seventy years of operation. Once Ford completed the River Rouge complex In the 1920s, it dwarfed the Dodge plant, but the latter was larger than Highland Park facility. Compared to the other automobile plants built in Detroit, Dodge Main was easily the largest, with a total of 5.1 million square feet of floorspace and a "normal" workforce of about 35,000.
The plant embodied the advantages of economic integration, where all the manufacturing and assembly operations are concentrated at one site. Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers recognized the value of integration, so both expanded their operations after their split of 1914. Because they fabricated and manufactured almost all of the parts needed for their automobile, the Dodge brothers controlled the cost and quality of components, along with assuring themselves a reliable supply. Integration enabled the plant to be largely independent of other firms, although they never achieved the extreme degree of integration that Ford reached at his River Rouge plant, where he made his own iron, steel, glass, and tires, Walter Chrysler admitted that the major motives for acquiring Dodge were to free his company from outside suppliers and to reduce costs. The plant layout was greatly influenced by the inclusion of many basic processes there. All of the casting, forging, and heat treating operations were placed in single-story buildings which permitted adequate ventilation, and in the remaining buildings, the operations, which utilized the heaviest machinery were located on the first floor level. In the multi-story reinforced concrete buildings in the rest of the plant, the first (ground) floor was used for receiving and stockpiling of raw materials and parts produced elsewhere in the complex. Sufficient space was left open so that five rail spurs could traverse the complex and reach every building. Even before the Dodge brothers died in 1920, some of the forgings and castings were produced at the nearby Lynch Road-Huber Avenue plant and shipped to Dodge Main by rail and truck.
The multi-story reinforced concrete factory building was fully developed on a large scale at Dodge Main, Albert Kahn designed the first buildings, but Smith, Hinchman & Grylls did most of the rest of the plant, showing that even in Detroit, Kahn did not have a monopoly on this design. Almost three-quarters of the total floorspace is found in the ten major reinforced concrete buildings of four, six, and eight stories. Given the economic conditions of the early twentieth century, this design had enormous advantages for automakers when compared to the alternatives. In order to attract cheap labor, manufacturers had to build their plants in or near large cities, and relatively expensive urban real estate in turn encouraged the land-saving multi-story design.
The standard mill building which preceded reinforced concrete utilized brick bearing walls and timber or cast iron columns to support wooden floors. After Kahn's success with concrete at the Packard plant in 1905, and certainly by 1910, concrete became the preferred design for automobile plants. Reinforced concrete buildings were not only cheaper and stronger than standard mill buildings, but were also far more resistent to vibration, fire, water, and vermin. They could be built faster and when completed, enjoyed lower insurance rates. The major disadvantage of the multi-story design, the use of considerable energy to move materials and parts vertically, was a minor problem when energy prices were low and was easily offset by the advantages. With a few notable exceptions, most automobile plants constructed between 1905 and 1925 consisted mainly of multi-story reinforced concrete buildings.
The physical layout of the major structures at Dodge Main facilitated considerable change during the past seventy years. Processes could be re-located with relative ease because nine major buildings were interconnected, creating large spaces for arranging machinery and other equipment. The Warehouse Building, Main Buildings Nos. 1-4, the two assembly buildings, the Pressed Steel Building, and the Body Building were interconnected on the second, third, and fourth floors, and Assembly Building No. 2 was linked to the Pressed Steel Building on the fifth and sixth floors. The final assembly line has not moved from the second floor of Assembly Building No. 1 since 1914, but it is the exception. As production processes and the automobile itself changed over the years, the operations performed on each floor, along with the required equipment, have changed many times. Much of the machinery and equipment in place in 1980 dates from the 1950s and 1960s.