Ruin porn. That’s what folks in the Detroit area call the photos you can see of the Michigan Central Station and other abandoned and decayed properties in Detroit. Whenever Detroit is in the news, like the recent census results that show the city’s population loss, jourrnalists, photographers and tv producers flock to the old train station or the Packard Plant that’s been closed for more than half a century. It’s become a predictable cliche.
There’s a remnant of the Packard Motor Company in the Detroit area, though, that’s under much better care than the sprawling and decaying old plant on East Grand Blvd, the Packard Proving Grounds. Like the plant, the proving grounds were designed by master architect Albert Kahn. Unlike the factory, the proving grounds are being conserved and restored.
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North of Detroit, in Shelby Twp. a few miles north of GM’s Tech Center, between 22 and 23 Mile roads east of Van Dyke, and west of Mound sits the Packard Proving Grounds. Now owned by the Packard Motor Car Foundation, all of the original buildings that Albert Kahn designed in 1926 remain, as do the water tower with the Packard logo, an airplane hanger said to have been used by Charles Lindbergh, the timing shed, 458 feet of the original 2.5 mile high speed oval, and some of that track’s original safety barrier. It was Kahn’s design for the now abandoned Packard Plant that would forever change the design of factories. Kahn’s Large, open spaces, and skylights to let in sunshine were a far cry from the dark and dank factories of the 19th century. At the proving grounds he was working on a smaller scale, but his talent is just as obvious.
After Packard ceased production in the late 1950s, Ford Motor Company acquired the site. Originally slated for destruction and redevelopment, in 2000 Ford’s real estate unit reached an agreement with the foundation to preserve the Packard structures. Restoration work has begun, including roof repairs to stabilize the buildings according the National Historic Site standards. The twin driveways leading past the lodge and garages out to the timing shed have been replanted with rows of elm trees as originally stood in the late 1920s. The Packard Motor Car Foundation makes the facility available for events and an open house is scheduled for April.
According to information on the site’s historical plaque,
The Packard Motor Car Company began building a proving ground on this site in 1926. Packard, like its competitors, had previously tested cars on city streets. Architect Albert Kahn designed the principal buildings. By 1929 the complex included the Gate Lodge, warehouses, laboratories, a high-speed test track, and twelve miles of roads simulating the worst conditions of the day. During World War II (1941-1945) Packard built aircraft and marine engines while leasing the grounds to Chrysler for tank testing.
With an aerial or satellite view you can still see the path of the original test track, and to the southwest, there are remnants of Packard’s fabled unpaved torture track.
The buildings are still in good condition and the Packard Motor Car Foundation takes their trust in the property’s well being very seriously. This site is truly one of a kind. To begin with all the buildings are in original condition, or restored like the 1920s era timing shed, perhaps the only one its kind remaining from the early days of the auto industry. In terms of architectural history, it’s probably the only site where Kahn designed both residential and industrial buildings. If you’re visiting the Detroit area, if you want to see some Packard or automotive history, you’re better off seeing the Proving Grounds rather than their abandoned assembly plant.
The Packard Motor Car Foundation is having their annual open house at the Packard Proving Grounds on May 1, 2011, from 1 to 5 PM. It’s an important event on the calender for Packard enthusiasts so you can be sure that there will be plenty of examples of what was for decades America’s finest motor car.
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