Twin Cities Ford Assembly Plant, Saint Paul, Minnesota
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Twin Cities Ford Assembly Plant
|Neighborhood/s:||Highland Park, Saint Paul, Minnesota|
|Saint Paul, Minnesota|
|Ramsey County, Minnesota|
|State/province:|| Minnesota |
|Founded by:||Ford Motor Company|
|Historic Function:||Industrial site|
|Current Function:||Industrial site|
The Twin Cities Ford Plant has played an important role in the history of the Twin Cities and the Ford Motor Company for almost a century. The Ford Plant was built in 1925 in the Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul. It is located just above the Mississippi River near Lock and Dam No. 1 and encompasses more than 2 million square feet. The Twin Cities Assembly Plant routinely had a higher than average productivity for the Ford Motor Company. Over 7 million vehicles and 45 different kinds of vehicles were produced at this site during its history. The Ford Plant has been slated to close in 2011 but there are various plans for the re-use of this historic site.
Memories and stories
In 1912, the Ford Motor Car Company began automobile production in a warehouse in downtown Minneapolis.(1) As the technology used to manufacture vehicles improved, productivity increased and necessitated a move to a 10-story structure, also in Minneapolis, where Ford’s ubiquitous Model T was produced.(2) During this same time period, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), were determining how best to capture energy from the Mississippi River. Due to the inter-city boundary, which runs through the middle of the Mississippi, both cities claimed ownership rights to the dam (known as the High Dam) and the water power it created. St. Paul officials approached Henry Ford and encouraged him to build a Northwestern branch factory near the river.
Following some political wrangling, engineering and construction, the High Dam was completed in 1917 and construction began on the Ford Motor Plant in 1923. Construction of the hydroelectric plant was completed by 1924, at an estimated cost of about $1 million.(3) “By May 4, 1925, Model T cars and Model TT trucks were rolling off Ford’s assembly line.”(4) Since 1925 more than 7 million vehicles have rolled off the assembly line of TCAP in St. Paul; beginning with Model Ts, and progressing through numerous other models before converting to pickup trucks in the 1970s. While the plant did shutdown during part of the Great Depression, it was revived during World War II, producing materiel for the war effort. Serviced by both the Mississippi River as well as a dedicated rail line, the TCAP was never at a loss for raw material. Furthermore, the ready availability of pure silica sand from underneath the plant allowed Ford to manufacture its own glass, cutting down on purchasing requirements. Finally, the presence of the Mississippi River and its ceaseless hydropower allowed the facility to operate with the need for municipal electricity; in fact, the turbines used on the eastern shore of the Mississippi provided enough power for Ford to sell a significant amount of it back to the city, powering local homes and businesses.
With more than 2 million square feet of space, the current facility now produces Ford’s Ranger pickup, as well as the Mazda B-Series.
The initial power produced by the hydroelectric plant on the Mississippi River proved to be too little for Ford’s needs, and in the late 1920s a new facility was constructed on the same site, producing 318,000 kW in 1938, of which only five percent was used by the plant. The remainder was sold for commercial distribution. More recent technological changes have allowed the plant to produce “a maximum of 18 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 14,400 homes for a year. The power [currently generated] by the facility is sold into the Midwestern wholesale electricity market.”(5)
Besides the hydropower available to Ford at the TCAP site, there was an additional benefit to locating a new facility there: the bluff on which the plant sits is primarily sandstone, which allowed Ford to mine silica, which was a key component in the manufacture of glass for windshields and headlights.
The architect Albert Kahn, working with the Boston firm of Stone & Webster, was most likely the primary architect for the Twin Cities Assembly Plant. An industrial architect who had already designed several buildings for the Ford company, he based much of the TCAP’s design on the Ford Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan, which he had also designed. “By 1938, Kahn’s firm was responsible for 19 percent of all architect-designed industrial buildings in the country.”(6) Buildings of his design can be found on five continents, and his “. . . industrial buildings were increasingly viewed as important architectural milestones.”(7)
With its strikingly classical facade, the Twin Cities Assembly Plant was originally designed to face the street; however, when Henry Ford saw the design drawings, he reportedly asked for the orientation of the building to be rotated 90 degrees, to allow for a sweeping view of the Mississippi River. The original facade of the plant had very large windows that looked directly in upon the assembly line, allowing tourists and other visitors to view the automobiles in their various forms of completion. However, a 1968 expansion of the plant destroyed much of this facade, leaving solid walls where once there was glass.
Present & Future
In more recent years, the Ford Training Center was constructed on the plant’s campus. Designed by local firm TKDA of St. Paul, the Training Center is a 40,000 square foot facility which included an auditorium, robotics and engineering labs, and “. . . is the result of a public-private partnership designed to provide ‘hands on’ learning opportunities for Ford employees and students of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).”(8) Since the Training Center was opened in the late 1990s, however, Ford has suffered from the economic slowdowns of the past decade. There were numerous rumors of the plant closing by 2007, but talks between local politicians and Ford management managed to push that deadline to 2008, then 2009, and then further to 2011. Since those talks, however, the plant has gone through periods of idling, with no work being done and workers being laid off.
There have been numerous ideas put forth about potential uses for the site once Ford leaves, including mixed-use developments, condominiums, a large public park, and additional industrial uses. At the moment, the fate of the Twin Cities Assembly Plant is unclear; however, the history embodied by the site is plainly evident.
If the Twin Cities Assembly Plant is considered under UNESCO’s World Heritage Criteria, it may be found to have significance under criteria i, ii and iii. Criterion i states,"to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius." Kahn was a prolific architect and led the design of many industrial sites throughout the United States and the world. His work helped to shape early modern architecture. Criterion ii states, "to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design." The Twin Cities Assembly Plant was part of the early development of the automobile industry in the U.S., which led to a global transportation revolution. As a Ford Motor Company plant the Twin Cities site was linked to a global industry which not only changed transportation but also manufacturing methods--particularly the development of the assembly line. In addition, the Twin Cities Assembly plant is linked to the history of hydropower and the creation of Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Mississippi River. Lastly, criterion iii states, "to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared." The automobile industry, especially the Ford Motor Company, played a significant role in shaping society in the 20th century. In the 21st century, this industry is experiencing a great deal of change, including the closing of several plants. These automobile plants, like the Twin Cities Assembly Plant, played a significant role in shaping U.S. cities and need to be preserved to tell that history. In addition, the Twin Cities plant also offers an important link to the history of hydropower and the Mississippi River.
1 Ford Motor Company, “Ford Motor Company’s History in Twin Cities,” accessed online 25 October, 2010 <http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=8241>, 2010.
2 Patrick Kennedy, “A historical tour of Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, accessed online 26 October 2010, <http://www.startribune.com/business/11213671.html?elr=KArksUUUoDEy3LGDiO7aiU>, 2006.
3 City of St. Paul, MN, “Twin Cities Assembly Plant Hydroelectric Dam,” accessed online 24 October 2010, <http://www.stpaul.gov/index.aspx?NID=509>, 2010.
4 Kennedy, 2006.
5 City of St. Paul, 2010.
6 Brian McMahon, “Kahn in Minnesota,” Architecture Minnesota, July/August 1999, 31.
7 McMahon, 48
8 Ford, 2010.