The Kelvinator Corporation was an appliance manufacturer founded in Detroit in 1916 by Nathaniel Wales, an engineer. The company made refrigerators and other household appliances in a small factory located on West Fort Street and Vermont, in between a Proctor & Gamble plant and a biscuit warehouse. In 1919 a shortage of natural ice and unusually warm weather increased demand for refrigerators, and the plant was expanded. The company introduced the first fully self-contained refrigeration system in 1925, and opened new offices in Europe.
To accommodate the growing operations, Kelvinator built a new factory and headquarters on Plymouth Road on the northwest side of Detroit. Designed by Amedeo Leoni, the plant included an office complex in the front, a three-story factory, and a power plant in the rear. Above the main entrance was inscribed a quote from Lord Kelvin, namesake of the company – “I’ve thought of a better way.”
In January of 1937, Kelvinator merged with Nash Motors, an automaker, and became Nash-Kelvinator. The combined company was headquartered at the Plymouth Road factory. A 1940 addition doubled the size of the plant to 1.46 million square feet on 57 acres as the city geared up for wartime production.
During the Second World War, the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation was making helicopters for the Army. When they couldn't satisfy demand, Nash-Kelvinator was brought on as a contractor, and did final assembly work at the Plymouth Road plant. Due to design changes, production was delayed until 1944, but 262 helicopters were finished at the Detroit plant. A tiny airfield behind the plant used for testing was reportedly the smallest in the country.
By the 1950’s, many of the smaller automobile companies had either been forced out of business, or merged with larger ones. In 1954, Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motors merged, forming the American Motors Corporation, which retained its headquarters in Detroit. Most of the appliance manufacturing jobs were moved to other factories, and the Plymouth Road plant converted over into a research and design center for new cars.
Though AMC struggled initially with many product lines from the companies it had acquired, by 1960 the company was selling 486,000 cars a year, including the Rambler, Ambassador, and Metropolitan models. Later models included the AMX, Javelin, Hornet, and Gremlin. The Kelvinator appliance unit was sold of by AMC in 1968, but the company kept their headquarters on Plymouth until 1973, when they announced that they would be moving to a new building in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit.
The loss of AMC to the suburbs came on the heels of other automakers moving their operations out of the city. In response, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young decreed that the city would no longer buy AMC vehicles. The move was completed in 1975, and the Plymouth Road complex became AMC’s engineering headquarters until Chrysler bought out the company in 1987, mainly for it’s popular Jeep line of trucks and utility vehicles.
After the merger, the Plymouth Road Office Complex became the Jeep and Truck Engineering Center. Over 3,000 workers in offices spread out through the plant designed notable vehicles including the Dodge Ram pickup and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Part of the plant that was no longer in use was leased to Borman Food Stores in the 1990’s, which later became Farmer Jack. The offices were renovated several times over the years, and new facilities including a fitness center and cafeteria were built.
By 1996, the complex was nearly 70 years old, and despite its robust construction, was not especially well suited for office work. Chrysler was in the process of building a new research and design center in Auburn Hills, and announced that up to 3,200 employees would be transferred there in the coming years.
Chrysler went bankrupt in 2007 as the global economy slipped into recession. As part of the reorganization of its operations, many of its older facilities were liquidated. The Plymouth Road Office Complex was put up for sale in 2007, with an asking price of $10 million dollars. Only about 900 workers remained by 2009, with most having transferred to Auburn Hills.
In June of 2009, Chrysler announced that all operations at Plymouth Road were to be relocated to the Chrysler Technology Center. On Friday, June 5th, 2009, the remaining employees gathered for one last group picture in front of the building, swapping stories and sharing memories. After years of declining employment, the neighborhood around the plant had lost substantial population, reflected in the vacant homes just across the street.
The vacant plant sold in 2010 to a private company for $2.3 million dollars. It eventually ended up in the hands of Terry Williams, a businessman who announced he wanted to convert the former factory into a treatment center for kids with autism. Williams had an extensive criminal history, which included a conviction in 2004 for running an automotive chop shop.
Through 2013 most of the activity at the plant was demolition related. The buildings were extensively scrapped, with the entire metal-frame 1940 addition completely demolished for it's scrap value. Williams ended up back in prison on unrelated charges in July of 2013, by which point the complex had been gutted. It was seized by the courts in the summer, and has been abandoned since.