The former Detroit Dry Docks Engine Works complex is an oft-overlooked part of Detroit's pre-automotive industrial past.
It's easy to mistake the square building on Atwater Street overlooking the Detroit River as just another vacant brick and glass warehouse, one of hundreds spread throughout the city. In fact, the structure is the last surviving part of a much larger shipbuilding complex that played a major role in the development of the Great Lakes maritime trade.
The Dry Dock Engine Works began 1869 as a marine steam engine firm working out of a collection of buildings at the corner of Orleans and Atwater. The site as it appears today began to take shape in 1892, when the existing buildings were cleared to make way for a new machine shop and a boiler shop across the street on Dequinder. The complex grew throughout the late 1800's and early 1900's, eventually consisting of six buildings.
Many notable ships were either built or worked on at one of the Detroit Dry Docks three slips, including the Ste. Claire, the Columbian, the Greater Detroit, and the Greater Buffalo. A young machinist named Henry Ford worked there in the early 1880's.
By the 1920's, the marine engine industry had begun to change, and the Detroit Ship Building Company ceased business. The machine shop was used by a stove manufacturer, the Detroit Edison power company, and lastly by the Globe Trading Company in the 1950's. The foundry and several other buildings continued on as independent companies, until they were shuttered and demolished.
Today only the machine shop remains, which is actually made up of five separate structures built between 1892 and the 1919. But why have many of the vacant industrial buildings that once lined the riverbank have been demolished, while the Detroit Dry Dock has been spared a similar fate on several occasions?
Preservationists regard it as one of the earliest and best examples of the open-space industrial construction design that favored self-supporting steel skeleton, a method that would become common in buildings around the world. The innovative steam engines produced there and it's important role in the Great Lakes maritime trade are often overlooked. Furthermore, revived interest in the riverfront has made the building more attractive to investors, who see the potential in its rich industrial heritage, prime location on the Detroit Riverfront, and close proximity to the Dequinder Cut Greenway.
In 2006, plans were unveiled to invest $15M to convert the former Detroit Dry Dock building into condos and retail space. These plans failed to materialize however, after the economic troubles and the global recession hit the property market hard.
More promising are recent plans put forward by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to convert the building into a $34M adventure and discovery center, featuring rock climbing, a zip line, classrooms, and outdoor activities. Construction is tentatively scheduled to being in 2012.