Effort underway to restore historic Ford Model T plant in Highland Park, Michigan

Apr 30, 2014

One of the most significant sites in the history of Detroit – and the modern world – has also been one of the most sadly neglected.

Not only that, it isn’t even in Detroit.

Every day, thousands of commuters drive by an old red-brick building on Woodward Avenue in the little enclave city of Highland Park.

You need to know three things about Highland Park. It is a separate city embedded in northern Detroit. Economically, it is even worse off.

But it was the place where the twentieth century was created – in this old red brick building, and in the remnants of a giant factory behind it. A hundred years ago, this sturdy, Albert Kahn structure was the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company.

The Highland Park Ford Motor Company plant
The Highland Park Ford Motor Company plant.
Credit Andrew Jameson / Wikimedia Commons

Millions and millions of Model Ts, the most important car ever created, rolled off assembly lines here, before Ford moved to the Rouge. It was here where cars were made affordable for everyone, and where the world was put on wheels.

Other cities would long ago have preserved this as a visitor center, a museum and a shrine. But Detroit hasn’t.

You can tell this building used to be something grand, by the beautiful Pewabic tiles ringing its roof. But the plate-glass windows are regularly broken, and weeds and small trees mostly obscure a fading historical marker.

But now that is all about to change.

Last week, the non-profit Woodward Avenue Action Association announced it had bought the old administration building and the executive garage behind it. This was, in part, a case of some of today’s world’s newest technology coming to the aid of history.

Harriet Saperstein, chair of the Action Association, told me that a significant chunk of the money was raised by crowdsourcing on the Internet. More than 700 individual donors chipped in.

While most of the slightly more than half a million needed came from traditional grants, she feels that crowdsourcing gave a lot of people a sense of sharing in a momentous event.

Not only that, she told me, these contributions will help them make the case to people with real money, “the foundation, corporation and governmental sectors,” who they will need to secure the millions needed to turn this into something wonderful.

For they intend to build not just a museum of automotive history, although that will be part of it.

This is to be an Automobile Heritage and Welcome Center meant both to remind us of what is worth preserving about our past and help revitalize this area.

Harriet Saperstein isn’t even from Michigan; she came when her husband arrived to teach physics at Wayne State, but she has spent much of her adult life trying to help Highland Park.

She hopes this building is fully open to the public in five years, with everything from tours led by holograms of Henry Ford to an advanced industrial technology learning center.

Saperstein told me, “what makes this site fascinating to me is that the moving assembly line created the middle class. That’s under threat, and we need to remind people about the past to help them prepare for the future.”

All I can say is, go Harriet!