A Tale of Two Ford Factories
It’s a stark contrast between an open-air warehouse that has had every bit of glass removed, and a trendy business park. But these two places on the opposite side of the country are cut from the same cloth. Detroit is the motor city. It is also (unfortunately) littered with the relics that were once home to iconic cars and even entire brands. But for those of us who are outside of Motown, there are still ghosts hiding in plain sight. This is the story of two plants that started out the same but ventured off into two different fates. Henry Ford was famous for his love of efficiency. So it’s no surprise the once he realized that more car components could fit in a boxcar than fully assembled Model Ts, he set up regional factories. This includes the cities of Jacksonville, Florida, and Richmond, California. RELATED: See Photos of a 1913 Ford Model T Fire Truck
Both factories were designed by the famed industrial architect Albert Kahn. His window-filled slotted roofs maximize the use of daylight and give factories a distinct profile. Combined with Henry Ford’s insistence that these regional factories have access to a deep water port for shipping, meant that these factories and many others ad a linked DNA right down to their landscape.
Richmond opened in 1931 as a replacement for a cramped and inefficient facility in San Francisco. It created plenty of space to bring the new Model A online. When World War II broke out, this space became a key producer of tanks and jeeps that could quickly be added to the Pacific Theatre.
Jacksonville’s story was a little different. It opened in the summer of 1924, starting with the Model T production and would remain online through the introduction of the Model A. But Jacksonville and Richmond would only overlap production for one year before the Florida factory became just a parts distribution center. Jacksonville wasn’t as pivotal as Richmond was to the war effort, and that would be a factor in later years.
RELATED: Son Uncovers Dad's 1965 Mustang Shelby GT350 After 15 Years in a Barn
When Ford stopped products by boat, Richmond’s days became numbered. The port limited the factory’s ability to expand, and so Ford closed it in 1955. Production shifted to a new facility in San Jose that would build everything from the Edsel to the Mustang.
Richmond would sit unused for more than three decades, but its significance as a Kahn structure and war contributions got it listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. This designation came at the right time because the damage from the 1989 San Francisco earthquake would have likely sealed its fate had it not been a protected building.
Instead the Richmond facility was rehabilitated and redeveloped into commercial space known as Ford Point. Originally there was only a small section for management offices at the head of the factory. Today those have been preserved to serve the executives of Mountain Hardwear as part of their corporate headquarters. Further down “the line” the tall factory floor has become a two-story office complex. Kahn’s emphasis maximizing daylight for industrial purposes now makes for one of the most inviting open plan office structures around.
RELATED: See Photos of the 1916 Ford Model T Fronty Speedster
But this is more than just workspace. The old powerhouse is a restaurant, and there’s a museum devoted to wartime production. Ford’s insistence on having a dock means the end of the factory that was once used as a place to unload container ships is now a high-end venue with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco.
Jacksonville spent its immediate post-war years a little more productively. When Ford was finished with the building in 1968, it went though various owners and purposes, including a landing facility for some of the early Toyota imports. The last automotive owner of note was Sherrod Vans who used this space to convert Ford Econolines into luxury family haulers. But by the time Richmond was experiencing its rebirth, Jacksonville had been all used-up.
The Florida facility had led a more anonymous life than the one in California, and so it was never listed as a protected landmark. Instead, Jacksonville has spent the last few decades looking for any project. Even all of the glass was removed in 2005 just so RVs could park there for the Super Bowl without the fear of Kahn’s windows falling on them.
RELATED: 1957 Ford Courier Sedan Heads to Auction With a Little Junk in the Trunk
But even as a drafty ghost of Ford’s ancestry, the future is palpable. Built with shipping in mind, there is an industrial attractiveness about a 1920s building with water views on three sides. Downtown Jacksonville is not the most alluring neighborhood in the country, but neither is Richmond. Today these two related factories serve as a model of Florida’s potential and California’s reward for perseverance.
There are now signs the real estate world might be finally be starting to agree. After 14 years on the market, the Jacksonville plant site was sold last year to a Florida developer who added it to a larger downtown portfolio. New ownership is far from a guarantee that this former factory will experience the Richmond miracle, but every new chapter brings hope.
The best part of this tale is that it’s not unique. In between Richmond and Jacksonville is an entire nation filled with old car factories once utilized by everyone from failed startups to industrial giants. Some have become office space and others are parking lots, but it’s your job as an enthusiast to find the history in your neighborhood.
Words: Myles Kornblatt for BoldRide
Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Myles Kornblatt for BoldRide