Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - The Building, Then and Now

The Ford Motor Company assembly plant at Richmond is 1,050 feet long from north to south and 320 feet wide from east to west. The main body of the building is 950 feet x 320 feet, and there is a craneway, 100 feet wide, that extends along the south end, giving the building its total length of 1,050 feet. The craneway is built over the water and actually extends an additional 80 feet to the east as well, so that the south end of the building measures 400 feet. A boiler room (80 feet x 55 feet) is located at the inside comer of the "L" formed by the main body of the building and the craneway. There is a dock structure 40 feet wide running along the entire south end the building (the craneway), and the dock is also built over water. These are the original dimensions of the building.

The building has a slab-on-grade, a steel frame with the columns sitting on spot footings atop pilings, and curtain walls of brick, industrial garage doors, and industrial window sash. The west half of the main body of the building is two stories, and the east half is one story. Sawtooth roof trusses create skylights over the second floor of the west half and the first floor of the east half. The craneway is two stories throughout. Most of the interior of the building is open factory space, but the northwest comer of the building has partitions that divide areas into showroom and office spaces. There is a free-standing oil house just northeast of the boiler room.

Historically, two sets of railroad spurs served the plant, both entering the Ford property at the northeast comer. One set of two spurs curved toward the plant and approached the northeast comer of the building from the north. One spur actually entered the building at that comer at a grade several feet below the first floor, and the other spur ran along the outside of the east side. Both of these spurs extended the full length of the main body of the building. Although there is evidence of the interior set of tracks, most of the area along that spur has been filled and the floor there is now at the level of the first floor. The other set of spurs ran along the east side of the property and curved toward the southeast comer of the plant, approaching it from the east. One spur entered and extended the length of the crane way, and two others ran the length of the dock. Another pair of spurs in this set ran along the north side of the oil house.

The general flow of materials to and through the plant was as follows. Ford delivered auto parts to the craneway of the Richmond plant either by ship or by rail. A conveyor, located at the center of the south end of the second floor, transported unpainted body parts from the craneway through a slot in the concrete floor to the second floor for storage, painting, and partial assembly. Conveyors, probably added later in the 1930s, delivered other body parts, like roof panels of car bodies, from the delivery dock along the east side of the plant to the second floor. An incline conveyor delivered partially assembled bodies to the central area of the first floor for further treatment before delivery to the final assembly line. Materials for assembly of seat cushions and service stock parts were also delivered to the second floor, either by means of the conveyors or by two freight elevators, one located at the southeast comer of the second floor and one located along the east wall of the second floor near the north end. Both elevator shafts are still in place. Service stock storage was located at the northeast comer of the second floor. The seat cushion assembly area was located just south of the second-floor offices and the service stock storage area.

The final assembly line was located along the west wall of the first floor, with vehicles in the process of assembly moving from south to north. Tributary sub-assembly lines moved from east to west toward the final assembly line. The frame conveyor was located at the south end of the first floor, moving from east to west and with the steering gear assemblies being installed just before the frames were placed on the final assembly conveyor. Conveyors for axle assemblies led from north to south toward the frame conveyor. The motor line was just north of the frame conveyor, again moving from east to west, where completed motors could be installed on frames as they moved north along the final assembly line. North of the mounting line was an area for tire storage (east), a wheel oven for baking freshly painted wheels (west), a mounting line, along which tires were mounted on wheels before the wheels were conveyed to the final assembly line to be mounted on the chassis as they moved north, and radiator storage racks. The next area to the north was quite large, featuring ovens and lines along which such items as fenders, hoods, and trim were treated before being assembled as bodies and then conveyed to the chassis assembly line. Body hoists along the final assembly line hoisted completed bodies down upon the completed chassis as they moved north along final assembly. Completed cars and trucks rolled off the north end of assembly line, located about 300 feet south of the northwest comer of the building.

There were several openings in the east wall of the second floor through which conveyors delivered body parts to the second floor and carried assembled bodies and delivered them to subsequent conveyors for body assembly on the first floor. The original drawings for the building show only two openings for conveyors to the second floor: the one through the floor at the south end of the building, mentioned in a previous paragraph, and one midway along the east wall of the second floor. There are at least two other openings through the east wall that match the appearance of that in the 1937 photo of the conveyor delivering roof panels to the roof panel storage area (the comers of the openings are cropped). The current developer of the Richmond plant is changing the spacial relationship between the second floor and the first by cutting a polygonal opening in the east wall at each first-floor skylight bay. The shape of these openings parallels the slope of the north-facing skylight windows, but it does not stem from the shapes of the openings for the conveyors that were part of the production process.

Although most of the interior of the Richmond plant is open space, there are several enclosed, partitioned areas. General offices for the plant were located on the second floor at the northwest comer. They included individual offices for managers, small meeting rooms, a cashier's office, and rest rooms. These offices are the only rooms finished in wood. With small exceptions, the configuration of the offices is that shown on the Kahn drawings of the plant. There are four sets of coat rooms and toilet rooms for production workers located along the east wall of the second floor. These sets of rooms are located in enclosed mezzanines that are two steps down from the second floor and extend into the sawtooth roof skylights over the east side of the first floor. A pair of staircases, each with midway landings, one stair on the north and one on the south, descended from each coat room/toilet mezzanine. These stairs have been altered over the years by completely removing one of the pair in some cases and also by altering the direction of the stairs extending from the landings to the first floor, undoubtedly to accommodate alterations to the assembly equipment on the first floor. Production workers used to enter the plant near the northeast comer, just west of the railroad spur. The employee entry area has been altered over the years. Just west of the employee entrance, however, is a set of rooms that appears to be configured much as they were in 1931. They include a factory service office, a first aid room, operating room, rest rooms, and a dressing room. The showroom area on the first floor beneath the general offices has been changed considerably since the plant was used to assemble autos. The main feature that is partially intact is the formal plant entrance and the relatively grand stairway to the second-floor offices.

The exterior of the plant has sustained little change over the years. The brick and glass exterior is industrial in character throughout, with its limited and modest ornamentation at the comers of the building, in the minimal application of dentils along the roof-line, and in the gable ends of the craneway. The exception to the industrial character is at the northwest comer, where the showrooms (first floor) and general offices (second floor) were located. The fact that these spaces were more open to the public (at least the public who had business at the plant) is reflected in the window configuration and the roof. Whereas windows throughout the factory are industrial sash, the windows at the northwest comer are double-hung with transoms, presenting a more commercial appearance. A truncated hipped roof of glazed clay tile projects above the offices, delineating the non-industrial area of the building by again presenting a more commercial appearance, and the dentils in the cornice beneath the eaves of the tile roof are somewhat more elaborate than the dentils elsewhere. Except for modifications to some of the doors, the exterior is largely intact.