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Chrysler Corporation Office and Display Building: 1933 - ?

Based on materials from the Historic American Engineering Record

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This page is based on 1993 materials from the Historic American Engineering Record compiled by WSU's Charles K. Hyde, acquired as a result of an agreement between Chrysler Corporation, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, and the City of Detroit.

The Chrysler Corporation Office and Display Building on 12200 East Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, was designed in the art moderne style by the noted factory architect Albert Kahn, who is more famous for the Ford Rouge plant. Finished in 1933, the building originally included a showroom for the Chrysler Corporation lines on the first floor; in the early 1960s, this was converted to office space. The second floor was a general sales office for most of the building's life. The building cleverly hid much of the Jefferson Avenue Assembly Plant and shipping dock from public view.

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The building cost $350,000, with groundbreaking on September 6, 1933; Walter P. Chrysler personally operated the steam shovel for the groundbreaking. It was the first auto industry construction project under the supervision of the National Recovery Administration.

When completed scan months later, the 501-foot-long Office and Display Building dominated Jefferson Avenue, blocking public views of the manufacturing complex. The showroom alone was 333 feet long, flanked by wood-panelled circular lobbies / customer waiting rooms. The two story building had no basement, with forty offices on the second floor; the width varied, with the middle part being narrower (56 feet) and the area around the 45-foot-diameter lobbies stretching to 78 feet.

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In 1947, alterations, also designed by Albert Kahn, were put into place, largely affecting the first floor; the showroom was cut down to 237 feet, while a conference room was put into the East end area and a general sales office in the West end area. The windows were altered accordingly, and large individual glass areas were replaced with smaller vertical windows, featuring marble bases and sills with stone mullions.

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The two main entrances built in 1933 (a revolving door at the front of each tower section leading into the lobby, with above-grade porch areas and steel awnings overhead) were framed in marble; the 1947 additions provided two new doors with direct access to the showroom. The doors, which led onto Jefferson Avenue, were framed in stainless steel.

The showroom originally boasted fourteen sections of windows, separated by stainless steel columns resting on a black marble base; in 1948 (long after the following photo was taken), Kahn redesigned the windows to cut glare and reflections, which defeated the purpose of the showroom by making it hard to see the cars within. Now, a stainless steel beam ran horizontally, with windows above and below it; the upper portion had seven narrow windows, the lower area with three large windows set at an angle and mounted on a marble base.

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At some point, the building was the headquarters for the Industrial Engine division.

In the early 1960s, the showroom was abanonded and the Chrysler Plant Engineer Department converted the entire west end of the first floor into offices, eliminating the lobby on that end; the center area became office space and conference rooms; and the eastern area showroom was turned into a mockup room 44 feet wide. The rest of the remaining showroom was later subdivided, and in its final years, the building became a dealer training center.

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Charles K. Hyde noted that the building:

embodied a style that was drawn from contemporary streamlined industrial designs for ships, airplanes, trains, and especially automobiles. The Art Moderne features of the building are visible in its horizontal streamlined appearance; its smooth exterior wall surfaces; the pattern of continuous windows, window sills, and lintels; the horizontal grooves in the stainless steel lintel over the first-story windows; the narrow stone coping at the roof line; the roof-line balustrade; and the rounded tower sections treated with glass panels at the top.

This was a steel-framed building with a concrete foundation and floors, enclosed by twelve inch curtain walls of brick. Kahn finished the Jefferson Avenue facade, as well as the two ends, with yellow sandstone blocks, each measuring two feet by three feet. The south or rear facade was dressed in yellow brick. ... Windows covered extensive sections of the rest of the front and side facades of the building.
Not surprisingly, the building had a flat roof; behind each tower was a penthouse structure hiding vent fans, and a storage area. Hyde believed that "Without doubt, the most alluring feature of the building was the extensive use of glass-panelling to create the upper ten feet of the towers. Three distinct courses of glass, separated by stainless steel sash, form what appeared from the street to be a complete circle, but in fact extended for only 300 degrees. The glass-panelled wall was about one foot thick, did not enclose a useable space, and was simply a decorative feature."

What remains today is a huge stretch of lawn, in a deserted and desolate area. A single pumping station faces the street, far in the distance one can see a tall building standing alone, and on closer inspection one can find a for-rent sign on it. Jefferson Avenue is now three lanes in each direction, with a center turning lane as well. The current Jefferson Avenue North factory is set far off across the lawn.

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