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Ford goes back to the future in Detroit’s Corktown

5 min read

Structural steel reinforcements have been installed for safety purposes over the towering columns inside the front waiting room of the train station. Photo credit: LARRY PEPLIN/CRAIN’S DETROIT BUSINESS

DETROIT — On one end of Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, Ford Motor Co.’s brightest minds are trying to map out the business plan and maneuvering of computer-driven vehicles inside a factory building that was turning out women’s stockings 20 years before nylon was invented.

At the other end of Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Ford’s building engineers and architects are trying to figure out how to piece together crumbling plaster that was bound together using horse hair.

This certainly isn’t Henry Ford’s automobile company anymore.

In the matter of a year, the automaker has taken a giant leap into an enormous project to remake where its employees think, design, create and attempt to innovate the vehicles of the future in a Corktown campus that is four years away from becoming a full reality.

At the building known as The Factory, the 111-year-old one-time hosiery factory now houses more than 200 Ford employees working in teams that are developing the planned 2021 launch of an autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service.

“There’s a lot of thinking that we’re doing here in this building around the journey and how people are going to be using the service, how people are going to be interacting with the car,” said Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC.

‘I float around’

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The three-story building features wood floors and beams and the kind of trendy open-floor office space that is the exact opposite of the cubicle-and-closed-door office designs that most Ford employees have worked in for years at the Glass House in Dearborn.

“There’s no hierarchy here. I have no parking spot,” said Marakby, Ford’s top executive stationed in Corktown. “Not only do I not have an office, I don’t have an assigned desk — I float around.”

For Marakby, the working environment at The Factory is a sea change from the concrete jungle he first worked in for Ford 28 years ago when the company still had offices in the riverfront Renaissance Center skyscraper Henry Ford II built in the 1970s to help revitalize Detroit and the company his grandfather founded in 1903.

“We’ve taken everything we know about the progressive Silicon Valley workspace and how people work and even the cultures and behaviors of how people work, and we’ve pushed it as much as we can — even sometimes in a more progressive way than what we’re seeing in some of the Silicon Valley places,” Marakby said.

“This is Silicon Valley in Detroit,” he added.

Train station rehab

While Marakby’s team plants the seeds for a new kind of culture for Ford in Corktown, the bigger challenges of Ford’s audacious re-entry into Detroit lie ahead with a $350 million rehabilitation of Michigan Central Station.

Ford’s construction contractors at Christman Brinker and Quinn Evans Architects are working to stabilize the building’s front waiting room that was handcrafted in 1913 with ornate marble and plaster details meant to resemble a Roman bathhouse.

Structural steel reinforcements have been installed for safety purposes over the towering columns inside the front waiting room, while engineers assess any kind of damage to the building’s bones that may have occurred during three decades of being exposed to Michigan weather.

“We had to stabilize those arches because if those gave way, we’d be done,” said Richard Bardelli, construction manager for Ford Land Development Co., the automaker’s real estate arm.

Engineers are assessing the condition of exterior terra cotta and limestone masonry as well as four kinds of plaster that were used throughout the Beaux-Arts building when it was constructed in 1912 and 1913.

Hidden surprises

“There’s surprises hidden that we haven’t found yet,” said Ronald Staley, senior vice president of The Christman Co., a Lansing-based construction firm that has partnered with Detroit-based Brinker Group on the project.

One hidden surprise Christman Brinker’s engineers have already discovered was some of the plaster castings contain horse hair, a common binding agent for mortar a century ago.

“We probably, you know, won’t use horse hair in our plaster,” Staley said.

The structural assessments will help engineers determine whether the plaster can be preserved.

Nearly 21,000 square feet of ceiling tile made by Guastavino — a New York company that no longer exists — will have to be removed, cleaned and reattached, Staley said.

Ford Land is working to find a tile company to manufacture replacement tiles, a process that’s expected to take a year, Bardelli said.

New technologies like computer-generated 3D-modeling will be used to remake light fixtures and plaster medallions lining the ceiling columns that have been damaged by years of rain infiltrating the building, Staley said.

‘Getting the weather out’

The most dire task right now is “getting the weather out of the building,” said Richard Hess, principal of Washington D.C.-based Quinn Evans Architects, which is Ford’s design contractor for the project.

To divert snow and water from entering the depot, Christman Brinker will start installing temporary tarps within a week to a couple of weeks. They’ll be fully installed by late January or early February, acting as roofs over the entirely exposed first-floor concourse in the back and assorted gaping window areas.

Crews will also install a large rubber membrane over the roof of the train station’s front entrance to divert water from getting into the waiting room and 100,000-square-foot basement of the building.

“We want to save the building,” Hess said. “The best way to do that is to get under construction as quickly as possible.”

A year from now, Ford’s contractors plan to have a temporary heating system in place while they try to design a modern heating and cooling system that doesn’t disturb the original architectural design of the first-floor concourse of the one-time gateway to the Motor City.

While historical preservation of the front waiting room is the priority, the rest of the hulking structure has to be adapted to modern use for office workers, retail, restaurants and possibly a hotel or residential space in the top two floors, Hess said.

“We’re trying to convert it into use for the future — and not just a museum where we’re preserving the thing the way it was a hundred years ago,” Hess said.

For more photos and an interview with Ford’s Sherif Marakby, go to the Crain’s Detroit Business website here. Crain’s is an affiliate of Automotive News.

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