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Inside Jacksonville’s Old Ford Plant

For years, driving across the Matthews Bridge, I’d look down at the old Ford assembly plant and think about what a great location it has on the river, and wondered how it appeared inside. The photographer in me had always wanted to have an opportunity to shoot inside the plant.

I had that chance on a recent Saturday.

The plant was open for tours as part of Docomomo US Tour Day, and I was among those invited to tour the building, and hear about some of things people have envisioned for its future.

The plant was built in 1923 by architect Albert Kahn for Ford, one of about 1000 Kahn designed for the automaker. Two Model T assembly lines ran in the building during its brief time as a manufacturing facility. Cars were only built there until 1932, when it was converted into a parts warehouse until it was closed in1968. It is currently being used as a pallet manufacturing facility, and for trailer storage.

The building is mostly structurally sound. We were told that a leaking water pipe is causing some erosion of the fill on which the plant is built. It is supported by about 8,000 pilings, and it obviously has a prime waterfront location. But any re-gentrification of the plant is likely years in the future.

In the part of the plant that is currently in use, the building looks worse than it probably is. There is another section, which were the offices and a showroom, which are in somewhat worse condition. In the showroom in particular, water has damaged an ornate ceiling.

The building still gives a glimpse of how people worked in the early 20th century. The plant has opening skylights that run much of the length of the building, which allowed natural light and ventilation into the plant. The use of natural light in the factory was an innovation at the time, and the mechanical actuators that open the panels look like they’re still waiting to be turned. A male-only workforce had restroom facilities in an open loft built above the production floor. The main production floor is raised about four feet above a channel that runs the length of the building which allowed rail cars which were rolled in to be unloaded at floor level.

Just walking through the place the possibilities are obvious. I heard a lot of comparisons to The Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria in Virginia just across the Potomac from Washington, DC. There, an old WWII torpedo factory has been converted into artist’s studios, shops, and restaurants. The Ford plant has the same kind of potential, but will have some additional challenges because of its location in Tallyrand.

But the use most often mentioned for the facility is as a cruise terminal. There are two schools of thought on the cruise industry. While there are larger and larger ships being built, there are also smaller cruise ships, which can clear the Dames Point Bridge and could call on a terminal in downtown Jacksonville.

I felt it was a privilege to be able to see and photograph the plant. And while the plans that are being discussed for the property could be a real asset to downtown Jacksonville, the stumbling block is always going to be the money necessary to make it happen. The cruise terminal would, obviously, require the commitment of a cruise line to make downtown a port of call before such a use could be economically viable, and other ideas, such as an artist’s “mall” like The Torpedo Factory will require investors with deep pockets and the buy-in of civic and government leaders.

We should all hope that, when those factors fall into place, the structure its self is still standing and available to live up to its potential.

To see all the photos from my visit, click here.

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