By on July 5, 2014

A while back, for the Fourth of July, I posted a story about Liberty Motors, which was briefly in business about 90 years ago. Liberty’s patriotic founder Percy Owens built the company’s headquarters on Detroit’s east side as an exact replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. That means that Detroit is the only metropolitan area of the country with two replicas of America’s birthplace, the other being the clock tower that Henry Ford built as the centerpiece to the museum in Dearborn that bears his name.

It was a beautiful 4th of July in Detroit this year: almost no humidity and temperatures in the low 70s. After attending some friends’ annual barbecue, I decided to see if I could get some better photos of the Liberty headquarters. After Liberty went out of business in 1926, in time the factory passed into the hands of the Budd company, and it was used to stamp body panels. When Budd was bought out, the facility became the property of ThyssenKrupp-Budd, where body components were made until 2006. The building has been vacant since 2007. The dismantling of the factory part of the facility was documented by Paul Clemens in his 2010 book, Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, published by Doubleday (excerpt here).

The photos I used in that earlier post were taken during winter and from some distance away. Since the site was fenced off, with a closed gate, the only way I was able to get a view was from the employee parking lot of Chrysler’s Jefferson North assembly plant, which is immediately adjacent to the Liberty HQ and plant. Putting cameras lenses through the gaps in a chain link fence and using the zoom function doesn’t exactly yield optimum results. Also, it was the middle of winter and a cold, grey day.

Today, though, the conditions were ideal. The weather was fine, the sky was blue and the only problem was that because of the holiday, the Chrysler plant was closed and the gates to the employee parking lot were closed. Oh well. As I started to return home I was driving north on Conner and approached the traffic light at Charlevoix, where the Liberty building is located. I figured ‘what the hell’, made the turn into the driveway and pulled up to the gate. After I exited the car, the security guard came out and I explained that I write about cars and because it was the Fourth, I wanted to get some photos of the building. Surprisingly he volunteered to call his supervisor, who apparently gave the go ahead, because the next thing that happened is that he pulled open the gate, telling me, half seriously, just not to mess with any of the Ram and Dodge trucks that were being stored on the property, awaiting shipment. I pointed to the Audi SQ5 that I have this week for review and said, “That’s a sixty thousand dollar Audi, I’m not going to mess with any pickup trucks.” He laughed and waved me through the gate.


Ram pickup trucks being stored before shipment. The former Liberty Motors site is adjacent to Chrysler’s Jefferson-North assembly plant. Full gallery here.

I’m glad that I asked because the access allowed me to shoot these photos. I generally will not shoot “ruin porn” in my hometown. It’s lazy journalism and lazy photography. It’s hard taking a photo of a ruin that isn’t elegiac or poetic. At first I had second thoughts because the building is a bit dilapidated. The security guard told me that it has been “trashed” inside. One or two of the window panes in the Independence Hall part of the complex have been broken out. A carved wooden finial from one of the balustrades on the tower had fallen to the porch below. Percy Owens would be sad.

Still, the building doesn’t appear to be too far gone and while there is indeed a huge surplus of commercial real estate inside the Detroit city limits, it’d be nice to see someone at least show the Liberty headquarters some care. According to Wikipedia, ThyssenKrupp sold off its North American body operations in 2006 to Martinreae International, another automotive supplier, but it’s not clear who owns the building. Either way, both of those firms are multi-billion dollar multinationals that could probably afford to put some money into at least a minimal preservation of a building that is a rather unique piece of architecture and automotive history. As car enthusiasts we sometimes look down our noses at “clones” and replicas of important cars, but sometimes even a replica has historical value worth conserving.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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6 Comments on “Liberty Motors’ Independence Hall Replica – A Followup for the Fourth...”

  • avatar

    88 years ago, 1926 was, of course, 150 years from the Declaration of Independence. A significant number of buildings, including a lot of public buildings, were built around that time resembling Independence Hall. I worked in a building like that for a few years.

  • avatar

    Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant is a great book. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in cars or manufacturing. The winding-down of an auto plant is a story that hasn’t been told not because it isn’t interesting, but because most people think it wouldn’t be interesting.

    • 0 avatar

      Winding down any operation sucks. Only nostalgic fools (like myself) feel anything while its occurring. I had the unfortunate task of taking DC tooling from the old Lincoln LS / T Bird line in Wixom to repurpose for the D258/385 launch in Chicago.

      The atmosphere is depressing. The workers look at you the same way they look at all the new comers that they’ve only seen since their operation’s death was announced. You know they wonder just what in the hell you’re doing. What your role in their job loss is. The older employees are complaining about their relocation while the lesser seniority workers are just plain f*cked. The maintenance guys are all exhausted from the insane amount of work they’ve been burdened with just to save their parent company a few bucks. It’s hard to believe the assembly will cease when you see how the Production Systems are still functioning in spite of the fate.

      That was back when there were good separation packages. People could go to school and get the hell out. Being fresh out of college, I always criticized those who didn’t. Now that I’m older, change is more difficult for me. I wish I hadn’t blabbed the hateful crap back then.

      Karma caught up with me and I ended up getting laid off myself. Then when I came back into the fold for a second chance, I was a NAFTA mercenary. Implementing the globalization that was just beginning to unfold 4 years prior when I was walking Wixom’s chassis line.

      What hit home was seeing the tire / wheel handling systems from Wixom down in Cuautilan. Knight was the tooling vendor and they had literally just installed it before it got ripped up (probably the same month I was there) and brought down for the original B299N launch. Cuautitlan also had equipment from Norfolk Assembly. Both plants are parking lots. The Production and Quality systems keep churning on, outside of their borders’ of invention. Soul-less and memory-less, not taking heed to the people, towns and facilities they left behind. It’s the machine and no matter how much you love it, it will be just as cold and unforgiving as it has always been.

  • avatar

    It’s not the only oddly repurposed faux Independence Hall. There’s a shopping center outside Wilmington, Delaware with a Hall replica in the center. Last time I was there, it housed a Melting Pot restaurant:

  • avatar

    Thanks for sharing. I love old buildings and hate to see them in disrepair. Typically they get torn down only to be replaced with a soulless glass box building that sucks energy and looks like the price point it was built to. Buildings like this are special, even if they have been disfigured with extruded aluminum front entrances like this one has.

    Budd rang a bell for me, as the railroad cars I commuted in had a sign inside stating that they were rebuilt by the Budd Corp.

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