From the Office of Historic Alexandria
Alexandria, VA – Built and operated during the Great Depression, the Ford Plant at the intersection of Franklin and South Union Streets can be seen not only as a building designed by one of the foremost architects of his time, but also a reflection of Alexandria’s priorities and fortunes. In many ways, the Ford plant continued Alexandria’s reliance on industry to lift it out of economic decline. That it ended up as federal government property and eventually residences only reinforces that the property’s fortunes followed the arc of Alexandria’s business history.
Since before the American Revolution, our city has relied on various industries for its economic fortunes. Some included tobacco, sugar, enslaved people, beer, and bread. After World War I, Alexandria had a going shipbuilding industry, but the growing need for ships larger than feasible on the Potomac River made that unsustainable.
Proximity to the rail facility at Potomac Yard and the river made Alexandria an attractive outpost to the Ford Company. A quick purchase and construction of the waterfront property by Ford began another phase in Alexandria’s history.
Ford purchased the property in 1931. The company hired Albert Kahn to design the plant, which would be used to service automobiles and distribute parts. Kahn was a titan of architecture at the time. Known for his design of buildings on the University of Michigan campus, he is often credited with changing the design of factories from dark and poorly organized buildings to large buildings with a lot of light and ventilation through a light steel-frame truss roof.
Kahn designed the pier, the service plant (later known as the Old Ford Plant), underground fuel tanks, and a water tower. A complete description of the building can be found in the 1988 Site Report by John Cullinane Associates.
The Ford Company occupied the site for only ten years. The federal government acquired the buildings and property in 1942. The following year, the Department of the Navy converted them into an annex to the Piney Point, Maryland gun factory. As part of the federal government, the Navy was not required to get permits or zoning permission. It added two more buildings and a 100,000-gallon water tank to the facility; it then built another building, a machine shop, four storage huts, and a concrete block firewall, all without consulting the City of Alexandria.
In 1960, the Navy turned the property over to the General Services Administration, which used the buildings for storage. The pictures accompanying this article were taken during the GSA period. In 1984, the federal government put the property up for auction and sold it to a private developer.
A second private developer bought the property in 1996, intending to save the Kahn-designed building. But when the wood pilings and piers proved unstable, the new owners decided to demolish the buildings. On March 8, 1996, The Washington Post reported the Alexandria City Council approved the demolition of the buildings, which was completed later that year.
Residences were built between 1996 and 1999. Today, the Old Ford Plant designed by Albert Kahn lives only in interpretive plaques, a common fate for many buildings along the waterfront.
The property at the intersection of Franklin and South Union reflects much of Alexandria’s history during a large stretch of the 20th century. From its sale to a private industrial firm, its purchase by the federal government for the war effort, to its use by the federal government as it expanded after World War II, and its eventual demolition to allow private real estate development, the area now known as Ford’s Landing has its own very Alexandrian story.