Albert Kahn in Buffalo
American Axle Plant

1001 East Delavan Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14208

Partial reprint


By Elizabeth Licata
Buffalo Spree, Nov. 30, 2020

This East Delavan complex, site for this year's echo Art Fair, was originally a GM plant.                 Photo by kc kratt

With its choice of the New York Central Terminal in 2011, echo Art Fair made it clear from the beginning that the site of the fair must be as meaningful as the art. Subsequent years saw the fair at such iconic locations as the Larkin Center for Commerce and the Buffalo and Erie County Library Central branch downtown, where it made use of the facility’s largely undeveloped second floor. This year, echo takes place in one of the most spectacular industrial spaces in Buffalo, the former American Axle plant at 1001 East Delavan. Now the home of Ontario Specialty Contracting (OSC), this sprawling complex is also an architectural best-kept-secret.

Few realize that this was originally a General Motors Chevrolet assembly plant, and that it was designed by one of the most important industrial architects of all time, Albert Kahn, also known as the architect who built Detroit, Kahn designed such Motor City icons as the Fisher Building, the Highland Park Ford Plant,Temple Beth-El, the Detroit News building, the General Motors building, and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

The relative obscurity of the East Delavan complex, despite its vast size (800,000 square feet), is partially due to the fact that only about 400,000 square feet is the original Kahn structure; many changes have taken place over the years. Kahn’s original GM plant was built in 1923. During World War II, it was expanded for military production needs. In the fifties, the military took over again until the end of the Korean War. GM resumed production until American Axle acquired the facility in the mid-1990s, when GM began to flounder. After a union dispute in 2007, American Axle moved its operations to Mexico and closed the plant in 2008. By this time the complex had expanded to 1.3 million square feet.

After purchasing the empty complex in 2015, current owner Jon Williams of OSC enthused about its potential to Buffalo News reporter Matt Glynn: "If you could see the buildings for what they could be, they’re spectacular. They’re industrially constructed and designed. Nice wide bays, high ceilings, heavy concrete floors. Lots of power distribution and infrastructure." Williams removed about 500 square feet of the non-Kahn portions to get the complex to its current size.

Anyone familiar with Albert Kahn’s signature design trademarks will recognize them at the OSC complex. Structural grids, large windows, open floor plans, and minimal ornamentation are all part of the "form follows function" aesthetic that revolutionized industrial architecture in the early twentieth century. Kahn’s reinforced concrete, which he patented as the Kahn System, allowed for the larger interior spaces, fewer structural posts, and bigger windows that became typical at modern factories. The flared "mushroom" columns, used throughout the Kahn portion of the OSC structure, provide maximum support with minimal use of space.

The architect was proud of his achievements in factory design, and stated, "When I began, the real architects would design only museums, cathedrals, capitols, monuments. The office boy was considered good enough to do factory buildings. I’m still that office boy designing factories. I have no dignity to be impaired."

Interestingly, Kahn did not necessarily foresee that industrial design elements would become an inspiration for later, International-style architecture, and he likely would not have approved. His nonindustrial commissions often employed the popular movements of their time and times prior, including Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, or even Tudor.

Photo by kc kratt

Photo by kc kratt
Photo by kc kratt

Partial reprint

Buffalo factories were key battlegrounds in early 'Ford vs Chevy' tilt

·       By Steve Cichon

The Buffalo News. Sep 30, 2020

1922 photo

There have been volumes written about the famous Buffalo-built cars like the Pierce-Arrow, the Thomas Flyer, and even the postwar two-seater the Playboy. And those names are only the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of different makes and models were built in Buffalo, especially in the early decades of automotive history.

While the names Ford and Chevrolet don’t instantly bring Buffalo to mind, it is in the early stories of both of those lions of American industry that Western New York and Western New Yorkers have made the greatest impact in the history of motoring.

Millions and millions of Fords and Chevys were built in Buffalo by thousands of our blue-collar fathers and grandfathers – but it wouldn’t have happened without the Danish immigrant who quit his job with the railroad to come to Buffalo as a bicycle mechanic.

William S. Knudsen would eventually become president of General Motors and was President Roosevelt’s point man for war supply production during World War II.

 But in 1906, Knudsen was living on Victoria Avenue, a few blocks from the John R. Keim factories on Kensington Avenue at Clyde Avenue. He worked at the factory that produced machined metal parts – first for bicycles, then more and more for automobiles. As Keim became one of Ford’s leading suppliers for axle housings and drip pans, Henry Ford visited Buffalo in 1910 to buy out the factory.

Knudsen became one of Ford’s trusted lieutenants, and was the superintendent of the factory that became Buffalo’s first large-scale auto assembly plant. Before moving to Detroit to serve in a corporate capacity with Ford, Knudsen oversaw the building of the new Ford plant on Main Street in 1915. More than 600,000 Model-T Fords were churned out of the factory which, after years as a Bell Aircraft and Trico factory, still stands today as the Tri-Main Building.

Henry Ford called Knudsen “the greatest production genius in modern time.”

In 1930, Ford purchased a submerged plot of land on Fuhrmann Boulevard, and after backfilling more than 30 acres of land, a new Ford assembly plant was built. Between 1931 and the plant’s closure in 1958, about 2 million Buffalo-built Fords rolled off the line. The building still stands along Buffalo’s Outer Harbor as “Port Terminal A.”

Meanwhile, after running Ford’s entire 27-plant production system after the end of World War I, Knudsen left Ford in a disagreement, eventually moving to GM with a chip on his shoulder. As a vice president at Chevrolet, his Danish-accented, one-line speech to workers became famou

“I vant vun for vun” was printed that way in employee newsletters, and it was a bold challenge. He wanted one Chevy built for every Ford built. It was a huge dream – at the time, Ford was clearly at the top, while Chevy was America’s seventh-most popular car.

Among Knudsen’s first bold strokes in chasing Ford was to return to his adopted hometown of Buffalo to build a 600,000 square-foot, $2.5 milllion Chevy assembly and body plant on East Delavan Avenue.

The first Chevys built in Buffalo hit the roads in summer 1923, and soon the factory was making 8,000 cars per month. The same “genius” level production mind that gave Henry Ford his first million car year helped transform, almost overnight, Chevrolet from an also-ran to the company that would be Ford’s greatest domestic competitor for almost a century and counting.

The Buffalo plant was a major player in Chevy’s surge to become America’s second-most popular automobile. After 18 years and well over a million vehicles, in 1941 the plant was converted to defense production

After the war, the facility was refitted into an axle, brake and clutch factory. GM eventually spun off American Axle, which continued operating the plant until 2007. Efforts to remediate parts of the property for redevelopment have been ongoing since the plant’s closure

While it’s been generations since Buffalo has rolled completed cars off of assembly lines, there are still about 1,400 GM workers creating components at the former Harrison Radiator in Lockport. GM’s Tonawanda Engine plant was opened in 1938 and employs about 1,600 workers. Opened in 1950, the Ford Stamping Plant in Hamburg continues to employ around 1,200

And Buffalo’s link to the earliest days of the “Ford vs. Chevy” battle lives on.

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