This National Historical Register building is a remarkable example of how Detroit's Nineteenth Century industrialization facilitates the city's revival in the Twenty-first Century.
Crescent Brass and Pin traces its origin to the era when Detroit was among the nation's leaders in the production of cigars. In the mid-1880s, Detroit inventor Alvin Needham designed a machine to produce cigar boxes, thereby drastically reducing labor costs. Seeking capital, he joined with several blacksmiths, woodworkers, machinists and carpenters who established the Gray Brothers Carriage Works—the first firm to use rubber tires and roller bearings on their wagons. Apparently, they specialized in the production of heavy-duty rigs used for local delivery. By the end of the 1880s, the firm began producing nails at a factory located at 5155 Trumbull.
In the 1890s, Alvin Needham invented a machine to make chaplets. These are small metal devices or tools used to shape the inside of molded or cast metal products. They are necessary for the manufacture of boilers and radiators. Apparently, their design and production is complicated since you need to take into account the type of metal used and its expansion when heated for shaping. By 1900, business was booming with the chaplet production, and a line of pins as well as nails, but rig production was gone. The name was changed to Crescent Machine. I cannot explain chaplets in any detail, but you will find a wealth of information about them at: www.researchlofts.com/pdfs/historical.pdf.
The early auto producers, including Henry Ford, lacked the capital to make many of their own parts. With the possible exception of Packard, most car manufacturers in the first decade of the Twentieth Century assembled parts made by other firms. One of the reasons that Detroit became the center of the vehicle industry was that the city contained dozens or a hundred or more machine shops where entrepreneurs invented and produced the tools and equipment needed for the buggies, carriages, railroad cars, bicycles and Great Lakes steamers built in Detroit and throughout the Midwest. The vehicle industry needed radiators, helping to stimulate Crescent's business. In 1905, the firm erected the building along Trumbull that you see in the snapshot above. I believe that this building underwent substantial refurbishing across the last century, and may have had a floor added. At this time, brass was added to the name. Early automobiles used much brass for both parts and decorative trim, but Crescent's foray into brass production was not successful. They continued to specialize in chaplets, nails and pins.
From about 1910 to the late 1950s, Crescent was the nation's leading and, at times, perhaps the nation's only producer of chaplets. All major vehicle manufactures purchased from Crescent. The firm designed its own tools and equipment, incorporating innovations along the line. In the 1930s, the firm patented an innovative roofing nail, one with a flat head designed such that when it was struck with a hammer, the head made a seal with the roof such that no moisture could seep down the stem of the nail. This Simplex nail dominated its field.
Booming business led to expansion with new buildings added in 1916, 1917, 1924 and again in the early 1950s. The architectural significance of these building lies, in part, in their different style. The 1905 building that you see was designed by the Detroit firm of James Rogers and Walter MacFarlane. These architects used the post and beam style that was common for industrial buildings of that era. A major concern of such architects was the prevention of fires, so a variety of strategies were used to isolate one section of the building from another so that if a fire began it would not spread. Fire was a real possibility since the floor and oak beams became soaked with grease and oil. Ford's Piquette Street Plant is a classical example of this type of industrial architecture.
After graduating from the engineering school at the University of Michigan and studying in Japan, Julius Kahn—Albert's brother—began experimenting with concrete reinforced with structural steel. The first practical application was in the historic Palms Apartment Building at 1001 East Jefferson near the Ren Center; a collaboration of the Kahn brothers and George Mason. Building an apartment with reinforced concrete was one accomplishment, but a manufacturing plant presented more challenges. Albert Kahn met them and, in 1905, used reinforced concrete in Packard Motor Number 10 which still stands just off East Grand Boulevard. This was a huge architectural advance since it greatly reduced the risk of fire, led to stronger and more lasting buildings, permitted the walls to include many windows admitting light and gave auto firms rigid floors that could support the multi-ton machines that are still used to cold press steel into fenders, hoods and trunk lids. Albert Kahn did not design additions to the Crescent Building, but his innovative approach was used and this, undoubtedly, contributed to the productivity and prosperity of this firm.
There was much labor and racial strife in Detroit after World War II. The Big Three producers settled their disagreements with the UAW in 1948 with terms favorable to hourly workers. However, suppliers were often not as generous as the major manufactures since they lacked the resources of GM, Ford and Chrysler. After a bitter labor dispute in 1956, Crescent moved its manufacturing to Americus, Georgia in hopes of lowering wage costs. Within a few years they discovered that the quality of labor in rural Georgia was not satisfactory and returned their production to the Trumbull Avenue plant. However, many of their Detroit workers had moved to other employment, so the firm struggled. They hung on for some years, but in 1984, gave up their manufacturing activities.
The impressive building was donated to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic Charity aiding the impoverished. I do not know if that Society used the building but by the turn of the millennium, the Crescent building was refurbished and became the Detroit home from Iron Mountain, a national information processing firm handling medical data and records.
As Detroit moves into the present century, administrative, scholarly and research employment has picked up in the downtown and along a corridor extending through the Cultural Center to the New Center Area. Quite likely many of the young professionals now employed at the Detroit Medical Center, at Wayne State, at the Cadillac Square building and at Henry Ford Medical Complex will find it attractive to live near their employment, especially since they often work long and irregular hours.
Albert Kahn and other Detroit architects build tough manufacturing buildings—one that will last not only decades, but centuries. Fortunately, many of them lend themselves to conversion into lofts and condos for the expanding demographic groups that finds city living attractive for at least some of their careers. By 2005, the Crescent Building housed attractive lofts and condos selling in the low- to mid-$100s. I infer that the developer sees a market in those many individuals who work in the New Center area which is not far from this location on Trumbull. An extreme optimist can imagine a continued revitalization of the nearby Woodbridge Neighborhood, then development along Trumbull leading toward West Grand Boulevard and the New Center employment node.
Date of Construction: Original building: 1905
Architects for original building: James Rogers and Walter MacFarlane
Use in 2005: Research Lofts
Website for lofts: www.researchlofts.com
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not Listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: #30300067; Listed in 2003.
Photograph: Ren Farley; September 19, 2004
Description updated: April, 2014