If you have made purchases at the original Avalon Bakery location on Willis, you have likely seen this plant. Perhaps you gave it very little thought. However, it is an active thermal plant that is listed as a National Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a qualifying building in the Willis-Selden Historic District.
Predecessor firms of Detroit Edison first opened a generating plant to produce electricity in Detroit in 1891. I do not know where this plant was located, but Henry Ford worked there for several years in the 1890s developing his skills. Within twelve years, the firm moved into producing heat for buildings along Cass and Woodward.
As downtowns—such as Detroit’s—developed in the late Nineteenth Century, substantial office and commercial buildings were erected that needed to be heated during the winter. One strategy would be for each building to have its own boiler and its own supply of coal. In 1877, in Lockport New York, Birdsell Holly demonstrated that it was much more efficient and cost effective to construct one large coal fired plant and distribute steam to heat many buildings. Little thermal energy was lost in the transmission from the plant to the consumers’ structures. Apparently, this discovery led to major changes in the heating of buildings in densely building downtowns and to the development of utilities specializing in thermal plants—at least in the North. I believe his major discovery was that thermal energy was not lost when it was sent over fairly long pipes.
In 1903, when this plant was built on Willis Street, it served just 12 customers and included just 3,000 feet of steam line. The demand for heat accelerated and by the end of one year this plant was attached to 10,000 feet of steam lines. At its peak in the 1940s, this plant used more than 42 miles of steam lines to distribute thermal energy to more than 1,600 structures in the Midtown and Cultural Center neighborhoods including Wayne State University.
Detroit Edison erected another thermal plant on Park Place in 1912 but it was shut about 15 years later. When Park Place became the site for upscale construction including major hotels, I believe pressures were put on Detroit Edison to shut that coal-fired plant on Park Place since it was a major source of unwanted grime. The next year Detroit Edison opened a new thermal plant on Beacon Street. There is a webpage on this site for that plant. The Beacon Street plant was also linked so that it could supply steam to the Willis Street plant when needed. Detroit Edison also operated a thermal plant on Congress Street but that one, I believe, closed in the early 1960s. They also, I think, operated a plant called Boulevard to supply heat to buildings in the New Center area but I do not know the specific location.
Architect: Unknown to me
Date of original construction: 1904
Date of updating and reconstruction: 1916 to 1927 and again in 1948
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not Listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not Listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed September 22, 1997
Use in 2016: Plant producing steam for distribution to downtown Detroit
Photograph: Ren Farley, September 6, 2008
Description updated: December, 2016
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