History Edison Hart Electrical Power Substation, Detroit Michigan

Detroit in 1914—the year the Detroit Edison Hart Substation was built--was in the throes of an economic revolution that had its roots in the mid-19th century. Starting in the 1850s, Detroit enjoyed a long period of rapid growth with a widely-diversified industrial base. After 1900 industrial development in Detroit centered around the automobile industry. Two relevant measures of economic growth were population and territory under the city's jurisdiction. Detroit's population rose from nearly 100,000 in 1870 to 285,000 in 1900, and over the next twenty years increased to 993,000. The city also physically expanded through a series of land annexations extending east and west from Woodward Avenue, Detroit's north-south commercial spine. Detroit covered merely 12 square miles in 1865, filled 23 square miles in 1900, doubled to 46 square miles by 1915, and occupied 79 square miles in 1921.

The far east riverfront area served by the Hart Substation did not become part of Detroit until 1906, when the city's eastern border reached Alter Road, the current boundary between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park. Until November, 1905, Gilbert Hart (proprietor of the Detroit Emery Wheel Company and president of the Charles A. Strelinger Company) owned the land upon which later the substation was built. Indeed, the Hart Farm Subdivision which he owned encompassed the entire area east of Hillger to Hart, and northwards from Jefferson to Mack. Gilbert Hart sold the Hart Farm Subdivision in November, 1905, to Joseph H. Berry for $90,000. Joseph Berry, since 1858 chairman of Berry Brothers varnish manufacturers, platted the subdivision in January, 1906, several years in advance of the industrial and residential settlement of the area.

This part of Detroit experienced explosive growth between 1906 and 1916, based on industrial development, which was primarily related to the automobile industry. The Baist real estate atlas of 1906 shows virtually no development east of Hurlbut Street, more than a half mile west of Hart. By 1910, however, a good deal of industrial and residential development was evident. A new industrial complex had emerged in the vicinity of Connor's Creek and Connor's Creek Road (now Conner Avenue). This included a foundry and woolen mill at the river's edge; the Chalmers Motor Company plant south of Jefferson; Anderson Forge Machinery Company north of Jefferson and west of Connor's Creek Road; the Hudson Motor Car Company immediately to the east; the Metal Products Company east of Connor's Lane; and the Lozier Motor Car Company on Mack Avenue, at the northern fringe of this district. The residential areas extending five blocks north and south of Jefferson Avenue and west of Connor's Lane typically had houses standing on more than half of the lots platted. Further away from Jefferson, about one-tenth of the lots had buildings on them. The area was sufficiently developed that the Michigan Bell Telephone Company had already erected a telephone exchange building at the corner of Hilger and Kercheval, two blocks west of Hart.

Within only six years the region west of Connor's Lane, extending from the Detroit River to three blocks south of Mack Avenue, had developed to the point where there was almost no empty land remaining in either the residential or the industrial areas. From Connor's Lane east to Alter road, the blocks north of and adjacent to Jefferson Avenue typically had houses standing on 60-90% of the lots. The blocks south of Jefferson typically had structures standing on between 20% and 40% of the lots.

A map of the far east riverfront area in 1916 revealed a great deal of industrial activity, A conglomeration of automobile and auto-related firms had developed east of Lycaste, including the Hupp Motor Car Company, Zenith Carburetor, Fairview Foundry (auto castings), and a half dozen others. Continental Motors, which manufactured gasoline engines, built a large factory complex north of Jefferson, east of the Hudson Motor Car Company plant, while the Hudson and Chalmers plants had expanded since 1910. The McCord Manufacturing Company, which made radiators and other auto components, had erected a plant north of Jefferson as well. In July, 1915, Detroit Edison commenced operations at its massive Conner's Creek Generating Plant at the southern end of Lycaste. A year earlier, construction began on Detroit Edison's substation at the intersection of Hart and Waterloo.

The Detroit Edison Hart Substation was erected on lots 76-80, block 2, of the Hart Farm Subdivision (P.C. 687). Peninsular Electric Light Company acquired the property from Robert M. Grindley, a prominent Detroit real estate developer, on July 9, 1913. Since 1903 the Peninsular company had been a fully-owned subsidiary of the Detroit Edison Company, distributing alternating current to customers throughout Wayne County. The roots of the Detroit Edison Company went back to the Edison Illuminating Company, a Michigan corporation established in 1886. In the late 1890s, Edison Illuminating absorbed the generating plants and distribution systems of several local, financially-strapped, companies-including Peninsular Electric Light Company. The incorporation of the Detroit Edison Company in January, 1903, began a decade of effort to create a streamlined electricity producing and distributing service in Detroit and environs. In 1915, Detroit Edison--which had confined itself to the operation of power plants--transferred to itself the assets and customers of all subsidiaries, including Peninsular Electric Light Company. As a result, on July 2, 1915, the above-mentioned lots 76-89 in the Hart Farm Subdivision passed into the hands of a unified and integrated Detroit Edison Company, along with the recently-completed substation.

The construction of the Hart Substation represented part of Detroit Edison's long-range business development strategy for the production and distribution of electrical power throughout Detroit and the surrounding region. In 1903-1904, Edison began to replace the old, small, and geographically dispersed electricity generating plants of the previously acquired companies with a new, centralized, coal-burning, plant southwest of Detroit in the village of Delray. By 1907 the Delray power plant was operating at maximum capacity. Construction on a second Delray plant began as Detroit Edison frantically tried to keep pace with mounting electrical demand, especially from the ever-increasing number of new industrial customers. In 1913-14, Detroit Edison made an effort to catch up with the Detroit's automobile-led economic boom by beginning construction on a third power plant, this time on the far east riverfront at Conners' Creek. The production at a few central power plants of tens of thousands of kilowatts of low-priced electricity, however, was only one dimension of the Company's strategy. The economies of scale represented by the Company' s large power plants could not be realized without an efficient distribution system that increased market demand for electricity over a wide geographic area. This was precisely where substations like the one on Hart Street fit into the picture. The only way efficiently to transmit electrical current from central power plants over great distances was at high voltage. Therefore, throughout its expanding service area Detroit Edison required substations which simply stepped down (reduced) high voltage incoming current into lower voltage levels prior to delivery to customers. The Hart Substation converted 3-phase, 24,000 volt current which arrived at the facility via an underground transmission line into current which left at 4,800 volts, also via underground lines. Until the late-1940s, three motor-generator sets on the machine room floor at the Hart Substation also converted incoming alternating current into direct current for streetcar lines in its service area. At its height, the Hart Substation served a district approximately bounded by the Detroit River northwards to Warren Avenue, and from Van Dyke Avenue on the west to Alter Road.

Responsible for building many of Detroit Edison's structures in the early 20th century, including the Hart Substation, was the Albert A, Albrecht Company, a local Detroit contractor since the mid-1870s. Indeed, Detroit-born Albert Albrecht (1853-1936) was one of the city's most celebrated builders. Downtown projects included the old Public Library (1877); the old Masonic Temple (1894); the Union Trust building (1894-95), Detroit's first modern steel-skeleton building); Detroit Opera House (1898); the Penobscot building (1905-1928); and the Madison Theater (1916). The Albrecht firm also built Cass Technical High School, the Detroit Yacht Club, Harper & Grace hospital, and Henry Ford hospital. Significant industrial projects in the early 20th century included plants for Parke, Davis &, Company (ca. 1900), the leading pharmaceutical manufacturer; Detroit Steamless Steel Tube Company; Detroit Copper and Brass Company; Timken-Detroit Axle Company; Morgan and Wright Company (1905), the local rubber tire manufacturer; the plant and part of the office building of Lincoln Motor Company (1917); and the first structures for Packard and Cadillac automobile companies (1903-1905) . In addition, according to the Detroit News, since July 6, 1898, Albrecht "has held a contract with the Detroit Edison Company under which he has been building all their branch buildings and power plants." These included Edison power plants No. 1 (1903-1904) and No. 2 (1907) at Delray, and No. 3 (1913-21) at Conner Creek, as well as the Hart Substation for which the A.A. Albrecht Company obtained a building permit on June 16, 1914.

As built in 1914 the two-story Hart Substation measured 65 feet along Waterloo (later changed to Vernor) and 130 feet along Hart. Detroit Edison substations of the period, including the one at Hart Street, were not entirely functional in appearance. Indeed, they exhibited a range of classical architectural features: engaged columns, scrolls, bracketed cornices with widely overhanging eaves, dentils , and roof-line parapets. What differentiated the Hart Substation from others was the large amount of space on the Hart and Vernor facades devoted to windows. This brought in plenty of natural light during the day, and lent the building an airy appearance as well. Alterations to the building in 1941-42 fundamentally changed this, The large window sections were filled in with brick; the ornate brackets, scrollings, and cornice surrounding the main front door were removed; the staircase leading to the door was rebuilt; and the roof-line parapet was levelled flat. By this time the Hart Substation was not only more functional in appearance, it was also larger. In 1927-28, a $110,000 two-story addition to the original structure was erected along the southern end and to the back of the building on the west, where eight new transformer rooms were constructed. The substation's dimensions expanded to 167 feet along the back and 84 feet along Vernor.