History Pierce Arrow Factory Complex, Buffalo New York

A significant landmark in the history of industrial architecture, the design of the Pierce Arrow automobile plant (1906) brought together a number of important trends which foreshadowed future developments in factory design.

For over a century since the commencement of the Industrial Revolution, the configuration of factories had been gradually evolving to meet the specific needs of industry. The early workshops, not very different from residential structures, had been superseded by multi-story brick buildings with more fireproof construction, greater clear spans between cast iron columns, and more windows. In general, these later factories avoided the excessive ornamentation of the eclectic period, and in their attempt to be functional were more akin to the engineering works of the time than to its architectural monuments.

A logical outgrowth of these late 19th-century factories, the design of the Pierce Arrow plant was one of the first attempts to solve the specific requirements of a modern "big" industry. In solving the problems raised here it established a pattern which was later to be emulated and expanded in factories around the globe. The single-story factory building with clear interior spans, window walls, roof lighting, and horizontal circulation from process to process was to be the factory design of the future. And although mass production did not appear until later, the Pierce-Arrow pattern provided the perfect physical plant to house it when it came.

It is of interest that Albert Kahn's firm was one of the three firms hired in 1905 to design the plant. Only a few years before this, Kahn had been the architect for the Packard plant in Detroit, the first reinforced concrete factory built for the automobile industry; this had been a multi-story building. No doubt Kahn's experience with automobile assembly was felt necessary, as the other architectural firm, Lockwood, Greene and Company of Boston, had had no such experience. The third firm involved was the Trussed Concrete Steel Company, for the Pierce Arrow plant was to be executed in reinforced concrete, as the Packard Plant had been. Kahn's younger brother was at that time director of the latter company, which prepared the designs for the reinforced concrete work on Pierce Arrow.

Albert Kahn's firm later became one of the largest producers of industrial design in the world. In the 1930s, it designed nearly 20% of all industrial structures in the county/and had numerous commissions abroad.

In its use of reinforced concrete, the Pierce Arrow plant followed recent precedents set in America by Ernest Ransome in his Pacific Coast Borax Company factory at Bayonne, N.J. (1898) and his United Shoe Machinery, Beverly, Mass. (1905). At the same time, a few structures were being constructed of reinforced concrete by Europeans such as Hennebique. Reinforced concrete technology had had a slow gestation period between 1850 and 1900 and was just now ready to be exploited for whole buildings.

Similarly, the wide expanses of windows, or curtain wall construction, owed much to the work of the architects of the Chicago School who had pioneered the glass wall in commercial structures as early as 1897. Great spans and column free spaces had been achieved in railroad sheds for fifty years, so the sixty-foot spans of Pierce Arrow were not an innovation.

What was unusual about Pierce Arrow was the combination of these factors to create large flexible one-story spaces flooded with daylight from walls and roof, within which the manufacturing processes could be efficiently arranged and changes could be readily made when needed, since all circulation was horizontal and few columns intervened.

A booklet published at the time of the completion of the plant gives the following synopsis of the owner's aims:

When confronted with the necessity of more extensive and complete manufacturing facilities, the George N. Pierce Company decided to build a manufacturing plant complete in every detail--a plant that would not only be an exemplification of their high ideals as expressed in the quality of their cars, but which, by its perfect system of light, heat and ventilation; its safety and freedom from decay; and its fireproofness, would attract and hold the best and most desirable skilled workman. In these ideals and in this determination is found the secret of the decision which resulted in "the Typical Factory" or as its owners delight to call it, "the Factory behind the Great Arrow Car."

George N. Pierce and Company had made its first automobile in 1901. In 1907 the grand new factory, consisting of an Administration building and separate one-story manufacturing, assembling and body buildings began production of Pierce Arrow cars. Additions which more than doubled the size of the plant were made after 1916.

Unfortunately for lovers of fine machinery, the Pierce Arrow Company went into bankruptcy in 1938. Both equipment and property were sold. Subsequent owners of the plant have blocked off windows and made other alterations in adapting the building to other uses, and some of the great spaces have been cut up by partitions. Yet to the discerning eye, this is still recognizable as one of the most important industrial plants of its time, and the recurring arrow motif still found in the brickwork and stair railings of the Administration Building reminds us that this once was "the Factory behind the Great Arrow Car."