Federal Center South Building No. 1206, Seattle, WA

The original Ford Factory Oil House, Building 1206 (WA956KC) is a one story building located southeast of the original Main Assembly Plant. It contains 6,545 sq. ft., including a non-occupied basement. A 240' long, below-grade access tunnel leads from this building to the original Main Assembly Building, Federal Center South Building 1201.

The building is 62' wide and 113' long, oriented with its sides parallel to East Marginal Way. It sits at the end of the 600' dock on Slip No. 1 of the Duwamish Waterway. This building is much smaller than the Main Assembly Plant, but shares many physical characteristics with the larger facility. It is a very simple form -- a rectangular mass with a gabled roof. The roof is clad with dark red, cement composite tile. Exterior walls are constructed of 8" thick unreinforced, wheat-colored masonry with cast stone trim and a capstone at the parapet. A circular, cast stone decorative element is placed flush with the masonry at the gable end walls.

The structure is a steel truss with pre-cast concrete tiles spanning between the structural steel purlins. The steel trusses are 62' wide, and constructed from angle and plate stock with riveted connections. The building is supported by a 24,465 sq. ft. dock structure constructed of 18" square, reinforced concrete pilings and beams, and a 9" thick, reinforced concrete slab.

Most of the original exterior features have been retained. The windows are an "industrial" sash type windows with painted steel frames and multi-light sash, awning type operators, and single pane glazing. The north portion of the building is raised 30" above grade to provide a concrete loading dock at the north end and part of the east side. Exterior steps to the loading dock are made of cast-in-place concrete with painted metal pipe handrails and guardrails. On grade access is provided at the east side door and at a door on the south side.

Although the exterior of Building 1206 retains most of its original appearance, the interior was changed when the building was converted to offices in the mid-1970s. The original interior was divided into three main spaces which have been further subdivided. The elevation of the floor at the southern half was adjusted for level access and under floor wiring. New partitions and interior finishes were installed. Interior finishes presently consist of gypsum wallboard, exposed masonry and plaster. Ceiling heights have been lowered from the original 12' height and consist of suspended systems with acoustic tiles. A foam substrate has been added to the roof to provide insulation. In addition, 1" thick blanket-type insulation has been placed in the cavity above the suspended ceiling tiles. Floor finishes include carpet, vinyl tile and exposed concrete. The interior stair between the two floor levels is made of metal treads.

Offices are typically lit with natural light from perimeter windows and through the "open landscape" layout. Lighting is also provided by surface-mounted and recessed fluorescent fixtures. Mercury vapor fixtures are provided on the exterior of the building entrance. Original, incandescent, stem-mounted wall fixtures with conical metal reflectors remain at the exterior west wall. These are not provided with lamps.

Federal Center South is located just south of downtown Seattle between East Marginal Way and the Duwamish River. Buildings 1201 and 1206 of the Center were designed by Albert Kahn and built in 1930-1932 as the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant. A world-renown industrial architect, Kahn is credited with revolutionizing American factory design just as Henry Ford is credited with revolutionizing the manufacturing process.

Building 1206, the Ford Factory "Oil House", was originally a service building with underground pipeline and tunnel connections to Building 1201, the Main Assembly Plant. Although Building 1201 visually dominates the Ford Factory/Federal Center South site, Buildings 1201 and 1206 are historically a single functional unit.

Kahn's industrial buildings are known for their exposed steel structure, linear plans, complex roof profiles, operable clerestory windows, generous column spacing and judicious placement of utilities. These features were developed for the expressed purpose of allowing assembly-line production; departmental layouts sufficiently elastic to permit rearrangement and expansion; unobtrusive elevators, restroom, lockers and stairs; adequate natural and artificial light and ventilation; and low construction and maintenance costs. Buildings 1201 and 1206 at Federal Center South embody many of these distinctive characteristics of Kahn's industrial building and represent the type and method of construction of the period. When fully evaluated, Federal Center South may prove to be Seattle's finest example of mid-twentieth century industrial architecture.

Additionally, the Ford Assembly Plant is a local representation of national economic trends ca. 1920-1940. It was born out of the economic boom of the 1920s, an era which was characterized by the automobile industry. It was built at a pivotal time when industry was not only a symbol of employment, but also patriotism.

The Ford Motor Company first began production in Seattle in 1913. One source suggests that the multi-story factory that Ford built on South Lake Union (presently the Craftsman Press Building) was its first regional assembly plant. By the early 1920s, however, Ford had abandoned multi-story plants as inefficient in favor of linear, one story factories. Announcement of the new Seattle factory was made in mid-1930 on the heels of the automobile industry's record year. It is not surprising that the plant was built as a regional distribution center by this time as Henry Ford was a proponent of industrial decentralization. (The $4,000,000 facility may not have been built had Ford known that the automobile industry would decline by more than 25% by the end of 1930, and would continue to decline in the following year.)

Indeed, by the time bids had been let and construction begun, Ford had announced that he wished "construction work gotten underway at the earliest practicable date, to benefit Seattle wage earners." Further, "Ford pointed out that this is in accord with President Hoover's campaign for winter employment." The contemporary business journal reported that because of the Ford Plant, "all-time Seattle building records for factory construction in any one year were shattered."

The general contractor for building the Ford Plant was Clinton Construction of San Francisco. However, many subcontracts went to local concerns. Additional jobs were generated by the continued dredging on the Duwamish River and the City's improvements on East Marginal Way.

In the spring of 1931, inspired by this huge construction project, the City ran "two page advertising spreads" in the Saturday Evening Post which told "several million people. . . that there is a young, progressive city out west that is carrying on despite (the) nationwide business depression."

Announcement of the factory's completion was made in late January, but the start of production was delayed "60 to 90 days" perhaps because automobile consumption had declined to a record low or perhaps because of some hindrance to the power production. By July of 1932, the Ford Plant was in production and an open house had been held for the public to witness the "famous assembly line" in action. Four cyclinder cars, trucks, and "the new V-8 cars" were produced. J.C. Donnelly served as the first plant manager.

Ford's tenure at this site was relatively short in spite of the fact that automobile production increased from 1933 to 1938. In 1940, Ford released the plant to the US Army. It then became the "Seattle General Depot". Ford continued a scaled-down operation during the mid-1940s at a Fourth Avenue South site, but by 1948 it was regional manufacturer and distributor of parts and accessories only.

By 1943, the US Army Corps of Engineers dominated the entire 4000 block of East Marginal Way with warehouses, depots, offices and clinics. The Corps remained at this location through 1956. From 1957 to 1970, the Boeing Airplane Company Missile Production Center was located in the old Ford Plant. Renovation plans dated 1973 indicate that the US Government reoccupied the site after Boeing. The original Ford Factory Oil House, Building 1206, was converted from industrial to office use as a part of the Federal Center South complex. Present tenants include the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Description Architect
1930 1932 Original Construction/Ford Assembly Plant Albert Kahn, Inc.
Last Reviewed: 2021-09-07