Federal Center South Building No. 1206, Seattle, WA
Location: 4735 E Marginal Way S, Seattle, WA 98134
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 cylinder 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).
- Architect: Albert Kahn
- Construction Dates: 1930-1932
- GSA Building Number: WA0956KC
- National Register of Historic Places Landmark Status: National Register Listed