Restored architectural gem stands out in its industrial space You don’t usually associate large manufacturing factories with architectural beauty. Sightseers at the Ford Rouge Complex’s glass plant, however, might be inclined to think otherwise.
This plant looks different. No concrete, only rivets and steel. From inside, the high roof and floor-to-ceiling windows create an unusually airy, spacious atmosphere. Natural light can’t help but stream in, creating a softness and easy glow.
Designed by famed American industrial architect Albert Kahn, the Ford Rouge’s glass plant was built in 1923 as an automotive glass-production facility. “It was about achieving volume,” Don Pijor, launch manager at the Dearborn Truck Plant and site expert for the glass plant, said of the building’s original design. “This space was built with steel columns riveted together, which gives it much more usable real estate.”
In the late ‘90s, the 40,000-square-foot building was taken out of the complex’s production equation, its sweeping windows covered with aluminum and its new primary purpose as a warehouse.
When the restoration process began in the mid-2000s, the original intent was to transition the building into office space. Pijor later helped persuade Ford Motor Company leadership to put the plant to better use as a prove-out and employee training building for the Ford F-150, the truck built at the Rouge’s Dearborn Truck Plant.
Careful decisions were made at every corner during the restoration. The building’s window glass, for example, had come from Europe, so the restoration team reached out overseas to the original manufacturer for the glass to replace the windows. Entry doors to a fire station that was part of the building’s layout were also replaced to replicate those of the original specs.
“It’s beautiful,” Cynthia Jones, The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour manager, said of the glass plant today. “There’s lots of natural light, and even though the fire station doors are in an area the public doesn’t see, restoring them showed respect for the continuing history of the site.”
Today, the glass plant is a house for innovation, used for prototyping by Ford engineers and designers. As a result of its newfound purpose, the building’s glass at the lower levels is frosted so outsiders can’t see the confidential work being done inside.
Said Jones of balancing the building’s historical integrity with its modern uses, “When you’re making choices about restoring buildings, you look at product — what is it we’re making at this place and what does it need? You’re also employee-driven because if they can’t do their job well here, changes have to be made. Third, how does it affect the area around it? I think this site has that balance.”
Though the effectiveness of the plant’s current functions are at the forefront of any decision-making about its form, preserving its history is meaningful for the people who work there as well as for posterity. Added Pijor, “To sit in this space and watch flaming ore cars go by, it’s as if it has been like this for 100 years.”
National Historic Landmark The Ford Rouge Complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
The rare designation (with just 2,500 historic landmarks nationwide) usually restricts future changes to a site. The Ford Rouge Complex, however, is recognized as remaining in continual operation, which means the designation can be maintained even as the site continues to evolve.
“It’s important for the public to be aware” of the designation, said Jones. The designation is marked at the complex’s entry with a plaque and a statue of Henry Ford.
Summer 2015 marked 100 years since Ford started acquiring the property which the Rouge now inhabits. “We’re carving out space within this giant industrial complex to recognize its history and the history of the hundreds of thousands of people that have been employed here,” said Jones.
Glittering, prismatic cut glass chandeliers were the most impressive pieces produced by Irish glass houses. This chandelier was made about 1795. (THF99901)
Imagine being invited to dine at a well-appointed house in Philadelphia, New York City, or Charleston at the end of the 18th century. You are welcomed into the house by a servant and led into the reception room by your hosts. After exchanging pleasant conversation, you are escorted into a dining room arrayed with fine china and brilliantly cut glassware. The room is illuminated by a large candlelit chandelier, as well as candlesticks and candelabras. The overall effect is glittering and prismatic.
Much of this cut glass would have been made in Ireland. Even today, when we think of cut glass, an Irish company—Waterford—is the first name that comes to mind.
Ireland’s Glass Industry
In the 18th century, glassmakers in England and Ireland (which was part of Great Britain) created exquisite glassware known as Anglo-Irish glass. These English and Irish craftsmen had learned techniques for producing fine glass from the Venetian artisans who had dominated European high end glassmaking prior to this time.
Yet, these English and Irish artisans evolved a distinct recipe that differed in its composition from Venetian glass: a mixture containing calcinated flints and pebbles, and employing lead oxide as a flux, or binder. The lead gave their glass a higher degree of refraction, creating glass that, when cut, could exude a brilliance unseen in previous European wares, greatly increasing its reflective qualities. In the shadowy, candlelit rooms of the 18th century, this increased illumination was very welcome. Soon, these English and Irish glassmakers specialized in cut glass—clear glass, not colored, since it better showed the brilliance of the faceting. These English and Irish makers built factories during the first half of the 18th century as the unique refractive quality of their glass gained them worldwide fame.
As part of the British Empire, Ireland was subject to British trade policies. Indeed, from 1745 until 1780, the Irish glass industry was not allowed to compete with English-made glass within the British Empire. Irish entrepreneurs put pressure on the British Parliament and in 1780 all restrictions were lifted. This “Period of Freedom,” as it was known, continued until 1825, when Parliament reinstated the tariffs. During this relatively brief span, the Irish glass houses of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Waterford produced incomparable wares, based on contemporary English designs. During this period of free trade, Irish glassmakers exported a large amount of glassware of all kinds—everything from tiny salt cellars and wine glasses to large scale candelabras and chandeliers.
Irish Glass in American Homes
The deeply flanged rim combined with alternating cut prisms on this 1800-1815 fruit bowl captured and reflected the candlelight in an elegant dining room. (THF155628)
This 1807-1808 Epergne combines deeply cut Waterford glass inserts with a silver support. Epergnes were used as centerpieces on dining room tables in the most fashionable homes (THF112273).
This circa 1780 fluted tumbler held wine or water at table. Gilded floral garland decorations like the ones on the surface of this tumbler don’t often survive in such good condition. (THF155630)
Beginning in the 1780s, Americans saw significant Irish imports, although these would have been sold alongside glass from Central Europe (Germany and Bohemia) as well as British goods made in England. Nevertheless, the reputation for finely cut and faceted chandeliers and tableware put Irish glass at a premium. Americans loved the look of Irish glass. The dazzling effect of the reflection in candlelight showed that Americans, now independent of Britain, could attain interiors as fashionable as those in London.
In addition to dining rooms where cut glass serving ware predominated, Irish cut glass might be placed in parlors and other public rooms. If the homeowner was very wealthy, a candlelit chandelier could find its way into a parlor, too.
A preference for glass tableware extended well below the upper crust in late 18th-and early 19th-century America. The estate inventory of Robert Palethorp, Jr., a 27-year-old Philadelphia pewterer who died in 1822, reveals much about the contents of his middle class household. The goods in the parlor of Palethorp’s five-room house included four glass salts, 11 wine glasses, five glass tumblers, pme glass decanter and two quart pitchers (that were also probably made of glass) (THF113594).
American Glassmakers Join In
In the years following American independence, there was an interest in building a local glass industry. In the first half of the 19th century, foreign craftsmen, including Irish emigrants, sought greater opportunities in America. By the 1830s and 1840s, various firms—established by American entrepreneurs as well as immigrant craftsmen—located in coastal cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, and inland places such as Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia. They gained renown for their fine cut glass tableware, many based on Anglo-Irish designs.
During the late 1820s and 1830s, American entrepreneurs also began experimenting with machine-pressed glass as a less costly alternative to cut glass. One of the leaders in this field was the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, based in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Their early works are known as “Lacy” glass, which have a stippled surface intended to hide wrinkles caused by machine pressing on cold glass. Early pressed glass manufacturers sought to imitate the motifs found in expensive cut glass, specifically those pieces made in English and Irish glass houses. Americans of all economic means soon adopted pressed glass, although for the very wealthy, demand continued for cut glass.
Irish glass as a force in the international marketplace declined precipitously in the years after 1825. The impact of inexpensive pressed glass combined with a reinstatement of tariffs quickly decimated Ireland’s glass industry. The last to close was the Waterford house in 1851. (The firm that we know today was reestablished in 1947.)
The legacy of Irish glass lies in the elegant tableware and chandeliers of deeply cut, prismatic glass that we treasure today.
Nearly all of the Irish glass in The Henry Ford’s collection was acquired in the 1920s and 1930s, when Henry Ford began collecting in earnest for his museum. The objects included elegant chandeliers to light the front corridors of the museum (after being electrified), and cut-glass lighting devices and tableware to display in exhibits. For much of his early collecting activities, Henry Ford employed antiquarians such as Charles Woolsey Lyon, who helped locate and acquire decorative arts objects. In addition to Henry Ford, Lyon also acquired works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Henry Francis du Pont, who went on to found Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
The large and small diamond patterns on these 1825-1845 pressed glass plates derive from Anglo-Irish patterns (THF304774) and (THF113593).
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve visited Henry Ford Museum, you may know that Corning Glass Works’ patented ribbon machines manufactured incandescent bulb blanks faster than ever before. But did you know that these machines could also mass-produce Christmas ornaments?
By the 1950s, a retrofitted glass ribbon machine at Corning’s Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant could turn out 1,000 glass ornament bulbs per minute! Read on to discover how a bit of innovative engineering, a world war, and some prodding from industry leaders helped Corning become America’s primary glass ornament supplier. (To see our 1928 Corning Glass Ribbon Machine, look here.)
Americans flirted with imported glass Christmas tree ornaments before the Civil War, and by the 1890s, it seemed they were in love. European artisans turned out huge quantities of shiny glass ornaments for the American market—glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany produced 600 ornaments per day! The affair even outlasted the blockades and embargoes of World War I, although American consumers nearly exhausted huge quantities of German ornaments stockpiled before the war. A few domestic manufacturers tried, but could never quite master the intricate glassblowing techniques or silvered lacquers that made European ornaments so popular. As postwar production ramped up overseas in the 1920s, European imports grew to 99% of the 50 to 80 million ornaments sold in the United States each year.
Stateside importers and retailers had a great deal to lose should anything impede the lucrative European-American ornament trade. One major stakeholder was the F.W. Woolworth Company. F.W. Woolworth first imported European glass ornaments in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, consumers depended on Woolworth stores nationwide for their yearly Christmas decorations. Max Eckardt, a German immigrant, also relied on the success of the ornament industry. Eckardt—who began importing ornaments around 1907, opened his own German ornament factory in 1926, and oversaw product distribution from his offices in New York City—had extensive knowledge of the German-American Christmas trade. In the late 1930s, as World War II rumbled ominously on the European horizon, he set out to secure the future of his ornament business on American soil.
In the summer of 1939, just as an Allied blockade of threatened to sever the German ornament supply, Eckardt and a representative from F.W. Woolworth Company visited Corning Glass Works, a large American glass manufacturer headquartered in New York. Corning had only experimented briefly with ornament manufacture before this meeting, but the two businessmen urged the company to begin full-scale production. It was a calculated choice—the company owned high-speed ribbon machine technology that could be converted to mass-produce ornament bulbs. Armed with this patented machinery and the promise of large orders from Eckardt and Woolworth, Corning agreed to enter the glass ornament business. Within a few months, Corning Glass Works was manufacturing more than half of the Christmas tree decorations sold in the United States.
Wartime Ornament Decoration
Though Corning converted just one ribbon machine to manufacture ornament bulbs, production was staggering. In 1940, Corning produced 40,000,000 clear glass ornament bulbs at its Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant. About 1/3 of these were decorated in-house. The remainder was sold to outside decorating companies.
The first domestically-produced ornaments mimicked European imports. The inside of each bulb received a coat of silver lacquer; the outside was tinted with colored dye. Then, after any desired hand decoration, the shiny baubles were topped with tight metal caps.
But in 1941, when the United States entered World War II, decorators were forced to rethink the American ornament. Popular lacquers became impossible to import, and most metals were diverted to the war effort. Despite material restrictions and wartime shortages, many innovative companies used available paints, sprays of tinsel, and even cardboard to decorate ornaments throughout the war.
Max Eckardt, who’d been instrumental in securing blank bulbs from Corning for his four New Jersey decorating plants before the war, produced some of the most popular domestic ornaments under the name Shiny Brite. Examples of Shiny Brite ornaments from The Henry Ford’s collection document the development of American ornaments through World War II.