Lileks: St. Paul's Ford plant isn't the first to close in these parts

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2011 - 8:33 PM

Three interesting developments in our local landmark landscape.

One: New plans were revealed for the weary Peavey Plaza by Orchestra Hall. Two: The stadium debate moved into Phase No. 845, the Very Special Session phase, where they'll float plans like selling your kidneys to foreign medical markets to pay for the new building (technically, it's not a tax but a "one-time 50 percent organ easement").

And three: The St. Paul Ford plant, which has had its neck in the splintered holster of the corporate guillotine since 2005, will close six days before Christmas, barring a miracle where Santa shows up and places an order for 100,000 Rangers. Probably not; he only pulls that stuff on Christmas Eve. Before that, he's completely booked.

At first glance, these events seem to have little in common, but the closer you look, the more you realize that they really don't have anything in common. Thanks for reading! We'll see you on Sunday with more fresh, daring insight on our modern times.

No, can't do that. Choose one. Stadium? No. Writing about the stadium is like trying to change the direction of an advancing glacier by singing at it. Peavey Plaza? I like it. Next.

That leaves the Ford plant, and that's apt, since it's leaving us.

St. Paul will survive. After all, Minneapolis lost a Ford plant and survived. Wha? you say. Minneapolis had one, too?

Yes, and it's right down there by the Twins stadium ... OWWWW! (Sorry, there's an automatic Taser that drops down from the ceiling if you don't write "Target Field.")

It doesn't look like a car factory, but that's what it was: built in 1913, it was one of Ford's first plants outside Detroit. Eleven floors tall. It doesn't expect you to love it, and it doesn't care.

For years after its industrial period it was home to artists, which inevitably led others to call it "funky," or occasionally "gritty," which usually means graffiti, broken glass and the baroque human aromas in the stairwells.

Now it's being purged of grit and funk: a $42 million overhaul will prepare it for its second century as an office building -- hushed, elegant rooms, clickety keyboards, burbling phones. Happy ending.

Its new incarnation will lack the smoke and clang and stink of the old factory, but it's been silent longer than you might think. Oh, it was busy in its day: They made a quarter-million flivvers in the plant in the first seven years. Parts came via a railway that ran under the building; the parts went up to the top, were turned into cars by the swift, deft digits of the men on the line, and then deposited back on the train as fully functional Fords. Magic, if you didn't know what went on inside. Magic, even if you did.

But the plant closed in 1923, supposedly over a property dispute with the city. One suspects it had something to do with the vast amount of cheap hydroelectric power about to come on line in St. Paul.

That's right: They closed the Minneapolis plant because it was cheaper to make the product somewhere else. Just as some snarl today when a plant decamps for Mexico or the South, so Minneapolitans shook their fists at the perfidious job-stealers in St. Paul.

So it's all OK, right? Things change! Let's move along, tra la la. But it's not OK. You can remake a vertical factory into offices, but not a sprawling auto plant, unless everyone gets a Segway because the bathrooms are half a mile down the hall.

Years ago they might have knocked down the St. Paul Ford plant for a big Lifestyle Center where people pay 18 percent interest on their credit cards to buy premium ice cream and throw pillows and meticulously pre-destroyed jeans. But I think we're done with that.

Even if it's partly converted to a vast data processing center, it won't make you feel the same way when you drive past. There's a difference between doing things and making things.

So: Why not put the Vikings stadium there?

Sure, access might be tough -- bring them in on boats, or shuttles that load up at, say, Peavey Plaza. (Whoa: All the subjects do fit together.) It wouldn't be as good as a manufacturing plant, and making a first down isn't the same as making a truck. But maybe Ford could cough up a buck for naming rights to defray the cost of construction.

It's not like they owe us. But we do go back a long, long ways.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush.

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