In 1903, at the behest of a group of investors, the Packard Automotive Company moved its headquarters from Warren, Ohio to Detroit. Then-president of the company, Henry Joy, looking for a fresh take on factory buildings, enlisted local architect Albert Kahn to design the company's complex. The first nine buildings on the site were built between 1903-1905. These followed the typical mill-style factory buildings of the time, with cramped rooms, wooden columns, floors, and ceilings, and very little natural light. Due to the large amount of wood used in construction, these buildings were fire hazards. By the tenth building, Packard #10, Kahn wanted to improve the design, by providing open spaces and large windows for lighting and ventilation, making workers comfortable and more productive. To create this new style, he sought help from his brother, Julius Kahn, a well-known engineer who was experimenting with new ways to reinforce concrete.
In 1904, Julius Kahn designed a trussed concrete steel re-bar reinforcement system, known as The Kahn Bar. This system features wings, bent at a 45 degree angle, along the length of steel re-bar which strengthened the concrete to prevent shearing at weak points. To further reinforce and stabilize this system, a Pratt Truss would be formed between the bent wings and the concrete, creating compression which makes the material resistant to shearing. This design allowed for much larger loads to be carried on concrete, larger spans between support columns, and increased use of fire-safe materials.
Utilizing his brother's Kahn Bar and the technical advantages it gave, Albert Kahn designed Packard #10 to be built using only reinforced concrete, allowing for the large open spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows that he wanted to provide for workers, along with much safer working conditions. The design for Packard #10 changed the way industrial buildings were designed and built. It was the first industrial building to use reinforced concrete for floors, ceilings, and columns. Through Albert Kahn's design for Packard #10, a new material and design concept were combined which changed the face of industrial buildings. Indeed, the construction and appearance of Packard #10 was so well received by the Packard Company that they entirely renovated the first 9 buildings in similar fashion. They were so impressed with the Kahn Bar, that all buildings eventually constructed at the site utilized Julius Kahn's products. The technical innovations of reinforced concrete factories exhibited in Packard #10 soon became standard for automobile factories across America. By 1910, the Packard Car Company had the largest auto plant in the United States. The complex would eventually comprise four million square feet of factory space and employ up to 40,000 workers at its peak.
During World War 1, the plant helped with the war effort, assembling airplane engines. Following the war, during the 1920s Packard began the transition from hand assembly to an assembly line. It was also during the 1920s that the company solidified its reputation for exceptional engineering and became known as one of the highest quality luxury vehicles produced in the United States. This reputation and its resultant demand led to further expansion of the plant, and technological innovations in automobile assembly led to continuing improvements of existing structures. In the late 1930s, the company installed a multistory automated assembly line to accommodate its tall structures which had become out dated in the face of new technology. In 1939, a bridge was built between the north and south halves of the plant.
In 1942, the Packard Plant joined other automotive factories in halting all car production and focusing on manufacturing for the WWII effort. The plant manufactured Rolls Royce aircraft engines, as well as naval engines for the United States and its allies. During the war years, the plant employed up to 36,000 people. The demand for engines and their production necessitated further expansion and upgrades to the plant. Immediately following the war, the plant went back to automobile production, again updating their plant’s assembly line. By 1954, however the multistory plan became obsolete and production of Packard's vehicles was transferred to a modern plant on Conner Avenue.
In 1956, the Packard Car Company went out of business entirely and in 1958 laid off the last caretaker of the plant on East Grand Boulevard. The company then sold off parts of the plant and leased out others to retail and industrial tenants. In 1960, Packard Properties of Illinois took out a mortgage on the site and continued leasing parcels up until 1987, when the plant was purchased by Bioresource.
In 1997, Bioresource filed for bankruptcy and acquired new owners. They agreed to start managing the plant for the city and collecting rent from tenants. In 1998, Dominic Cristini purchased Bioresource and the Packard Plant site. Shortly thereafter, the City took possession of the site, with the intent to demolish the buildings. The city even informed tenants they had to vacate the premises by February 1999, so the building could be demolished.
By 2006, most tenants had vacated and the property sat abandoned. In 2010, the final tenant of the Packard Plant, left the site, leaving the structures completely abandoned.
OPPMAC continued to claim ownership of the plant until 2012, when Wayne County began foreclosure proceedings and reclaimed the property, putting it up for auction in 2013. It was through the county’s auction that Arte Express Detroit, LLC purchased the property beginning the renovation of the historically significant plant.