Northern Engineering Works

Detroit, Michigan (Map)

Spring 2014


Detroit's Atwater District extends roughly from the Renaissance Center to the Belle Isle Bridge, bounded by Jefferson Avenue to the north.

The lands along Jefferson Avenue were a popular place to flaunt your wealth with great mansions in the 1800s, but there was also great industry situated behind these places, including Detroit's mighty shipbuilding workforce, legendary Uniroyal Plant and countless smaller factories.

The buildings remained years later but the industrial activity quieted to a whisper by the time I had started looking around in late 2004. The brick streets and beautiful, three story, red brick buildings intrigued me, to the point that we stopped in 2005 to shoot a couple of leftover buildings from the aforementioned Uniroyal Plant (warning: hokey old update alert).

Of course we had missed the giant portion of Uniroyal by decades (the majority of the plant was demolished in 1985). In addition, the sizable Screw Works had just come down earlier in 2005, preceded by only a few months by the silos of Medusa Cement, two blocks over from Chene on Atwater & St. Aubin.

The Atwater District was always one of those places Donnie & I both liked, so even though it was a bit of a haul for us to come over here from Delray or Southwest, there was time spent here. The Gray Iron Foundry & Globe Trading Company were explored, along with watching the Soup Kitchen burn/get demolished, and a couple late nights watching this decrepit, graffiti-covered, shell of an old nightclub called The Spot; which we knew was home to the homeless, but never had the sense to think of visiting during the day (The Spot was demolished in 2006?)

From there, rundown buildings remained in this area but many of them were still in use or sealed tight. Where there was once a decaying district of former industry, now there was only cleared lots and protected buildings.

I'd cut through here while staying at the nearby Shorecrest Motor Inn & I loved a morning walk away from the old Omni Hotel at Stroh River Place; but that would be the extent of our Atwater expeditions into the 2010s.

During that morning walk away from the old Omni Hotel, I went up Atwater Street and past Northern Engineering Works, smiling at the red building shining in the early morning light as I was headed towards Detroit's Tri-Centennial Lighthouse. I remember that morning fondly.

With that, when Nailhed told me about the sudden demolition of the Northern Engineering Works, I once again grew disappointed with my inability to be everywhere all at once - especially Detroit on that given day.

Fortunately for me, demolition would stall for one reason or another, allowing there to be some of the building left during my May 2014 visit.

It was easy enough to find out that one of the buildings here was constructed for the Detroit Flax Company in 1867, then sold to Frontier Iron Works in 1872, before finally becoming Northern Engineering Works in 1885.

If it wasn't for Nailhed 'saving' an architectural study of redevelopment for this area 10 years ago, I'd have no idea that the standing portion in the above picture is the original 1867 building. I also wouldn't know that the cleared area where the excavator stood was from the mid-1880s addition. And that the hodgepodge of the remaining structural additions came in 1912, 1918, 1950 and 1952 according to Nailhed. One of the more interesting things he mentions is the incorporation of Louis Jubelo's saloon into the structure, an 1883 building that you can just catch at the right of the photo three photos back.

Walking onto the property, this is the backside of the 1867 structure, looking every bit the age of relaxed building codes yet fine brickwork.

From The Michigan Technic, Volume 31, 1918.

Northern Engineering Works was known for its cranes, hoists and foundry machinery. What you see pictures in the above picture is a traveling crane, one that is set on two runways and slides above the workers and machinery, bringing the hoist to whatever task is needed.

This isn't that hard for me to envision as I've seen them in a few abandoned places, but here's a picture of a random overhead traveling crane in case you're having trouble.

I found myself strolling east into the more-easily accessible buildings, the first one being a large open hall where you'd expect a Northern Engineering Works crane to be working overhead.

Continuing east there was a courtyard with no easy entrances and a wide view of Guoin Street - so I thought better of it. If I had known about Louis Jubelo's saloon beforehand, I might've pressed on, but how was I to know. Another point for reading and researching prior to visiting? Another point to being more thorough in any case?

Going back towards the 1867 structure, you can now see why I said the easy going was eastward. Nail had been here weeks earlier and learned that no interior staircases remained, so the only option was climbing the debris pile on up to the second floor.

I delayed and checked out the modernized, dark offices on the first floor for a short while, until eventually getting myself up the pile of wooden beams, bricks, ceiling pipes and other debris.

A large slump in the middle of the floor not even over by the debris, kept us to a certain route and wandering to a minimum. There was still a feeling here of the building's age, even though I only moved around an area about the size of a volleyball court.

Satisfied that there wasn't anything else to gain, two plush leather business chairs were retrieved and a Mickey's 40 was sipped as the sun lazily set, casting beautiful hues on what was left of the Northern Engineering Works all around us.

Although Nailhed states that the demolition stalled yet again, Google StreetView from October 2014 shows that they successfully cleared the remainder of the 1867 building, leaving a vacant lot at the corner of Atwater & Chene for the first time in 150 years. Hopefully this sets up a reuse of the standing buildings to the east, but it could just as easily mean a new building at Chene & Atwater and a new need to tear down the standing eyesores.

With a $60 million, 5 block neighbourhood coming to the vacant land surrounding the old Globe Trading Company only three blocks from here, the Atwater District continues to develop and grow. The main portion of Northern Engineering Works won't be part of the future, but who knows what'll come of the remaining portion, including Louis Jubelo's old 1883 tavern.


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Ontario Lighthouses: Kingsville & Leamington

Newer Update:
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1 - Detroit's S East Riverfront, People and Places of Yesterday - Kathryn Kozora
2 - The Book Of Detroiters, A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men of the City of Detroit - A.N. Marquis & Company, 1908
3 - Rivertown Site Plan Revealed, Paul Beshouri for Curbed Detroit
4 - Northern Exposure,

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