Saturday, March 8, 2008

Making a Case for Delco

Following up on the previous post comparing the Delco/Mendelsons building with the Belknap complex in Louisville, this is an in-depth look at the growth of the surviving Delco blocks, making a case for these as a historic structures representative of a period in the industrial history of Dayton.

The first Delco building was in spec industrial space. Beaver Power Building #1, built in 1910. In Dayton at that time spec loft industrial spaces were called “power buildings”, as they used to have their own power supply, at first from steam prime movers and belt systems, later via on-site electric generators.


(today this is better known as the Saint Clair Lofts)

Beaver was a local industrialist, in the tobacco trade in the 1880s (Beaver and Butt), and later a soap manufacturer (“Grandpa’s Wonder Soap"). Like many local industrialists Beaver went into real estate. in this case industrial lofts.

From the Industrial History of Dayton, by Charles H. Paul:

“The Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco)…,started operations in the Beaver Power Building. It was during the following year that the first ten sets of starters were completed, and the demand for them was so great and so insistent that additional manufacturing space was required immediately. Mr. Fred P. Beaver had just begun the construction of a new industrial building, and negotiations were made with him whereby this building would be adapted to the use of this new industry. The Delco actually moved in and started operations before the building was completed and, during the year 1912, eight thousand sets of starters were produced”



..the “new industrial building” is Beaver Power #2 , apparently the first building fully occupied by Delco. Yet it was initially conceived as a spec industrial space.

Continuing with the Paul history:

“The growth of the business was phenomenal, due to the great demand for the product and because the of the business methods and ability of the men behind it. By the year 1915 the company was turning out about three thousand sets per day, and an additional building was required to house the growing business.”

This is the “additional building”, the familiar local landmark. It is historic as the first factory purpose-built for Delco:




And a diagram on how Delco grew on this site. The 1926 building and 1946 addition are gone now, torn down years ago. The 1918 building, which was some sort of motorpool or garage, is Miami Jacobs. The red shaded structures show the historic Delco buildings, and the dotted lines are earlier structures on site.

It should be noted that it was chance that Delco was located here, or even formed at all. The original plan was to license manufacturing of the starter, but the one of the first large customer apparently insisted that the inventors also manufacture the product.

If it wasn’t for this stipulation Delco wouldn’t have formed as an industrial firm, the plant wouldn’t have been built here, or even in Dayton, if the licensee was out of town.



From the 1919 Sanborn Map one can see how Delco was occupying the entire block, re-using older structures for their purpose. The shape of the 1915 loft factory seems to imply that the building could be extended around the entire block with a large light well in the middle.

A note on Pinneo and Daniels. This was an wagon/carriage component manufacturer, making wheel parts. One of 600 nationwide, the market was smaller vehicle making firms who bought components as a way of reducing assembly costs to compete with mass-produced carriages. Dayton had a few vehicle component, carriage and wagon works (not a big center), including a large mass –production facility on the west side.

So its fitting that it was taken over and then replaced with yet another vehicle component manufacturer



The 1919 Sanborn provides information on what was happening inside the 1915 loft building, by floor. One can imagine this place is built like a brick outhouse, considering the type of machinery and processes going on even on the upper floors…presses, machine shops, etc.




An overview of the complex, probably around 1930, showing the 1929 addition, the 1926 building, and the old Pinneo and Daniels factory.



Reading Delco.

At first glance the building reads as one large block, built around the same time. But closer inspection reveals some differences. Note the decorative parapet, which is how one can identify the 1929 addition.


The 1941 addition is less clear, as the 1929 fa├žade is just extended.




By 1950 the entire block is filled in, mostly with the 1941 addition. The difference is that there is a low 2 story shipping and receiving annex at the northeast corner.

There is also a light well hidden inside the building (as of 1950), but it only goes down three floors from the top, the remaining four floors to the ground are filled with more factory space


The northeast corner, labeled to cross reference with the Sanborn. The elevators show via the mechanical penthouses. One can imagine how busy these were, hauling people, material, and parts between floors.
And finally, a view of the entire complex in the years after WWII. Probably over 1,000 workers here, but note the lack of parking lots. I guess people were still taking the bus to work (& funny seeing those Quonset huts on top of the 1946 building)

Just behind Delco one can see the long low art-moderne Sears store; consumer goods for blue collar workers bought with wages earned at Delco.

And those wages were going up, as this was the first GM plant in Dayton to win a union contract. The story of organizing the industrial workforce is part of the hidden history of Dayton, with next to nothing written. So one has to rely on the odd masters theses, boxes of old stuff in library archives, and old microfilms of union newspapers to figure it out.

I will be doing a brief history on union organizing in Dayton in the next post.

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