Detroit played an important role in World War II. As the “Arsenal of Democracy,” automakers and their suppliers were refitted to build the machinery to win the war.
It also was a busy time for the city, pulling it up from the depths of the Great Depression. Real estate was at a premium — after all, this is before freeways and urban sprawl. What are known as “inner suburbs” today were mostly farms.
Let’s learn how a building that’s at the heart of downtown Detroit’s comeback along Woodward Avenue had a former life as part of the Manhattan Project, designing and building the first Atomic Bombs.
A problem a car company could solve
The U.S. Government needed to separate higher energy U-235 from the common kind found in uranium ore. But in order to do this, the newest technology was the gaseous diffuser.
According to a 1947 book, “Secret,” the Chrysler Corporation with their experience in metals was awarded a $75,000,000 government contract — worth more than a billion dollars today — to build this in 1943.
And so began Project X-100.
The process of separating the uranium, however, would eat through many kinds of metal, including steel. So a device made of solid Nickel was designed.
It would take all of the nickel mined in the United States for two years to pull it off. Not to mention, nickel was also being used for other things in the war effort. Even five cent coin nickels weren’t made of nickel from 1942 through 1945.
Chrysler President K.T. Keller had a different idea. What if you plated the nickel on steel, protecting it while using 1,000 times less nickel?
Despite doubts from experts, the process worked.
But this secret project needed a headquarters where Chrysler employees who worked on the project could operate independently and with the least chance of being discovered.
Most of the higher-ups at the company had no idea what they were really working on.
Attending a bond rally, Keller saw that an old department store that was vacant except for the first floor that was selling the war bonds.
While the diffusers themselves were built at Chrysler’s Lynch Road plant located on Detroit’s east side at Lynch and Mt. Elliot Streets, the braintrust was at 1525 Woodward for two years.
Their work had impact for decades. The 3,500 diffusers built in Detroit were used in Oak Ridge, Tennessee through the 1980s.
A familiar history
The building was also home to a familiar name to Detroiters.
Although some accounts say the first floor was being used to sell war bonds, right now I don’t believe that’s true. I was able to find a photo of both bond rally statuary and an active retail establishment.
It was the downtown home of none other than Sanders. Yeah, THAT Sanders.
So this building helped push out Bumpy cakes and atomic bombs.
The upper floors of 1525 eventually became an expansion of the next-door Grinnell Brothers music store.
It was designed by none other than Albert Kahn and built in 1912.
Today, the building is soon to be used as offices for LinkedIn. It’s owned by Dan Gilbert. It has recently undergone an extensive renovation bringing it back to its roots.
So the next time you walk down Woodward Avenue on your way to a Tigers game or between meetings, you can remember the important role this building played in American history.
And think of bumpy cake.