Construction History Society of America 7th Biennial
Housing Solidarity: Building by and for the United Auto Workers in Detroit, 1935–196X
Conference Presentation, June 2022

An early dispatch from a research project on the architectural and construction history of organized labor in the United States, in this paper I will narrate the strata of twentieth-century history on one particular site on the north side of Detroit, which since 1951 has served as headquarters of the UAW. Reaching backward to the founding of the union years earlier and forward to the strange, presently uncertain fate of the union’s headquarters building, known as Solidarity House, this history reveals the necessity of space and the functions of construction in the building — and maintenance — of class solidarity. Designed by Oscar Stonorov (a Philadelphia architect known primarily for labor union housing in that city and a personal friend of UAW President Walter Reuther) Solidarity House was located on the same site as an Italianate home once occupied by Edsel Ford, son of Henry and President of Ford Motor Company until his untimely death in 1943. The residence was originally built for lumber, railroad, and real estate baron Albert L. Stephens, making the history of this single site a microcosm for Detroit as a whole from Gilded Age to manufacturing mecca to the power-sharing détente established between labor and industry by midcentury.  Stonorov’s design aimed to capture the spirit of this optimistic alliance through the now-familiar forms, materials and construction methods of modernist architecture. What made Solidarity House unusual was its function. Unlike the slick symbols of consolidated corporate power that populate most textbooks on modernism, this was a building by and for laborers and their elected leaders.

Demolition of the Stephens/Ford House on the property of UAW Solidarity House, Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, ca. late 1950s. Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.