Historic Detroit

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Vernors Bottling Plant

For 31 years, Detroit's "deliciously different" ginger ale was produced in this plant near the campus of Wayne State University, helping to tickle generations of taste buds.

The story of Vernors has been told many times over the years, though it is believed there is some hyperbole in the tale. Detroit pharmacist James Vernor ran a small corner drug store at Clifford Street and Woodward Avenue. He was born April 11, 1843, in Albany, N.Y., and moved to Detroit with his family when he was 5.

Ginger drinks were something of a rage in the 1860s, and Vernor fiddled with different recipes for ginger ale. He was seeking to "tame the fire" of ginger root to create something both distinctive but refreshing. With the onset of the Civil War, Vernor heard duty calling, and he enlisted in 1862 in the 4th Michigan Cavalry - the unit that captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But before he left Detroit, the legend goes, he poured one last mixture into a charred oaken barrel. When he returned four years later, in 1866, he discovered his drink's secret ingredient: time.

Using the date of this key moment in ginger ale history, Vernors claimed to be the nation's oldest soft-drink bottler - and its ginger ale would be "flavor-mellowed in wood for four years" from then on out. The wiz of fizz started selling his aged ginger ale at a soda counter in his pharmacy, and it quickly became the talk of town.

It also made him a popular figure in the pre-motor Motor City, and helped him serve 25 years on the Detroit Common Council, often clashing with popular Mayor Hazen S. Pingree on issues such as public transportation. He also was a founding member of the Michigan Board of Pharmacy, which was formed in 1887, and was Michigan's first licensed pharmacist, and held state pharmacist license No. 1. Detroit's Vernor Highway is named after him.

In 1896, with his ginger elixir selling better than his medicinal ones, Vernor closed his pharmacy and moved a bit down Woodward to open a soda counter and plant devoted exclusively to making his power-packed punch. (Though anyone who grew up in Michigan knows that warm Vernor's doubles as a "medicine" for upset tummies and the common cold). That same year, his son, James Vernor II, joined his pops in the pop business. In 1918, the company - then Vernor's, with an apostrophe - bought the old Riverside Power Plant. A year later, it built a six-story main building. Vernor died of pnuemonia and influenza at age 84 on Oct. 29, 1927, in Grosse Ile, Mich. He is buried at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.

His son kept the bubbles coming, however, and in 1939, Vernor's bought the 10-story Siegel Building adjacent to their operations. Two years after that, its renovation was topped off by the installation of what was said to be the most modern bottling plant in the world, one that relied on gravity to move the bottles.

Over its many years of delighting Detroiters, the company would have seven plants in the city, with its last move being spurred by a decidedly different reason than expansion.

Deliciously different in a familiar part of town

In 1951, the City of Detroit wanted to raze much of lower Woodward, including the old Vernor's plant on Woodward Avenue south of Jefferson Avenue, to make way for the Civic Center development that would become Hart Plaza. In exchange, Mayor Albert Cobo offered Vernor's the old Convention Hall (designed by the firm Esselstyn & Murphy) on Woodward between Forest Avenue and West Canfield Street.

Perhaps it was appropriate, as the new plant was near where James Vernor lived. Before the Convention Hall was built in 1922, the site was a winter favorite gathering spot where neighborhood kids used to ice-skate.

A deal was struck and the City issued its condemnation notice on the Vernor's plant on Sept. 22, 1951.

The soda company would demolish most of the hall but chose to incorporate some of the old building's shell into the warehouse area. Vernor's invested $5 million (about $48.4 million today, when adjusted for inflation) into its new plant. Occupying more than seven acres and with a daily capacity of 75,000 cases or 6 million bottles of the snappy soda per day - more than 1,000 a minute - and it also produced draft ale syrup, it ranked as one of the soda industry's leading showplaces. Passersby were able to peer through large windows and watch the bottling process. Vernor's boasted that it showed off the cleanliness and efficiency of its process - and certainly helped advertise to those looking to whet their whistles.

At 250,000 square feet, the facility was 3,000 square feet larger than its old home.

However, company Chairman James Vernor II, son of the founder, died June 30, 1954, shortly before the opening of the new yellow-and-green extract and bottling plant. Vernor's formally opened the facility on Sept. 18, 1954. The plant was designed by the Detroit firm Harley, Ellington & Day.

The giant exclamation point on the plant was a 55-foot-tall neon sign featuring the Vernor's gnome pouring a bottle of the fizzy ginger ale into a glass. It was so large and generated so much heat from all its lights, the sign required its own air-conditioning system. It was turned on for the first time at 9 p.m. June 4, 1954.

In 1959, Vernor's dropped the apostrophe, and this meant removing it from the giant sign, too.

In addition to bottling the ginger ale, the plant also bottled RC (Royal Crown) Cola.

The company's 100th anniversary in 1966 saw a rather surprising way to celebate: The Vernor family sold its stock to New York investors, and the company passed out of family control. In 1971, the company was sold to American Consumers Products. Eight years later, the bubbly brand was flipped to United Brands Co. of New York, a banana and meatpacking company. At the time of the sale, Vernors had a 0.2 percent share of the U.S. soft drink market and was considered the leader in sales of stronger-flavored ginger ales.

On Jan. 19, 1985, Vernors announced that it was closing the plant and company headquarters and moving to the suburbs. The last bottle of Vernors filled and capped at the Woodward Avenue plant was produced on Jan. 18, 1985. A few months later, a plan was announced in May 1985 to build a new Vernors extract and headquarters facility near Eastern Market in Detroit. That plan went nowhere.

Gnashing the gnome

The plant, which had sat abandoned for two years and left stuffed with Vernors crates and other ephemera (though its bottling machinery had been removed), was demolished starting in November 1987 by Metro Wrecking Co. of Detroit. The large painted sign depicting Jerome the Gnome that adorned the building's northeast corner was saved and today can be seen on display at Pure Detroit's store inside the Guardian Building.

Shula Associates of Chicago, which bought the property for $250,000 in January 1986, floated the idea of building a shopping mall on the 11-acre site. The 250,000-square-foot plant was expected to be completely demolished in 60 days and begin site preparation the following spring for a shopping center. Schula's two partners, Morton Skolnik of Chicago and Jaime Weiss of Hackensack, N.J., wanted their mall to be anchored by a drug store and serving Wayne State University students and faculty.

"Located about a mile north of downtown, next to one of the city's poshest restaurants, the Whitney, and not far from the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, the Vernors site could be at the heart of a redeveloped Woodward Avenue," columnist John Gallagher wrote in the Detroit Free Press a full year later, in November 1988.

That plan also did not happen.

Oddly, even after the plant was demolished, the giant sign remained. In January 1986, a year after the plants closure, neon artifacts collector Brad Hurtado of suburban Royal Oak, Mich., bought the rights to salvage the neon off the sign. He contacted the people at the plant, then owned by Pepsi, and paid for the rights to salvage the sign, which was headed for the scrap heap.

By 1987, the sign was looking especially forlorn after having been stripped of all its decorative neon. Two years after the plant's demolition, popular Detroit Free Press columnist Bob Talbert asked, "When are they going to take down that faded old greenish-and-yellowed giant? It's an eyesore next to the elegant Whitney restaurant."

On Aug. 19, 1987, a letter of intent was signed with United Brands agreeing to sell Vernors to A&W Brands Inc. A&W had dipped into Michigan soft drink brands before, having bought Holland, Mich.-based Squirt a year earlier, in December 1986.

The White Plains, N.Y.-based A&W said it would leave Vernors' suburban Southfield headquarters and extract plant in Taylor, Mich., in place. "We are not going to take Vernors out of Michigan or Michigan out of Vernors," Michael Weinstein, executive vice president of A&W Brands, told the Free Press at the time. That would not be a promise kept.

On Sept. 27, 1989, Wayne State University's Board of Governors voted to approve buying the former Vernors site for $3.4 million to solve some of its parking problems.

In March 2007, developer Marcel Burgler of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Prime Development, broke ground on the $34 million Studio One Apartments project on the former site of the Vernors plant. Prime Development invested $22 million into the project and partnered with Wayne State, which still owned the land. The five-story building features 124 one- and two-bedroom apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail. It was the first major market-rate residential project in Detroit in more than 30 years and was the university's first partnership with a private developer. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the development was held July 29, 2008.