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Meet Up With a Model T

Auto-themed spaces provide a historic backdrop for meetings

By Kathy Gibbons

Historically the home of many of the nation’s largest automobile manufacturers, Michigan boasts a variety of museums and other historical settings dedicated to and celebrating the evolution of cars. Even better for meeting planners, many offer space for private group events and activities. At these venues, attendees get a chance to see gleaming specimens on wheels from throughout the years.

General Motors’ Factory One building in Flint || Courtesy of General Motors Media Archives

Some vehicular venues in the state are affiliated with and offer collections specific to one manufacturing company, like the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum in Detroit. This spot is in the original factory and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Others that do not have industry roots feature collections and events along with spaces for group gatherings large and small.

“The museum is filled with photo opportunities and conversation starters,” says Emma Bowling, office manager at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum. Located in Lansing, the museum houses more than 80 vehicles from between 1886 and 2004 that tell the story of the capital city’s automotive heritage. Bowling says the museum can accommodate 200 people, and there’s also a boardroom for 25. “The unique setting enhances the event experience,” Bowling adds.

Living History
The former manufacturing plant now housing the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum is the birthplace of the Model T, the famous automobile first produced in 1908 and generally regarded as the first of its kind to be affordable for the masses. The building was saved from demolition when the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex Inc. was organized in 2000 with a mission to protect the historic structure. “Our event spaces are smack in the middle of the museum,” says President and Chief Operating Officer Jill Woodward. The first level can fit 200 attendees standing, with space for another 100 if both floors are used. A variety of catering options are offered, although the museum accepts outside food vendors as well.

Meeting at Detroit’s Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum || Courtesy of Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum

Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners near Kalamazoo features around 80,000 square feet of exhibit and event space among its galleries and other facilities on 90 acres featuring 29 buildings and seven partner museums, notes Ken Fischang, director of commercial operations. With North America’s largest vintage automobile collection including about 400 cars and motorcycles, Gilmore commonly hosts corporate and association gatherings. Planners can rent the entire museum or just the areas that suit their needs—the spaces combined can accommodate about 3,000 people.

Owned by the Packard Motor Car Foundation, the Packard Proving Grounds Historic Site in Shelby Township is popular for events, says Executive Director Mary Anne Demo. The particularly historic portion of the former Packard Proving Grounds was rescued from demolition in 1999. “Visiting the Packard Proving Grounds is like stepping back in time,” Demo says.

The property offers multiple spaces for groups: Repair Garage Building with capacity for 296 seated; Lodge Garage Building with space for 100 seated or 200 theater-style; and Tank Testing Building, available for historic tours of its vehicles and displays that will also soon offer event space for 200 guests. Demo suggests that event attendees opt for Packard Taxi Rides—memorable excursions around the grounds in classic Packard vehicles—to get up and down the boulevard, weather permitting.

In Dearborn, The Henry Ford’s “Driving America” exhibit tells the story of the way automotive innovations have changed and influenced American life and culture. Vehicles range from an 1865 Roper Steam Carriage to a 1931 Bugatti and a 2002 Toyota Prius. The Henry Ford, along with Greenfield Village, offers seemingly endless venues for private gatherings including the elegant Lovett Hall.

Expanding Spaces
The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum just launched the Piquette Assembly Room event space, Woodward says. It sits in what were once the original offices for Ford Motor Co., and, at 4,000 square feet, it can comfortably fit 200 people strolling or 100 seated. “It’s a historic part of the plant,” Woodward explains. “Anyone coming to do business with Ford Motor Co. would come through that front door.”

The Gilmore is also adding new spaces: The Carriage House, which was the first building erected on the property, is being renovated to include an antique oak bar salvaged from a Detroit restaurant. The new exhibit and event space will accommodate up to 150. A covered outdoor pavilion is also being built by the Classic Car Club of America and will be available to groups. A 4,000-square-foot event center will have room for up to 300 people, with an indoor/outdoor rock fireplace and glass garage doors that can be opened to let fresh air—and cars—inside.

Boardroom at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing || Courtesy of R.E. Olds Transportation Museum

While currently closed, with its approximately 450-vehicle collection in storage, the General Motors Heritage Center formerly located in Sterling Heights will eventually reopen in GM’s one-time customer care and after-sales headquarters on 34 acres in Grand Blanc. The Heritage Center was opened in 2004 to feature GM’s collection of vehicles and will provide an event space where the company’s heritage would be showcased, says Kevin Kirbitz, GM director of heritage operations.

“In the old location, you were physically in the center of the collection,” Kirbitz says. “We would have to move vehicles out to stage an event. In the new building, we’re planning on having a separate events area for dinners or large meetings. Certainly, we’ll have a couple of vehicles there, but it will be separate from the vehicle galleries.” At 30,000 square feet, the new facility also will display about 450 cars versus the 150 in the previous location.
GM also operates the Factory One building in Flint, which Kirbitz describes as the birthplace of the automobile company. The multiuse facility features about 8,000 square feet for events—and like the other museums, gives visitors a glimpse into the past of Michigan’s auto industry.

Woodward notes, “It’s just nice for people to come to the place where it all began.”

fordpiquetteplant.org
gilmorecarmuseum.org
gm.com/heritage
thehenryford.org
packardprovinggrounds.org
reoldsmuseum.org

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