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GM dedicates new technical center

On this day in 1956, executives from the Detroit-based automotive giant General Motors (GM) dedicate the new GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Costing around $100 million–or about half a billion in today’s dollars–to develop and staffed by around 4,000 scientists, engineers, designers and other personnel, the GM Technical Center was one of the largest industrial research centers in the world.

The two men most responsible for the size and scope of the Technical Center were Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the enormously influential chairman of GM, and Harley Earl, whom Sloan made GM’s chief stylist in 1927. Earl had made his name with the design of the 1927 LaSalle. Built by Cadillac, the LaSalle was the first production car to boast a sleek, long, rounded exterior, and its popularity made it a trendsetting model for years to come. When Sloan suggested that GM build a compound to house the company’s research projects, the ever-style-conscious Earl urged him to create a structure that was architecturally and aesthetically distinctive.

Sloan and Earl turned to the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen, who had previously been known for his work in collaboration with his father, noted architect Eliel Saarinen. The GM Technical Center was the younger Saarinen’s first independent project, and it would bring him immediate acclaim. Construction began in 1949 and was completed in 1955. Among the center’s strikingly modern buildings were a 132-foot water tower made of stainless steel and a gleaming aluminum dome that housed the GM styling auditorium. Saarinen was meticulous about the landscaping, planting more than 13,000 trees and 155 acres of lawn on the 330-acre site. The scale and visual beauty of the center invited comparisons to a 20th-century version of the royal complex at Versailles, in France.

According to a New York Times article published in May 1956, some 5,000 of the nation’s leading figures in science, engineering, industry and education gathered in Warren, north of Detroit, for the opening of the Technical Center. At simultaneous meetings held in 61 cities around the country, others watched the ceremonies on closed-circuit television. The work conducted at the center ranged from purely scientific experiments and basic research to advanced engineering, styling and development. The Timesquoted the president of GM, Harlow H. Curtice, as saying “I do not believe I exaggerate when I say that the center is unique with respect to size, scope and the vision behind it. There is not another facility like it in the world.” A $1 billion dollar renovation of the GM Technical Center was completed in 2003.

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