The Day I Got Caught by Santa Claus

In the summer of 1996, just about a year out of grad school, I was hired by an event production company in West Bloomfield to manage their video department. As a photographer and someone who lives for exploration and adventure, commuting between Auburn, Alabama and New Orleans on the back roads was enjoyable, but not nearly as interesting as driving around Detroit would be.

All I knew about Detroit was what everyone from outside of Michigan knew about it: practically nothing other they made cars there. Having been raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, I was very familiar with the rust belt responsible for the manufacture of consumer goods, factories, and eventual decay. As a kid my parents packed the family into the Oldsmobile wagon and we explored the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village for a weekend but that was the extent of what I knew about Detroit. But a steady work schedule, lack of funds and unreliable transportation kept me from making the ventures that I so desperately sought. Until one day I was finally able to visit the Henry Ford Museum. It was nothing like I remembered as a kid and everything that I wanted it to be. I still go there whenever I can.

In the gift shop I bought the book “How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital” authored by Warren, Michigan, resident Robert Szudarek. Back home I read it cover to cover and thoroughly again, highlighting addresses, noting recurring names and tabbing pages of interest. With my Minolta X700 and several rolls of slide film in hand, a Detroit Street Map and Szudarek’s book as my guide I drove into Detroit in search of the historic factories that I had read about. Partly due to being unfamiliar with my surroundings and partly naive having not considered the eventual change in addresses, I was still able to locate a dozen abandoned former auto factories, nearly all of them looking like the old lithographs in the book. I was hooked on Detroit auto history and sought to read everything I could about the subject.Packard-07_1999--002

Fast forward to 1998; after having become a trained Avid video editor, I landed a job editing technical training videos for the Customer Service Division of Ford Motor Company. And it was there in the edit suite that I was able to “talk shop” about classic cars and historic car factories with auto mechanics and car geeks. I became friends with a technical writer named Frank who had a passion for urban decay photography and on the weekends we would venture out into Detroit to take pictures of the decrepit buildings. Often times we would break in – or in some cases walk right in – to the buildings to explore and take pictures. Over time we explored the Ford Piquette Factory before it became the T-Plex Museum, a former Graham-Paige factory on Jefferson, the former Studebaker factory opposite of the original Piquette Market, Fisher Body Plant #21, Beyster Motors, Hudson Motors’ Mack Avenue factory, and the now razed Lincoln Motor Car Company factory that once stood proudly on the corner of Livernois and Warren. But the prize for us would be to explore the mighty, magnificent Packard.Packard-07_1999--012Packard-07_1999--007CRW_2614

One seasonably chilly Saturday morning on the first weekend of October, 1998, I was to meet Frank at his house from where we would embark to go and explore the Packard. But Frank was not feeling well. Undeterred, I drove to the factory myself, parked in the lot that was once occupied by the power plant, packed my bag, and set off to explore the building myself.Packard-07_1999--108Packard-07_1999--032

The Packard Motor Car Company building of 1998 was nothing near what is today. Several companies occupied portions of the building south of Grand Boulevard whereas in parts of the sprawling complex to the north there was a large paint ball range and secured storage areas. But for the most part, the building was open for exploration and in great condition. The offices were still intact and this was before the city would attempt to take over the building and destroy portions of it.Packard-07_1999--006 So the floors were in great shape, wires and conduits still covered the ceiling, porcelain lamps still hung from the ceilings and the showroom was still in near pristine condition.PACKARD 005 The elaborate marble staircase, dimpled in the middle of each stair from decades of use, the marble railings and carved spindle banisters were in place. The clock and the “Motor City Industrial Park” sign still clung to the bridge stretching over Grand Boulevard.CRW_2528

Some signs of wear, weather and neglect were obvious in much of the building. My ventures in the building yielded several chop shopsPackard-07_1999--079, an elaborate pot growing farm complete with lights and a watering system, areas of apparent heavy drinking and drug activity, a couple of makeshift homeless camps, and spaces used for large rave parties. It was attending one of these raves where I first made the acquaintance of legendary Detroit DJ Mike Huckaby who many years later I would meet again while working at YouthVille.

But it was this October day that while trekking through Building 15 did I have a fright. With camera in hand, I was about to take a photo of an abandoned camper when a large man stepped out of the shadows. With flowing white hair and a long beard to match, the man grabbed me by the shoulder and demanded to know what I was doing. Knowing that I was trespassing I told him I was a photographer working on a book about historic car factories. He wasn’t buying it. Keeping a firm grip on my shoulder he steered me out of building and towards the Grand Boulevard Bridge. In hindsight I could have broken his grip and run and hidden in the complex until I was able to sneak out but what if he were to call the cops and they would impound my car; no one knew that I was here. Instead I complied. He steered me through the building to a stairwell on the southeast side of one of the factory buildings. We came out at street level in front of the former Emma Thomas school building.Packard-07_1999--040 Taking me inside the building, this large man with the wavy white hair sat me down in what appeared to be an old classroom. After informing me that I was in trouble for trespassing, he left the room. Moments later another man came in. He was a big man with short hair on top but with longer hair rolling down over his neck. Through his mustache I could see that he was smiling.Packard-07_1999--077

“So it looks like you met my security guy. We call him Santa Claus,” said the man. “What were you doing in my building?”

“Just taking pictures of the factory,” I told him, reaching for my camera.

“What kind of pictures?”

“The offices, the rooms, the hallways, the water tower with the Packard logo on it.”


Packard water tower

“The water tower? Do you think you got a nice shot of it?”

“I think so,” I replied somewhat confidently. I was wondering when he was going to hit me with the speech about trespassing on private property and pressing charges.

Dominic Cristini

Dominic Cristini

“I’m Dominic Cristini. I own the Packard. You were trespassing in my building. But I tell you what; I am not going to call the cops.” I didn’t know it at the time but the last thing Dominic wanted was cops and city people in his building. Two short months later he would be holed up in his office in the former car showroom when the Detroit Police Department’s “Goon Squad” would try to unsuccessfully evict him. I would visit him the next day with the camera around my neck, carrying two pizzas and a bag of Coke two-liters and walk right through the police line.

“I tell you what,” he continued, “I want to see your photos when you get them developed. Bring them to me. I want copies of all of them. And I want to see the picture of the water tower.”


Emma Thomas School (after being gutted by fire)

A week later I pulled up in the lot adjacent to the school house, knocked on the door and walked into a friendship with the controversial owner of the Packard building. From that day on, I had free range to come and go at the Packard as I pleased. I could park my car at the school and walk across the street and disappear inside of the old building. For years a poster sized print of my photo of the water tower with the Packard logo inscribed on it hung in Dominic’s office at the school building.


Dominic Cristini posts a 100-year commemorative Packard banner on the side of the Emma Thomas school

Over the next couple of years I would be present for the failed attempts to dynamite portions of the building, times when the DPD would try to remove Dominic from the building and the school house, and when Dominic would declare “victory” over the city after winning a lawsuit.I had the privilege to attend the press conference where Dominic unveiled plans to convert the former auto plant into a hotel and casino. And at another press conference a couple of guys from Arizona claimed that they were ready to invest money in the old factory so that it could be used to hand-assemble a new Packard car.

Prototype Packard sedan

Prototype Packard sedan

I would get to know Dominic’s common-law wife Robin and their kids. (In 2003 Robin – whom I always thought was an alcoholic and drug user – would take her own life.) Dominic and I would often stroll through the factory together noting the condition of the building, taking in the history and meeting the homeless, the drug users, the ravers, the tenants and the renters.

One afternoon in 2000 I met a man dressed in a shabby shirt and torn jeans. I seem to remember that he was parking a baby blue 1949 Packard convertible into a space in Building 21. He took an interest in my interest in his classic car collection. I remember him telling me that a Packard like this ought to live in the building where it was born. I still have his business card. His name is Richard “Dick” Kuhn. Among other things, Mr. Kuhn used to own the Lionel toy train company.CRW_2842

Years later, fresh out of prison for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute ecstasy, I talked to Dominic and his lawyer about the possibility of producing a documentary about the man. The lawyer thought it was a grand idea and had implied that he would help secure funding. Dominic wasn’t exactly sold on the concept. We talked a few more times and then lost contact. The last I heard, Dominic was living above a tattoo shop on Gratiot.

But that was the day I got caught by Santa Claus.Packard-07_1999--021

Posted in Automotive Industry, Detroit History.