Harley-Davidson Museum, Bridge
Opened September 6, 2019
A recently recovered cache of architectural drawings includes plans for the original Juneau Avenue facility. The pencil drawings, along with archival photographs, demonstrate the whirlwind pace of the company’s early growth. While building an international business—going from producing just over 1,000 motorcycles in 1909 to manufacturing 27,000 motorcycles in 1920—the company’s Milwaukee factory experienced near-constant expansion. Construction through this relatively brief period created the buildings that today, a century later, are still the proud home of Harley-Davidson.
While motorcycle production ceased at the site in 1973, today the Juneau Avenue facility serves as the company’s corporate headquarters and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The facility is a highly visible, active tie to Milwaukee’s proud industrial heritage. The Juneau Avenue structure is a lasting testament to the vision and hard work of the company’s founders and its dedicated employees.
“Building a Milwaukee Icon” provides a snapshot of Harley-Davidson’s formative years and illustrates a chapter of Milwaukee history when the city was known as the “Machine Shop to the World.”
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The Harley-Davidson Motor Company Factory
Building a Milwaukee Icon
Part 1: 1903-1910
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In 1903 Bill Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson sold their first motorcycle.
The bike was hand-assembled in this 10 by 15 foot shed in the backyard of the Davidson family home.
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As the business showed signs of success, the brothers borrowed money from their uncle in Madison and expanded their little “factory.”
This humble structure would later be designated “Building No. 1.”
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The founders built their first dedicated factory in 1906. The wooden structure was a block north of the Davidson home.
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The third Davidson brother, William, formally joined the company in 1907. That September, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated.
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A second story was added early in 1908. The business was booming—sales jumped from 50 in 1906 to 150 in 1907 and would climb over 400 in 1908.
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This first purpose-built factory would be designated “Building No. 2.”
As sales continued to accelerate, a brick addition was planned. Shown here under construction, the project was completed before year-end.
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Here is “Building No. 2” with the completed brick addition.
The founders proudly noted that it was “up-to-date and practically fireproof.”
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The brick addition, with the original wooden addition highlighted in red.
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A single-story sawtooth addition was added in 1909 to house the company’s “first installment of big, automatic machinery.”
The sawtooth roof provided natural light for the large space required to accommodate this new machinery.
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By late 1909 the company had almost 10,000 square feet of factory space, and was producing over 1,100 motorcycles with 149 employees.
Over the next five years factory growth and motorcycle sales would skyrocket.
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Beginning in 1910, six consecutive construction projects—Buildings 3 through 8—would transform the site.
Upon completion of these projects in 1914, the factory would total more than 300,000 square feet of floor space. Harley-Davidson would produce more than 16,000 motorcycles that year, employing over 1,500 workers.
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The first of the new additions was begun in June of 1910.
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Reaching five stories high, Building No. 3 would more than double the size of the factory.
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Expanding the factory while increasing motorcycle production and shipping presented significant challenges.
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Temporary structures were built to add capacity during factory construction. The short-lived example in the foreground was used for fabrication, shipping, and receiving, while Building No. 3, visible here on the left, was under construction.
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That temporary structure was torn down after only six months, making way for Building No. 4.
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That new Building No. 4 would connect to the west face of the just-completed Building No. 3.
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From left to right: Building No. 4 under construction, Building No. 3 (highlighted in red) and the 1909 factory (highlighted in orange).
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These new buildings were designed to maximize natural light. Interior electric lighting was only beginning to be an option at the time.
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They had plenty of windows and were narrow enough for the light to penetrate throughout each floor.
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“To assure sufficient light and ventilation at all times” for the factory workers.
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Note that the wooden side of the original factory building is still visible, behind the brick façade.
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With its big new factory up and running, Harley-Davidson took a short break from construction to consolidate its new operations.
Business was continuing to expand rapidly, however, and plans were already being developed for the next phases of expansion.