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American Can Company



By Lauren Wooldridge

American Can 1Crossing Bayou St. John, when driving down Orleans Avenue, there looms a building that used to be a factory. The building is red and white and has “American Can Factory” painted in all capital letters, loudly announcing its existence to the city skyline.

The 6.62-acre property is a success story of a company once faced with many challenges. Today, the converted factory offers 268 apartments in Mid-City and is often leased to capacity.

Upon entering the reception area, one might miss the details that hint at the building’s original purpose. Through further observation, however, one is certain to notice a mechanical wheel, used originally to spin the cans. Brightly painted, with a small plaque, “Keep your machine cleaned, oiled and adjusted,” the sculpture is a cleverly placed reference to the building’s historical past.

There are two slabs that frame the entrances to the lobby—slabs that once were factory gateways but now decorate smaller, simpler doors. Photos on the wall document the construction of the American Can Factory: black and white images of men who didn’t know they were building a future apartment complex.

American Can

In 1906, the American Can Factory started construction on a New Orleans branch in order to be close to the city’s convenient water transportation. The sixth and final building of the complex was finished in 1929. By 1917 the original 46 factory workers who shipped out 10 million cans annually had increased to over 500 workers and then, soon after, had increased to an impressive 1,500 workers. The American Can Factory proved itself capable as it be- came the largest can-producer in the south. As of 1917, the plant boasted shipments of 20 million cans within Louisiana and over 22 million cans out of state.

The jobs provided by the factory served as an economic benefit to the area and its residents until 1988, when the factory shut-down as a result of changes in regional demand and the closing of four breweries. One year later, a fire destroyed Building 2, adding to the tragic atmosphere of the once bustling factory, which now stood empty, silent and unmoving with only the distant echoes of the activity that had once existed.

American Can

Perhaps the smells of coffee, molasses, baking powder or oil still lingered in the eighties, but today, residents can no longer sense those details in their one, two or three bedroom apartments that the Historic Restoration Incorporated (HRI) Properties bought in 1999.

After the building’s transformation, which was based on principles of conservation, the property now has a wide variety of living arrangements, with 65 different apartment floor plans. Jessica Haik, the property manager, showed me various design elements that provide unconventional, yet convenient storage for residents. “The two architects were women, so there is great closet space,” Haik said. Concrete floors built to last shine with a layer of gloss. There are enviably high ceilings, which makes sense, when one considers the space required to fit the original Can Factory’s machinery. Pipes run across the ceiling like roads on a map and deceptive doorways open up to rooms with surprisingly lofty walls and windows.

It is fascinating to reflect on this building’s transformation, from a space where men worked hard, chatted loudly over the noisy machines and watched the slow movements of the minute hand has they waited to return home, to the present building, with its modern gym, business room and luxurious swimming pool.

While walking down the hall, Haik waved to a tall man toting groceries. “There’s our celebrity,” she said. The tall man was John Keller, who managed the evacuation of the 244 people who stayed in their American Can apartments during Hurricane Katrina. There’s talk of a movie apparently. In the office, there is an old, framed photo of 30 men from the 1950s—the American Can mechanical team smiling unknowingly at a modern office of workers who appreciate them, not necessarily for their production of cans, but for their part in creating the history of the American Can Company. “Look at it,” Haik said. “It is a whole community. It is not a rotting building anymore.” It is restored and it is a success story.

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