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Motor Row’s road to recovery: Chicago’s forgotten auto corridor revs up again

A view north on Michigan Avenue of Chicago's Historic Motor Row. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago’s one-time automotive destination, Motor Row, hasn’t weathered time as well as its counterparts, like the Magnificent Mile or Jewelers Row, and the role the city once played in the American auto industry is also often overlooked.

“It’s been overshadowed by other industries — meatpacking, railroads, and steel,” said Peter Alter, a curator at the Chicago History Museum. “Many people don’t realize that Chicago was once filled with these elaborate palaces of automobile consumption in the post-World War I era.”

Detroit looms large in the American imagination as the capital of the car manufacturing world, but Motor City and Chicago’s Motor Row were inextricably linked for the first three decades of the 20th century. The automobile shopping corridor on the Near South Side was the industry’s largest and most prominent public face and helped rev up America’s love affair with the car.

Chicago Motor Row banners that hang on Michigan Ave. on Chicago’s historic Motor Row. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Timesa

Motor Row’s heyday

A Chicago Sunday Tribune story published Feb. 10, 1906, bragged that “Chicago has the most imposing automobile row of any city in the country, and claim for a world’s record might well be made without much chance of there being any dispute.”

By its peak in the 1920s, Motor Row’s boundaries stretched a mile and a half down South Michigan Avenue between then-12th Street (now Roosevelt Road) and 26th Street. It was lined with lavish terra-cotta “palaces” constructed by famous architects on behalf of Detroit’s biggest automakers, creating destination showrooms where they would showcase their latest models. Consumers from across the Midwest flocked to peer through wide plate-glass windows and choose between more than a hundred different roadsters, coupes and phaetons.

Motor Row’s growth was swift, considering that the first car didn’t appear in Chicago until the World’s Columbian Exposition mere decades earlier, in 1892 — and then cars were more of a curiosity than a practical transportation option. An event billed as “America’s First Automobile Race” on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 heightened excitement for cars. (The winner slowly circled the 52-mile route from Jackson Park to Evanston in just under eight hours.)

But the battle between the horse-drawn carriage and the horseless carriage was still being won by the former for the first decade of the century.

The road from showrooms to city streets

When automakers first began building showrooms in Chicago, “cars were out of the reach for most regular people,” Alter says. The American Locomobile Company opened a one-story car showroom at the northwest corner of 14th and Michigan in 1903 — the first on Motor Row — at a time when only about 600 cars were registered in the city.

Then came Henry Ford, who, inspired by the assembly lines of the Chicago stockyards, revolutionized car manufacturing and turned the Model-T into a mass-market good. In 1905, the founder of Ford Motor Company chose the Second City as the site for his first dealership outside of Detroit, and his two-story brick building at 1444-1446 S. Michigan Ave. began a new era for car ownership in Chicago and in America.

Fred G. Litsinger Fred G. Litsinger, at the wheel of a 1921 Model T Ford, accepts an award for completing 50 years as a Ford Motor Co. dealer in Chicago from B. L. Crumpton, Ford division Chicago district sales manager.

The Buick Motor Car Company followed Ford’s lead in 1908, with others close behind. Some of the car companies that populated Motor Row are still industry giants — Ford, Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile — while others like the Pierce-Arrow and Stanley Motor Carriage companies have lost traction over time. REO Motor Car Company, once located at 12th and Michigan, is almost exclusively known today for the rock band which took its name from one of their models: the Speedwagon.

As car ownership skyrocketed (by 1925, there were 300,000 cars registered in Chicago) developers built dozens of auto-related structures along Motor Row, some of them bigger and more grandiose versions of previous showrooms. Cadillac, for instance, opened its first showroom on Motor Row in 1909, but upgraded to a more grandiose, five-story building at 2301 S. Michigan just 10 years later.

Depression-era downturn

Motor Row’s boom crested in 1936 with the opening of the Illinois Automobile Club at 2400 S. Michigan Ave., a lavish Spanish Mission-style building featuring a three-story clocktower that promised to grow into “a 21 story clubhouse complete with swimming pool, dance halls, and athletic facilities,” according to a brochure at the time. But construction stalled as the Great Depression hit luxury brands hard, and Motor Row, too, felt its effects. In the 1950s, the club became the headquarters for the Chicago Defender newspaper, which moved out in the mid-2000s.

Exterior views of the former Chicago Defender building. Friday, August 26, 2011 | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

 

Marmon sign at 2232 South Michigan Ave. on Chicago’s historic Motor Row. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Vestiges of auto dealerships that left Motor Row as the Depression starved the industry include the intricate Marmon building’s doorway, at 2232 S. Michigan Ave., the Hudson Motor Car Company’s “H” logo above the main entrance at 2222 S. Michigan Ave., and the Locomobile dealership at 2401 S. Michigan Ave., the only dealership building still in the business today, now occupied by a Fox Ford Lincoln.

“H” logo at 2222 South Michigan Ave. on Chicago’s historic Motor Row. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As the city of Chicago sprawled ever outwards, car dealerships fled downtown for greener pastures — literally. “In the post-World War II era, with suburbanization comes the growth of the giant car lots where you need a lot of space,” Alter said. “You see an emphasis on volume over lush customer service.”

During the 1950s and ’60s, Motor Row evolved into Record Row, the place where popular African-American artists’ jazz blues, and soul albums were recorded and distributed. Chess Records, the legendary label that featured Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddly and other greats, was located at 2120 S. Michigan (also the title of a 1964 Rolling Stones song recorded there) from 1956 to 1965.

Chess Producing Corporation at 2120 South Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s historic Motor Row. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

But Record Row, too, went the way of the vinyl record by the mid-1970s, and many of the once-glorious former car showrooms on South Michigan Avenue have sat in various states of disrepair for most of the last four decades.

Bluesmen Johnny Twist (left) and Buddy Guy play Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” a Chess Records classic, at a jam session Thursday night in the former Chess studio at 2120 S. Michigan. The building, where such recording artists as Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Chuck Berry got their start, was dedicated as an official Chicago landmark. | Sun-Times file photo.

Motor Row’s rebirth

Since it was officially designed a Chicago landmark in 2000, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, city officials and entrepreneurs have tried to establish Motor Row as a new entertainment district. That revival had been moving at a Model-T pace until recent years.

The beautiful old Illinois Automobile Club building was restored and reopened as an event space in spring 2017. Last August, Crain’s Chicago Business called Motor Row “the hottest neighborhood you’ve never heard of.” Former Chicago Bears Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers plan to put a co-working space and social club in the Hudson Motor Building at 2222 S. Michigan Ave. Restaurants, boutiques and loft apartments are beginning to dot vacant parts of South Michigan Avenue near McCormick Place.

A rendering of the development planned for the former Hudson Motor Building at 2222 S. Michigan Ave. | Photo by Ware Malcomb.

The spirit of old Motor Row lives on at Motor Row Brewing, a craft beer company at 2337 S. Michigan Ave., which housed the Federal Motor Car Company over a century ago. The brewery’s taproom features vintage photos and memorabilia from Motor Row’s past, which guests can peruse while sipping a brew and taking in a blues show on Thursdays, in what many hope is a preview of its future.