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Morning Shift

What’s That Building? Chicago’s Motor Row

You’ve probably heard that this week the Chicago Auto Show — the largest show of its kind in the nation — has set up shop at McCormick Place to showcase the latest in automotive technology and design. But did you know that just a few blocks west of the convention center sits what was once the heart of Chicago car culture?

For decades starting in the early 1900s, Motor Row was home to snazzy car dealerships for companies we still know well like Ford and Cadillac as well as those lost to time like Hudson and Marmon. The heart of what’s now known as the Motor Row historic district is on Michigan Avenue from about 22nd Street to 25th Street, walking distance from McCormick Place. And it’s our subject for the latest in our series What’s That Building?

Morning Shift talks to Dennis Rodkin about the rich history of Chicago’s Motor Row and hears from Frank Lassandrello, co-owner of Motor Row Brewing, one of many businesses that have moved into refurbished car showrooms in the neighborhood in recent years. Here's what he shared:

Motor Row Classic Building at 2222 S. Michigan (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

Motor Row is about six square blocks near McCormick Place that was the center of car culture from the early 1900s through the Depression. At its height there were 116 dealers, along with repair shops and parts stores, as well as the Illinois Automobile Club, an elite place with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and fitness rooms.

The area is reviving now as an entertainment district, something that's been trying to happen since the early 2000s but sagged in the recession. In the past two years, it's taken off again, with the opening of a brewery, a music venue, a hair salon and, coming this spring, a big events space by Revel, which also operates a space in Fulton Market, another recently revived area. Richard Driehaus, the wealthy architecture aficionado, is reportedly opening a private garage to showcase his classic car collection in one of the relic buildings on Motor Row.

It's about time. For decades, Motor Row has been sort of a forgotten island, too far south to be touched by the renaissance of the South Loop, cut off from Bronzeville by the gash of the Stevenson Expressway, and sitting in the big shadow of mammoth McCormick Place. But now all three of those neighbors, are all growing, and they'll converge on Motor Row.

Many of the buildings were intended as stylish showcases for the product, so they were built to grab attention with their architectural detail: snazzy tile facades, a fantasy of a Spanish palace, and terra cotta plaques emblazoned with brand names that are now long gone, such as Locomobile.

The core of Motor Row is south from Cermak to the Stevenson Expressway (2200 to 2500 South), mostly on Michigan Avenue but also on Indiana and Wabash, although the district stretched as far north as Roosevelt Road and ran south to 31st Street. The starter was at 1444 S Michigan, where in 1905, Henry Ford built his first showroom outside Detroit.

Motor Row Gallery Sign at 2341 S. Michigan (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

One other car company, Cleveland's Winton Motor Carriage Company, had already been in the neighborhood for two years, according to a history of Motor Row written by Jerome O'Connor in 2012. But it was Ford who launched the idea of cars being sold in big-windowed showrooms. (You can still see those windows, in an eyewear gallery.)

According to O'Connor, Ford put his dealership there to be near the wealthy clientele who lived on Prairie Avenue. Affluent Chicagoans were just starting to buy cars: Chicago went from having 300 registered cars in 1900 to 90,000 in 1920, and 300,000 in 1925.

Another reason for car companies to locate in the area was the Auto Show, which in its early years was held at the Coliseum, in the 1500 block of Wabash.

Great buildings that still stand on Motor Row and remind you of what a fashionable place it must have been in the 1920s include:

  • The two Spanish Revival buildings in the 2200 block of Michigan Avenue where the car brands Marmon and Hudson were (their names are still emblazoned on the exterior details). its twisted columns and rows of arched windows wrapped the cars being sold there in romance.
  • A trio of buildings running south from 23rd Street on Michigan that were all designed by the great Chicago architecture firm Holabird and Roche but look totally different from one another. The first is the former Cadillac dealership, a crisp white showcase whose big open showroom floors you can still look in on. Second is a Saxon dealership, with a classic Chicago terra cotta panel above the third-story windows. Third is the slimmest building of the three. I don't know what brand of car was sold there, but the three stories of windows are wrapped in a snazzy fish-scale pattern of blue and white terra cotta.
  • The Illinois Automobile Club at 24th and Michigan, built in 1936, just before Motor Row sagged under the weight of the Depression, and designed by Philip Maher. It's an Art Moderne take on the Spanish style up the street, with a sharp-edged tower holding down the corner. This building later became the home of the historic Chicago Defender newspaper, and is now getting ready to re-open as Revel.

One of the anchor businesses of the new Motor Row is in this strip: Motor Row Brewing at 2337 S Michigan. It opened in January 2015 in a building where, during Motor Row's heyday, you'd take your Ford sedan to have it chopped off for use as a pickup truck. The company was called Phenix, and now Motor Row Brewing has a beer by the same name. Frank Lassandrello and his father, Bob, put the brewery in this neighborhood for the same reason a lot of people end up there. As Frank told me, one of their business partners lived in Hyde Park and one day drove north on city streets instead of Lake Shore Drive, stumbled upon these great old buildings and decided to check it out.

Two years later, Frank said, "the neighborhood is coming together quickly." McCormick Place, whose southern end is just east of Motor Row, is interested in getting a nightlife district going in the area. (It makes sense historically: after Motor Row faded, some of its buildings housed the legendary Chess Records and other music studios.) 

For a while, it looked like the band Cheap Trick was going to play a role in reviving Motor Row: they were supposed to be the theme attraction in a nightclub going into an old Buick dealership at 2245 S Michigan, but that fell apart in 2013. So did plans to bring in an outlet of Teatro ZinZanni, a dinner theater based in Seattle.

Panorama SE Corner 23rd and Michigan Ave. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

There's still a lot of space to re-fill in Motor Row, and ideas get floated all the time. If Motor Row Brewing, Revel and other newcomers (like the DePaul Arena that's being built a few blocks away) can generate enough foot traffic and revenue, Motor Row's engine will shift into high gear again.

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