Pike/Pine Auto Row (Seattle)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/10/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20630
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Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, almost all of Seattle's early automobile dealerships and related businesses occupied a few square blocks on Capitol Hill, an area soon dubbed Auto Row. By 1911, 31 of the city's 41 car dealers were located on either E Pike Street or Broadway, joined by dozens of businesses catering to an entirely new class of consumers -- motorists. For more than three decades, this was the center of the city's motor trade. Dealership buildings, mostly low-rise, featured large plate-glass windows, open floor plans, interior ramps or elevators, and fire-resistant construction. Most automotive parts and services businesses, though smaller, were also purpose-built. By the 1950s, with the dramatic growth of suburbs, almost all the original Auto Row dealerships had either closed or relocated. Many of the buildings survived into the twenty-first century, and while most were extensively altered, a very few remained relatively intact. Nearly 100 years after Auto Row began, with its Capitol Hill neighborhood undergoing redevelopment, efforts were ongoing to preserve at least traces of a place and era that represent a pivotal stage in Seattle's progress from pioneer settlement to major metropolis.

From Novelty to Necessity

In 1895 brothers Charles (1861-1938) and J. Frank (1869-1967) Duryea opened America's first automobile factory, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, in Springfield, Massachusetts. It lasted until 1907 before bowing to more-successful competitors, including such lasting brands as Cadillac and Buick.

In 1908 Henry Ford (1863-1947) became the first to offer a car affordable to the working class -- the famous Model T -- and sold 10,000 of them in the first year. In 1913 he introduced assembly-line manufacturing, producing cars more quickly and selling them for less. A 1908 Model T cost $850; by 1925 one could be had for less than $300. It was durable, adaptable, and basic -- Ford famously said buyers could get it in "any color so long as it is black" (Ford, 72). By the time the T was replaced by the Model A in 1927, 15 million had been sold, a number that gives some idea of how quickly and completely the automobile, and the freedom it promised, captured and held the public's imagination.

The country was in the early stages of car lust long before the Model T came along. Demand began in the East and worked its way west as more manufacturers and models entered the market. By 1900 there were about 8,000 automobiles in America. In Seattle there was just one, a three-horsepower electric made by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago. It first trundled down the city's cobbled streets on July 23, 1900, its appearance illustrating why early automobiles were called "horseless carriages." Behind the wheel (actually a boat-type tiller) was Seattle resident Ralph S. Hopkins (1871-1923). He had purchased the contraption at the factory in Illinois for $500 and spent five months making his way to San Francisco, then north by road and ocean beaches to Seattle. He could have done it faster on foot, but it was historic nonetheless. Hopkins's sturdy little flivver now sits in storage at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

The first advertisement for automobiles in a Seattle newspaper was placed in 1902 by the Fred T. Merrill Cycle Company, a bicycle outlet located at 1108 2nd Avenue. The ad showcased bicycles, with "Steam, Electric, and Gasoline Automobiles and Motorcycles" offered almost in passing, in small type (The Seattle Times, March 29, 1902). Based on the absence of other advertisers, it appears that Merrill's had the automobile market to itself for two years, but the company had disappeared from the city by mid-1904.

In 1905 the Polk Seattle City Directory listed just two automobile sellers, both located downtown. In early 1906 the Broadway Automobile Company opened, selling Cadillacs, Packards, and other brands. Significantly, it planted its flag at Madison Street and Broadway on Capitol Hill, the first such business on what would become Auto Row. But cars were still a novelty; the 1906 sale of a Pierce Great Arrow earned a large headline in The Seattle Times -- "Fine Automobile Bought by Fred K. Struve."

By 1907 there were about 300 automobiles in Seattle, and that year's Polk's listed 16 car dealers, with 10 scattered around town in no obvious pattern but six concentrated in the Pike/Pine neighborhood, and four of those on the same block on Broadway. They were:

Broadway Automobile Company, Madison Street at Broadway
Capitol Hill Auto, 819 E Pine Street
Northwest Motor Company, 1401 Broadway
Puget Sound Automobile, 1405 Broadway
Eureka Motors, 1409 Broadway
Pacific Coast Auto Company, 1414 Broadway

Becoming "Auto Row"

The Pike/Pine neighborhood seemed destined to become the center of Seattle's automotive universe, and businesses offering parts and service began to congregate around those same few blocks. By 1911 the Polk directory listed 41 automobile dealers, with 31 on E Pike Street (14) and Broadway (17).

Adoption of "Auto Row" as the popular name for the area soon followed. On March 26, 1911, The Seattle Times, noting the departure of a popular car salesman, wrote, "Keen disappointment was felt along 'automobile row' last week" ("J. G. Tennant Goes ..."). There were considerably more than 600,000 cars registered in the United States at the time, but another headline on the same page pronounced, unnecessarily, "Automobile Passes Point of Being a Fad."

Two months later the Times dropped the quotation marks and capitalized Automobile Row, but it was 1912 before the more economical "Auto Row" came into regular use, first appearing in a headline in the February 25 edition: "Trend of Trade on Auto Row Holds Up." It was not an original designation -- almost every city and sizable town in America also had an Auto Row.

Birds of a Feather

Seattle's Auto Row boundaries were never precise. There were scattered automotive businesses on other parts of Capitol Hill and a few in other parts of the city, but the main action was densely concentrated on Broadway and on Pike and Pine streets to as far east as 12th Avenue. Auto Row was within but probably not coextensive with what today is called the Pike/Pine neighborhood, although the two terms are used interchangeably here.

Several factors made the area attractive. Vacant or underutilized land was relatively abundant on this part of Capitol Hill, which had only a moderate residential presence. Trolleys climbed the relatively gentle grade on Pike Street to link downtown with Broadway, although connections to other parts of the city remained sparse. The lack of public transportation was a factor eventually rendered irrelevant by the automobile itself, but before then it was common for like to follow like -- most cities had several distinct "Rows" where related enterprises gathered. An earlier example in Seattle was Bike Row on downtown's Second Avenue, where up to 20 bicycle sellers set up shop in the early 1900s. It simply made sense for automotive businesses -- sales, service, parts, accessories, etc. -- to cluster together, for mutual convenience and for the convenience of customers.

There were a few outliers, notably the William O. McKay Ford dealership on Westlake Avenue, not far from Ford's assembly plant on Fairview Avenue. But with only minor exaggeration, the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods states that from 1905 into the late 1920s, "virtually all local auto dealers and numerous auto-related businesses were located [on Auto Row]. Nearly every building housed at least one dealership, service garage, parts dealer, paint shop or similar business" ("Summary for 916 E Pike St").

In February 1914 Seattle's second annual Motor Car Exhibition drew 16,000 to the city's National Guard Armory to gawk at new automobiles offered by 29 local dealers, and to celebrate "King Gasoline" ("Electric Horns Toot ..."). Cars built by Packard, Oldsmobile, Buick, Chevrolet, Studebaker, and nearly two dozen other manufacturers were on display. Also shown was the first and only automobile of the era (and perhaps any era) designed and manufactured entirely in Seattle. The Parker brothers -- Frank (1884-1954), Charles (1882-1959), and George (1886-1953) -- opened the Parker Motor Car Company at 1722 Broadway in 1913, selling Pullman automobiles. By the time of the 1914 exhibition they were ready to show their own creation, the Ajax, designed by Charles Parker and built by the Ajax Motors Company, run by brother George. It seems not to have been a roaring success, however, and there is no record of how many, if any, were sold before manufacturing ceased in 1915.

Form Follows Function

The specific needs of automotive businesses gave rise to a vernacular, functional architectural style that was remarkably uniform across the country. In more populous cities, dealerships often occupied the first one or two stories of multistory structures, with the rest used as office or residential space. But in Seattle land was not yet scarce, and compact, low-rise buildings were more common. Ground-level showrooms with large plate-glass windows gave full display to the newest automobiles. Wide garage-style doors led to interior ramps or large elevators that gave access to upper floors or basements used for storage and service. Most dealerships had high ceilings and flat, parapet roofs. Many flaunted ornate exterior and interior decorative details. Companies offering parts and service occupied similarly purpose-built structures, often only one story.

Almost all automotive-related buildings were designed to be fire resistant, with exterior walls of concrete and brick masonry. But fire proved irresistible -- on Halloween Eve 1925 the block of Auto Row bordered by E Pike and E Pine streets and 11th and 12th avenues went up in flames, causing more than $800,000 in property damage.

Rapid Boom, Slow Bust

The public's love affair with automobiles grew more impassioned throughout the 1910s and most of the 1920s. The Great Depression that started in 1929 and lasted nearly a full decade slowed demand to a relative trickle, but a bigger factor in the eventual dispersal of Seattle's Auto Row businesses was the overwhelming success of their product. By 1930 slightly more than 23 million cars were registered in the United States, and competition had been fierce. Successful dealers needed grander, more ornate showrooms and larger sales lots than Auto Row could accommodate. As early as the late 1920s, the mobility that cars provided was starting to feed what would become a huge demographic shift from city to suburb. It made business sense for automotive dealerships to follow, and with them went many of the parts, service, and repair businesses.

Two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, all American manufacturers stopped making automobiles and turned their efforts to war production, shutting down the new-car market entirely. The used-car market survived, despite gas rationing, as did parts and repair businesses, but the slow exodus from city to suburb had steadily diminished Auto Row.

Same Streets, Different Rows

As the automotive dealerships moved out, dealers in a different sort of consumer goods moved in. In 1929 Del Teet's became the first major furniture store to set up shop on Broadway, and it was followed by several others in the years to come. The epithet Auto Row eventually gave way to one that better reflected what was going on -- Furniture Row.

More change came in the 1950s when some of the furniture stores hired in-house interior designers and decorators, several of whom went on to open their own showrooms and offices nearby. Soon there were stores selling such things as lamps, drapes, and carpets, and the commercial strip became self-styled in advertisements as both Furniture Row and Decorators' Row. But those labels proved ephemeral, while "Auto Row" would endure.

Boomers and Bohemians

In the mid 1960s many of Capitol Hill's high-end art galleries, furniture stores, and decorating businesses were moving to Pioneer Square, where even older buildings were being renovated into chic emporia. The resulting void drew the youth of the nascent counterculture, attracted by ample and inexpensive rentals. Many vacant Auto Row buildings were divided into smaller spaces that were affordable to artists, artisans, ethnic restaurants, head shops, new- and used-clothing stores, taverns, music venues, and other businesses catering to the newcomers. The district's reputation for tolerance had already made it a haven for the LGBTQ community, and the synergy between it and the counterculture coalesced into a vibrant if sometimes gritty community of like souls. In the 1990s the area also became ground zero for music's "grunge" scene before grunge became a worldwide sensation.

This eclectic era would last more than 30 years, but things began to change again as the twenty-first century drew near. Pricey condominiums and high-end businesses began nibbling at the edges of Auto Row, and as early as 2006 The Stranger newspaper mourned the loss of the neighborhood's unique character with the headline "The Death of Pike-Pine."

Auto Row Meets Seattle Way

Fred Northup, a former Dean of St. Mark's Cathedral, once said: "Seattle is a city where everybody gets consulted about everything" ("Is the Seattle Way ...?"). The Seattle way or, more formally, the Seattle process, are terms used to describe a broadly inclusive and almost always prolonged method of decision-making that is regarded by most participants with a mixture of fondness, bemusement, and frustration. The secret of its successes may be that exhaustion eventually breeds compromise. The issues often involve zoning and land use, with developers on one side and preservationists and neighborhood advocates on the other. Due to its duration and complexity, Auto Row's encounter with the Seattle way, ongoing as of 2018, can only be touched upon here.

In 1991 a Pike/Pine Planning Study was developed by a committee headed by the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, the first in-depth effort to plan the neighborhood's future. In 1993 the Seattle City Council unanimously adopted a resolution "recognizing" the planning study's goals and policies (which argued for preservation of much of the neighborhood's defining character) and directing city agencies to "respond to [its] key recommendations" (Resolution No. 28657).

In 1994 the Seattle Comprehensive Plan was adopted, designed in large part to prevent urban sprawl. The Pike/Pine neighborhood became an "Urban Village" within the larger "First Hill/Capitol Hill Urban Center," designated to become one of the city's most densely populated areas, with a mix of land uses ("Urban Village Element"). Accordingly, in 2004, the city upzoned the Pike/Pine neighborhood, and one result was a spurt in new development that effaced some of Auto Row's historic character and portended worse.

In 2008 Lund Consulting Inc. prepared for the city the Pike/Pine Neighborhood Conservation Study, which succinctly summarized the issues:

"Seattle's Pike/Pine neighborhood of Capitol Hill embodies the transformation of Seattle's original 'Auto Row,' a neighborhood of lofts and warehouses within a five- or ten-minute walk to downtown, from scruffy bohemian counterculture into tony shops, restaurants, and condominiums. While much of the transformation has been positive, it is the pace of development and its impacts on neighborhood character that is a source of concern for the future of the neighborhood" ("Conservation Study," p. i).

In 2009, after countless meetings, studies, discussions, and debates spread over many years, the city council created the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District (PPCOD), the first of its kind in Seattle. An "overlay district" is a special zoning regime superimposed on a defined area's existing zoning. Seattle had used overlay districts before, including in the Pike/Pine neighborhood, but never one with a primary goal of conserving a neighborhood's established cultural characteristics.

Unlike the city's eight (as of 2018) historic districts, which prioritize protecting specific resources (primarily buildings) over other considerations, the conservation district was intended "to help balance newer developments with older quirky ones ... not to freeze the neighborhood in time, but to maintain visual ... and cultural continuity" (Piona, 4). Residential (including much-needed affordable housing), mixed-use, and commercial development were to be encouraged, tempered by the goal of promoting:

"the conservation of Pike/Pine's existing historic character by limiting new development to a scale that is compatible with the established development pattern, accommodating arts facilities and small businesses at street level, and encouraging the retention of the existing structures and their architectural features that establish the District's architectural character ... and are related to the area's early history as Seattle's original 'auto row'" (Ordinance No. 123020).

Big Carrots, Small Sticks

The PPCOD has a lot of moving parts. The Pike/Pine urban-village designation called for greater population density, and that could only be achieved with new construction. Nearly all the old automotive buildings in the Pike/Pine neighborhood had been too extensively altered over the years to merit official historic-preservation status. Given the facts on the ground, the city had to rely more on carrots than sticks in dealing with developers. The best available tool was to offer incentives, such as exemption from height limitations, in return for incorporating mixed uses, providing affordable housing, and retaining some vestiges of the traditional Auto Row architecture.

In 2010 the city issued design guidelines for the PPCOD. Some of the more problematic provisions proved to be those meant to encourage the preservation of architectural features of certain pre-1940 buildings. These were called "character structures," so named to emphasize their importance to the historic ambience of Auto Row. A list of character structures within the district was compiled by the city. Developers who agreed to preserve some portion of them were rewarded with exemption from certain height limitations.

This proved to be a building-sized loophole for the more aggressive developers, who reaped maximum incentives while preserving a minimum of the older buildings, most often just the façade, and sometimes only portions of that. Critics call this practice "façadism" ("Seattle's Façadism ... "). The city reworked the design guidelines in 2014 to impose more stringent requirements, but by all appearances façadism largely won the day, and its critics remained unsatisfied. One such, Eugenia Woo, director of preservation for Historic Seattle, explained:

"Architecture is not skin deep. What is often forgotten about the impact of façadism is that the heart of a building -- the interior plan, features, structure and ability to convey historic significance is taken away as a result" ("Seattle's Façadism ...").

There was also concern that the PPCOD fell short in preserving affordable work and living space fitting the special needs of the arts community. To help ensure that artists and arts organizations would retain a place in the city's rapidly changing mixed-use neighborhoods, the city council on November 17, 2014, created an Arts & Cultural Districts program. The Pike/Pine neighborhood became the city's first designated Arts District.

Incentives for affordable housing apply equally to private developers and to such nonprofits as Capitol Hill Housing and Bellwether. In 2015 there were 591 subsidized housing units in the Pike/Pine neighborhood, a great majority provided by the nonprofits. In 2018 Capitol Hill Housing and other developers unveiled plans for "a preservation-friendly seven-story, 78-unit affordable housing development" on the property of the Auto Row-era, landmarked Eldridge Tire building on Broadway between Pike and Pine, the first development to use preservation incentives to build affordable units exclusively ("The Eldridge, Preservation Plus ...").

More Than a Façade

One structure on the western edge of Auto Row that escaped façadism is the Colman Automotive Building at 401 E Pine Street. Built in 1916, it replaced three preexisting small buildings on the site. The property was purchased in 2012 by Hunters Capital LLC, whose chairman, Michael Malone (b. 1943), had participated in the renovation of several Auto Row buildings with a sensitivity to historic preservation not shared by all developers. The company also owned the Greenus Building at 500 E Pike Street, the Seattle Automotive Company Building at 1000 E Pike Street, and the Chrysler Building at 900 E Pine Street, all renovated but retaining their original exterior appearance and low-rise configuration.

In 2013 the Colman Automotive Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the only Seattle Auto Row building to be so honored. A concise statement of its significance is found in the supporting documentation:

"The Colman Automotive Building is one of the last surviving buildings from the early period of Seattle's Pike-Pine 'Auto Row' district that has not been significantly altered, retaining the great majority of its essential character-defining features ... [including] many of the signature elements of the Auto Row buildings: fire-resistant construction, large showroom windows to display new cars, automobile parking on the second floor accessed either by a ramp or elevator, automobile maintenance and repair facilities on both upper and lower levels, ground level auto showroom space, all wrapped by architecturally-expressive building facades on the primary commercial frontages" ("Colman Automotive Building," 3).

The Colman Automotive Building is unusual in having street frontage on three sides -- Bellevue Avenue on the west, E Pine Street on the north, and on the east, Crawford Place, a narrow five-block-long side street that runs between Bellevue and Summit avenues from E Howell Street to E Union Street. The frontages on E Pine Street and Bellevue Avenue were most exposed to public view, and among the features that have survived intact are a "a remarkable series of original wood multipane windows that flood the second floor with natural light, an expressive metal and wood entablature, cast iron/concrete columns that define the minor bays, with monumental two-story masonry piers that define the larger exterior structural bays" ("Colman Automotive Building," 3). The side of the building facing Crawford Place was more utilitarian in appearance, and had at its southern end large garage-type doors that led to a timber automobile ramp.

A Historical Record

The Colman Automotive Building's history as a rental property is remarkably well-documented, and through it the rise and fall of Auto Row can be roughly tracked. The first tenants, in 1916, were the REO Truck Company, Robert Taylor Auto Repair, and Cox Motor Car Company. In 1917 the Stanley Automobile Company moved in, sharing the building with United Motors, which sold Reos, Darts, and other brands. By 1923 both were gone, but a series of other automotive-related businesses occupied the building for approximately the next 20 years.

As late as 1944 all the tenants in the Colman Automotive Building were automotive-related businesses. Then the war ended, and by 1949 just one remained -- Gallagher Motors Auto Dealers. By 1953 the building was being used for storage by the U.S. Post Office, and it then sat vacant for a year before being leased by Raff's Shoe Company, which started making and selling footwear there in 1955 and eventually bought the property. There is at least a little irony in the fact that a shoe company ended up owning such an iconic piece of the city's automotive history.

It was from the family of Gordon Legg (1920-1970), one of the founders of Raff's Shoe Company, that Hunters Capital bought the property in 2012. After the purchase, a phased rehabilitation of the Colman Automotive Building was started to restore its original design details and preserve its essential architectural character.

And So ...

What 100 years ago was Seattle's Auto Row is no more. Time passed it by, and much of its early twentieth-century architecture has been or will be sacrificed to the needs of the twenty-first. There may be an impulse to identify heroes and villains in its century-long flow and ebb, but mourning Auto Row's passing is as futile as yearning for the days of the horse and carriage. What can be appreciated is that Seattle, more than many cities, has realized the importance of preserving at least a semblance of a neighborhood's cultural legacy, and of maintaining some tangible, visible connections between past and present.

In the case of Auto Row, the results may be criticized by some as insufficient. But given the neighborhood's location near downtown, its future as a designated high-population-density area, and the city's acute and growing need for affordable housing, only so much is possible. And for many, anything that can be preserved, even if just a façade, is better than nothing at all.


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