Twin Cities auto showrooms once were as beautiful as the cars

There was time long ago when buying a new car in the Twin Cities could be a surprisingly beautiful experience. As automobiles became big business in the early decades of the 20th century, the first dealerships with showrooms appeared in the Twin Cities, and some were quite stunning.

These early dealerships, which typically included a service garage, were generally at or near the edges of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Quite a few still stand and have been repurposed for new uses, particularly along Grand Avenue in St. Paul and in the Harmon Place Historic District in Minneapolis.

That district’s gem, the Fawkes Building (now Loring Corners) at 1624 Harmon Place, was the first big auto showroom in the city when it opened in 1911.

But most first-generation dealerships are long gone, demolished for progress of one form or another. Unlike the sprawling suburban dealerships of today, the early showrooms were often elegant architectural statements that fit beautifully into their urban environments.

Perhaps my favorite of these lost auto dealerships was the Willys-Overland Motor Co. showroom and garage built in 1916 at 1664 Hennepin Av. S., near Loring Park. I don’t know who designed it, but it was a wonderful building, sporting a classical façade in stone, terra cotta and glass set against a brick background.

The building, which was as formal and dignified as a library, offered huge display windows on the ground floor, while the upper story featured glass brick (or possibly prismatic glass) windows set beneath a frieze band with ornamental swags bookended by classical urns.

The building later acquired a Moderne-style addition and became the home of Downtown Chevrolet for many years. The complex was torn down around 1965 to make way for Interstate 94 and its tunnel.

Another outstanding showroom, built in 1912, was just a few blocks away at 1301 Hennepin. Built in 1912 for the Frederick E. Murphy Co. (and later occupied by several other dealerships), it was designed by Kees and Colburn, then a prominent Minneapolis architectural firm.

A full three stories, the building was basically all windows, an open arrangement made possible by its reinforced concrete frame, a type of structure that made its debut in the Twin Cities just after 1900. The building was faced in either stone or terra cotta, and it included ornamental cartouches atop the columns.

Within, there was a beautiful, two-story-high showroom complete with a balustraded balcony and what looks to have been tile or terrazzo floors. It truly was a lovely place to step into the car of your dreams. The building, which incorporated a large garage, came down in 1967.

Seven Corners showrooms

In St. Paul, Grand Avenue became the closest thing to Minneapolis’ Harmon Place auto district. Three old dealerships, now used for shops and restaurants, still cluster around the intersection of Grand and Victoria Street.

However, most of the dealerships along Grand were built in the 1920s. Before that, dealerships tended to be located in the downtown area, most commonly near Seven Corners. All of these downtown dealerships have vanished, but there were several that stood out.

Chief among them was the Northern Motor Co., built around 1915 at 163 W. 6th St., about a block north of where Xcel Energy Center now stands. I only know this building from a single photograph taken in about 1930, when it was a Hupmobile dealer, but it was a truly striking design.

The brick building offered a grand architectural gesture in the form of a shallow elliptical arch that stretched across the second story. Divided by slender columns into multi-paned windows, the big arch endowed the building with a monumental look despite its modest size.

The building, which included garage entrances at either end as well as ground-floor display windows, was distinctive and memorable. My guess is that the building disappeared in the early 1970s, when the St. Paul Civic Center (the Xcel Center’s predecessor) was constructed. Several streets, 6th and 7th among them, were relocated as part of the Civic Center project, and that probably led to demolition of the Northern Motor Co. building.

Another early downtown St. Paul dealership with an unusual look was the Brandtjen Motor Car Co. at 50 E. 4th St., between Cedar and Minnesota streets. Completed in about 1920, the brick building was shoehorned into a fairly small lot. Even so, the unknown architect managed to produce a lively design that included a broad front gable and a small side tower. The building’s style is hard to pin down but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of Arts and Crafts.

I worked across the street from the Brandtjen building beginning in 1972, when the offices of the St. Paul Pioneer Press were at 55 E. 4th St. As far as I can tell, the old auto dealership still stood then, but I confess that I don’t recall a thing about it, which means I either have a lousy memory or the building underwent some kind of remodeling that rendered it utterly nondescript. A parking ramp now occupies the site.

I hold no particular beef against today’s suburban mega-style car dealerships, which perform their duties well enough, but few of them can match the style and elegance of the pioneering dealerships built at a time when the automobile was still a wondrous new thing.

Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.

 

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