Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Automobile Row St. Louis

Automobile Row St. Louis

In the early 20th Century, St. Louis competed with Detroit for leadership of the automotive industry. It's hard to comprehend now, but many of the early manufacturers of horseless carriages were based in midtown St. Louis.

Most of the car dealerships, and all the high-end ones such as Packard and Cadillac, were located on Locust Street, the city's first Automobile Row, until the mid-1930s.

Today, a few modern upscale classic car dealerships are located there, amidst a district that remained an automotive warehousing and service district for decades, but now is experiencing a revival for loft-style housing.

  • The Charles Motor Company in a 1913 building at 3030 Locust; and
  • Luxury Sports and Imports in a 1905 building at 3027 Locust.

    Beginning in the 1930s, many car dealerships relocated to the west and southwest. For example, Weber Chevrolet moved to Lindell and Sarah around 1935; and in 1969, to Olive and I-270. Numerous other dealers were also located in Midtown along Forest Park, Laclede, etc., on larger plots of land than available on built-out Locust.

    The last remaining Midtown area new car dealer was John E. Hanna Oldsmobile, 3401 Washington Blvd. (who also had a GMC store from 1995 to 1997 at a former Commerce Bank branch at 2331 Hampton Avenue south of I-44 which he then sold to the Danforth family's American Youth Foundation, itself since moved west to Manchester Road).

    Both Hanna dealerships closed in 1997 as part of the massive consolidations of GM dealerships, several years before the phase-out of the Olds nameplate was announced; now he's apparently building a new Subaru outlet in O'Fallon IL. The Washington at Channing (now Josephine Baker Blvd.) property was then sold to St. Louis University which still uses it for warehousing and support functions.

    But the larger dealerships largely relocated during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s to very large chunks of former brickworks property along South Kingshighway between Fyler and Chippewa, mostly on the east side of the street.

    This automobile row is still active, albeit with plenty of changes of ownership and consolidations of dealerships over the years. It also generally extends a little further north, to include a couple dealers near Kingshighway and Southwest, and perhaps a little east, to include Gravois and Chippewa.

    The South Kingshighway and vicinity "Automobile Row" today includes:

  • Don Brown Chevrolet - "at the entrance to The Hill" in a 1979 building formerly home to Forte Buick at 2244 S. Kingshighway inside the wedge at Vandeventer;
  • Don Brown Chrysler-Jeep (formerly King Chrysler-Jeep) - in a 1971 building renovated in 1998 at 2245 S. Kingshighway, at the corner of Bischoff just north of Southwest;
  • Don Brown Dodge (formerly King Dodge) - in a complex dating to 1951 but extensively expanded and renovated in 2002 at 3300 S. Kingshighway, SE corner of Fyler;
  • McMahon Pontiac-GMC (formerly Ernie Patti Pontiac GMC and before that Gary Vincel Pontiac Mazda) - in a 1948 complex at 3295 S. Kingshighway, NW corner of Fyler;
  • McMahon Lincoln-Mercury - in a 1949 building with 1963 addition at 3345 S. Kingshighway (west side of street between Parker and Fairview;
  • Jerry Ackerman Toyota / Scion - pretty much the only place in the city limits selling 'foreign' cars, in newly renovated digs built perhaps as early as 1929, at 3600 S. Kingshighway, between Tholozan and Beck; and
  • McMahon Ford - in a 1948 building remodeled in 1998 facing Chippewa but with the address at 4100 Gravois.

    Of course, starting sometime in the 1960s, former Kingshighway dealers and new dealers starting sprouting along South Lindbergh from east of Lemay Ferry to about Tesson Ferry (recall "Come down south, to Art Haack Buick... Come down south and get the Art Haack price!"), forming yet another Automobile Row district, very long and spread-out.

    West County and North County have significant concentrations of car dealers too, but the S. Lindbergh row has more ties to Kingshighway historically, I think.

    Given the relatively high popularity of foreign cars today, it does seem strange that Ackerman Toyota-Scion is the only place to buy one new within the city limits. And as of January '06, all the new car dealers selling American cars in the city are owned either by Don Brown (for Chevy and all Chrysler lines) or by Schicker Automotive Group (for all Ford lines, plus Pontiac and GMC).

    Nobody sells Buicks in the city anymore. About a year ago, there was rampant speculation that Buick would be next on the chopping block. Since Lindburg Cadillac, 2350 Market Street downtown, closed in 1986 as a result of a deal between GM and Plaza Motors - later Clinton Cadillac of Crestwood was renamed Clinton Lindburg Cadillac though - there's been no place in the city limits selling new Caddys either.

    Interesting, this from an April 20, 1988 Post-Dispatch column by Jerry Berger:

    Subject to approval by General Motors, Plaza Motors in Creve Coeur will temporarily house the Cadillac dealership it is planning to relocate from Lindburg, west of downtown. A separate building may be on the rise in Creve Coeur. Meanwhile, the Forsythe Group has a purchase contract for the site of Lindburg Cadillac, at Jefferson Avenue at Market Street, where it plans to construct an office complex and a Marriott Courtyard Inn.

    And this from a November 30, 1992 Post-Dispatch article by Fred Faust:
    [W]hen Lindburg Cadillac at Market Street and Jefferson Avenue was for sale, GM allegedly spurned buyers who would have kept the dealership downtown and "actively encouraged" the purchase and relocation of the Lindburg dealership to Creve Coeur by Plaza Motors.

    Of course, today the site at 2350 Market Street is... the headquarters of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District! The office building, completed in 1989, previously housed the Daniel & Henry insurance firm, since relocated to the Highlands @ Forest Park office park on the former St. Louis Arena site. The Courtyard by Marriott hotel was completed next door in 1990.


    All water under the bridge, I suppose. In 2005, Enterprise Leasing founder Jack Taylor - who got his start at Lindburg Cadillac - donated $1 million-plus for the renovation of the automobile exhibit at the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood into the Earl C. Lindburg Automotive Center.

    barbara said...

    Very interesting, Joe. Thanks!

    Mark said...

    I would love to see a VW and Saturn dealer in STL. Didn't there used to be a Mercedes-Benz dealer over by Harry's just West of Union Station?

    Ford St Louis said...

    I never knew that St Louis had such a significant role in the automotive industry long ago and went head to head with Detroit. That's very impressive. It's too bad that we don't have automotive plants here on the same level as in MI; that is a lot of local jobs.