Tuesday, May 1, 2012

From Ed Garten: Below the Surface of Repurposed Buildings -- Boston's Automobile Row

  Below the Surface of Repurposed Buildings: Fascinating Automotive History

 While serving as a consultant to the Institute for Professional Studies at Boston University last week my team and I found ourselves working in an elegant and beautiful old building, now owned by Boston University.  Inquiring minds like mine wanted to know: “What purpose did this building serve in an earlier era?”  Quietly I asked our hosts this question and was led down a hallway where I was shown a door leading to an elaborate concrete circular ramp inside the building – a ramp that led up to the fifth floor.  I was told that this building, designed by the important American industrial architect Albert Kahn, had been part of the nation’s first downtown “Automobile Row” where many brands of automobiles were showcased and sold through a dozen or so dealer franchises from the early 1920s through the late 1970s after which most of the dealerships either closed or moved to the suburbs of Boston.   Boston’s “Automobile Mile” was the forerunner of today’s contemporary auto malls typically now found in our suburbs or alongside our Interstate highways. Two websites showcase this important development in the consolidation of dealerships in the downtown of a major American city.  In the first website, posted by the Public Relations department of Boston University, view the neat video where you’re given a tour of the old dealerships as they now appear in their repurposed state.   Both websites offer a fascinating view into an earlier time when folks “went downtown” to  be amazed with the new cars coming to market, wheel and deal, and then perhaps drive away with new wheels for the family.  While downtown dealerships are few and far between these days, its great to know that gracious old buildings like these aren’t just being torn down, but rather are being given new life.  Certainly in the case of 808 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, this earlier elegant multi-franchise automobile agency is now serving the purposes of higher education.

And what about that circular ramp inside of 808 Commonwealth Avenue?  Well, in earlier days autos of all the brands sold downstairs were stored on various floors of the building.  During a break in our consulting work, our client led us up that ramp to the 5th floor where we discovered, under a tarp, a Model T Ford Pickup truck that had been left behind after the University took over the facility.  Perhaps this was a parts car for someone who worked at one of the dealerships, then restoring a Model T.  Who knows, but the 1922 Oklahoma license plate on the old vehicle might tell many stories if only it could talk.  That truck, also, can be found on the video found on the first web link.

808 Commonwealth Avenue Boston


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