Motor Row: The One-Time South Michigan Avenue Destination For Automobiles
21 February 2019
Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood has undergone a myriad of changes throughout the decades. South Michigan Avenue was once home to number of flashy, flourishing car dealerships known as Motor Row. This automotive corridor was at one point the industry’s most prominent public face, playing a large role in America’s early infatuation with the car. At its peak in the 1920s, Motor Row populated a 1-½ mile expanse of Michigan Avenue, from Roosevelt Road to 26nd Street. The growth was swift considering the first car appeared in Chicago in 1893 at the famous World’s Columbian Exposition, and at this point, cars were still unaffordable for the average individual.
The first automobile dealership on Motor Row opened in 1903, at a time when there were no more than 600 cars registered in the entire city. Henry Ford, innovator of the assembly line-produced Model-T, opened his first dealership outside of Detroit on South Michigan Avenue in 1905. The Buick Motor Car Company open a dealership in 1908, with others following closely behind. By 1925, there were 300,000 cars registered in Chicago; freshly assembled cars that arrived at dealerships on a Monday would be sold and out on the streets by Wednesday. To cater to the demand, real estate developer’s built dozens of automotive-related structures along Motor Row, including repair shops, parts suppliers and accessory dealers, as well as expanded, more lavish versions of previous showrooms. 116 car dealerships could be found on Motor Row at its peak.
In 1936, the Illinois Automobile Club opened at 2400 South Michigan Avenue. The luxurious Spanish-Mission style building was intended to become a 21-story clubhouse with a swimming pool, dance hall and athletic facility, but the Great Depression caused the entire district to suffer financially and construction was halted on the clubhouse. As the Depression starved the automotive industry, car makers either left the area or collapsed entirely. The car makers that were still in business fled downtown or relocated to suburban areas, where the focus switched from top-notch customer service to volume, and large car lots replaced extravagant showrooms. At the onset of World War II, civilian automobile production ceased, snuffing out what was left of the life of Motor Row. The vestiges of many of these lavish dealerships can still be found in the district today, such as the Marmon building’s doorway at 2232 S. Michigan, the Hudson Motor Car Company’s “H” logo above the main entrance at 2222 S. Michigan, and the Locomobile dealership at 2401 S. Michigan.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Motor Row evolved into Record Row, becoming a place where the albums of popular African-American jazz, blues and soul artists were recorded and distributed. Chess Records, the legendary label that featured Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddly and other greats, was located at 2120 S. Michigan (also the title of a 1964 Rolling Stones song recorded there) from 1956 to 1965. Unfortunately, changes in contemporary music caused Record Row to lose relevance by the mid 1970s. Many of the once-glorious former car showrooms in the district have sat in various states of disrepair since then.
Motor Row was officially designed a Chicago landmark in 2000, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Currently, city officials, developers and entrepreneurs are slowing trying to establish Motor Row as a new entertainment district. The historic Illinois Automobile Club building was restored and reopened as an event space in the spring of 2017. Crain’s Chicago Business refers to Motor Row as “the hottest neighborhood you’ve never heard of.” Former Chicago Bears players Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers plan to put a co-working space and social club in the Hudson Motor Building at 2222 S. Michigan. Motor Row Brewing, a craft beer company at 2337 S. Michigan, which housed the Federal Motor Car Company over a century ago, features vintage photos and memorabilia from Motor Row’s past. Restaurants, boutiques and loft apartments now dot vacant parts of South Michigan Avenue near McCormick Place. We are excited for the attractions and newfound authenticity this rejuvenation developments will create for residents of 1000M just a few blocks north of the area!