When dealerships ruled Auto Row

7/27/1956 -- Boston, Massachusetts The Cadillac-Olds Building on Commonwealth Avenue. Photo by Boston University Photography
AFTER THE HORSE AND BUGGY: Cadillac was one of the first Auto Row dealerships, located along Commonwealth Avenue where BU now holds sway.
PHOTO: BOSTON UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES

Like many of America’s oldest cities, Boston is a place where buildings are repurposed in immensely creative ways. That’s how we are able to enjoy shops in old townhouses on Newbury Street and nightlife along the cobblestoned walkways of Faneuil Hall and the Haymarket.

Many of the places that we pass by today were once integral parts of the automotive industry in Boston. Those buildings and their location may surprise you just as much as what they are used for today.

In 2011, Boston University grad and staffer Patrick Kennedy (no relation to the storied clan) took up this subject, researching the varied past of his section of Commonwealth Avenue. The thoroughfare was once home to Auto Row, which pre-dated a large majority of the Boston University campus.

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Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, dozens of dealerships opened along Commonwealth Avenue. By the 1950s, as many as 117 automotive-related businesses had come and gone. It all started with Packard’s Corner. Though it would eventually be home to a Packard dealership, the corner was originally named for Packard’s Horse Stable and Riding School. The automobile dealership arrived in 1910 and was the first such business on Auto Row.

“That tract of land was open and convenient because it was on the trolley line,” explains Kennedy. People could take the streetcar from the suburbs to the dealership to buy their first car.

In addition to being first, the Packard dealership might have been the best. Packards were known for their superior build quality and were considered to be of a higher standard even than Cadillac, which also had a dealership on the row.

It was housed in a shared facility with Oldsmobile, and featured a massive service station. The Cadillac/Olds dealership building now houses Boston University’s 808 Gallery and classrooms for the College of Fine Arts. Rumor has it there is an old, rusted Ford Model A in storage there.

Directly across the street is the main building of the College of Fine Arts, which was once Noyes Buick. Small gargoyle-like sculptures of mechanics and motorists are the only indication of the building’s past use.

The fine arts buildings and Packard’s Corner bookend Auto Row. In between, you can visit a Star Market that was once Commonwealth Chevrolet and a Pontiac dealership that now contains a mattress store and an audio equipment shop.

An Enterprise car rental facility now sits on the lot once owned by Coombs & McBeath Ford. Next door, a Sullivan Tire operates on the plot that belonged to a Rambler dealership.

Though the section of Commonwealth Avenue between Essex Street and Brighton Avenue bustled with sales, the great movement to the suburbs in the 1950s was the beginning of the end for the Auto Row. Dealers had no choice but to follow their prospective customers out of the city.

“When it became more commonplace to own a second car,” explains Kennedy, “trolley access was no longer as important. And in the 1950s, the Auto Mile opened on Route 1 in Norwood.”

According to Kennedy, BU has been looking to expand its use of these former dealerships. The university is exploring the possibility of renovating the fine arts building by uncovering the ground-level windows. Once a visual gateway to the showroom floor, the massive windows were replaced with solid walls a long time ago.

“The university has made incredible use of the former dealerships,” says Kennedy, “and they continue to find new ways to use these buildings.”

Today, no new-car dealerships exist on the actual Auto Row, but three dealerships nearby are owned by Herb Chambers. From the front of his sparkling new BMW dealership, you can even see Packard’s Corner, and the building where it all began.

Ford Built Cars in Somerville for 30 Years

While Buick, Chevy, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile were selling their cars in the heart of Boston, Ford was building in nearby Somerville. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company built a massive assembly facility where Somerville meets the Mystic River. Ford would build cars there until it was shuttered in March of 1958, due to high operating costs. By then, the plant was considered outdated and undersized compared to the facilities being constructed in Detroit. The last vehicle produced at the facility was the much-maligned Edsel.

Soon after, the plant became a supermarket distribution center, and, in 1980, a shopping center. In 2005, Federal Realty Investment Trust purchased Assembly Square, hoping to revitalize the area. In 2013, they broke ground on a 100,000 square foot office space.

Today, hints and artifacts from Boston’s automobile history can be seen in repurposed facades, and names like Packard’s Corner and Assembly Square. For more comprehensive information, the Larz Anderson Museum in Brookline is a vault of auto history in the region. The museum’s repurposed carriage house is a perfect example of our motoring past living on. In addition to housing dozens of very early, Massachusetts-driven vehicles, it features a research facility that explores more than a century’s worth of driving in the Bay State.