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CHS Re:Take | The social network of Capitol Hill’s Auto Row, 1921 and 2012

“The new home of the Greater Motors Corporation is situated at the intercrossing of Pike, Minor and Melrose. The main entrance is so located that it is visible looking west on Pike Street for quite a distance. The location is considered one of the choicest on automobile row.”*

We’re standing around the corner from Melrose Market and the upcoming Melrose Square. And we’re talking about that arched building in the distance. Today it’s Utrecht art supplies and Volvo of Seattle. In 1962 the building was Lee Moran’s Fiat dealership, International Motors. It’s also been used to sell Mazda, Datsun, Citroen — and Packard, which is shown here in 1921.

But it was built for the short-lived Greater Motors. Just a few months after placing their first order of Templar automobiles, plans were afoot for their new home. Seattle clothier and real estate tycoon Moses Prager built Greater Motors’ garage and sales room on the west side of Seattle’s booming auto row, on the corner of Melrose and Pike.

In1921 Six Arms — just to the right of Utrecht — was a tire company that outfit Packard on a record-setting run. And later it was the storefront of Packard’s chief rival, Peerless Motor.

1919 Templar (Wikipedia)

Seattle’s early automobile industry is clearly a great example of a network society, apparently a juncture of local financiers to fund new corporations, wealthy local customers, and the machinists and mechanics inventing and maintaining cars across the country.

Pike/Pine’s new overlay district looks at auto row as a flat list of extant structures with one historic and one present use. The landmarking process is more informative. For example, Packard’s earlier home at 12th and Pine got the full treatment in 2007, with essays on automobile row, the architect and owners and lists of modifications and other relevant facts.

Stories and lists are fine for expressing the basic information of a landmark form, but they’re poor ways to explore linked, structured information and discover new knowledge. Consider auto row as a multidimensional network with supernodes, strong and weak links. The building is the connection through time between many firms. Each of those firms are connected through owners and employees to other firms.

Greater Motors is an interesting example. Moses Prager and the owners of Greater Motors — Arthur G. Cohen, and L. M. Cohen (if not manager A. R. Dawson) were all Jewish. They began selling Templar automobiles after one of Dawson’s trips to Ohio netted them the distribution contact. Before that, the group was known as Daniels Sales Agency, local distributor of Daniels automobiles. DSA itself was formed as an expansion of a Portland firm. All this occurred in a matter of months.

It’s impossible to answer right now whether the Jewish ownership group is unique and whether they had statistically more Jewish customers than other dealerships. We also can’t verify whether the newspaper’s claims that 1124 Pike’s architectural design was unique, groundbreaking and efficient. We need at least a date-sorted list of buildings, looking at immediate followers. Did they mimic the design, with a central office area that served new sales, used sales and the garage? Better yet, what about companies that employees of Greater Motors went to work for or came from?

Pike west from Broadway, 1921 (Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, SEA0475)

Especially strong connections bubble up into the flat data in the preservation district and landmarking processes. For example, if a building still exists, the architect and builder are treasured pieces of information. These provide context to the importance of the building in relation to other parts of the city.

Here’s the story form of the Utrecht building, for the record.

Architect Louis Svarz designed commercial buildings around town including De Honey’s Dance School, now the Public Storage at 13th and Pike. Greater Motors was his first big splash. He also did the Ranke Building down at 5th and Pike.

Moses Prager went on a buying binge in 1920. He sold his home on Spring and Boren to the Catholic Archdiocese (now home to the Seattle Archbishop), bought a mansion on 14th, and bought the Seneca Building downtown.

Seattle Archibishop Residence, Spring and Boren

Dawson, for his part, was manager of the local Willys-Overland distributor before Daniels, and apparently left Seattle after he became regional distributor for Templar.

It requires hours of note-taking to connect the dots between people and places in the Pike/Pine auto row. There are cross-sectional views by auto maker, like the Nash.  But what we need is a database, like the Pacific Coast Architecture DB. Focused and specific to Pike/Pine auto dealerships, and tracking the movement of managers, mechanics, and the web of financial and political influence. It won’t replace the need for accessible stories and summaries by the likes of Paul Dorpat and HistoryLink. It will just make those stories better.

* Quote Seattle Times May 16, 1920 page 49.

Thanks again to Brendan McKeon for comments and advice.

In case you missed them, here are the last few Re:Takes on CHS:

Local history expert Rob Ketcherside shares his vision of the past and present with his Re:Take series of works on CHS and other Seattle sites.

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13 thoughts on “CHS Re:Take | The social network of Capitol Hill’s Auto Row, 1921 and 2012” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

  1. Always love these then and now pieces.
    If you go into Six Arms, they have a nice picture of early days of the building from the opposite direction.
    IIRC, Victrola is the first non-auto use of that storefront. Can’t remember if it was a tire shop or a general repair shop before Victrola took over.
    Keep up the good work Rob!

  2. In my opinion, the Catholic church should sell the Archbishop’s residence at Boren and Spring, because it is a perfect example of the excess of wealth held by that church. The home is a treasure and would bring millions of dollars, which could be then used by the church for some social good. Does the Archbishop really need to live in such luxury?

  3. Love the article.
    I recently tracked down photographs and tax records of the former Cadillac dealership at 420 E. Pike (at Summit), as well as one picture of the seedy used car lot (416 E. Pike, Mills Motors, ca 1930s)that was there before the present building. Let me know when there is a database, I’d like to contribute.

  4. Thank you Robert, this is a fascinating piece of history. Though i purchase my circa 1910 building at Pike & Belmont two decades ago, only last summer did i discover a trove of 1920’s era auto body part(fenders, hoods, etc.) in the attic/crawl space. Made me think about the mechanics who worked here nearly a century ago.

    Again, wonderful writing, thank you.

  5. Chip, I’d love to talk more and see your building if possible. You can email me — roket atsymbol

    I see that your building was coincidentally first used by Leavitt & CO’s Seattle dealership for Willys-Overland — Arthur R. Dawson moved up to Seattle in 1916 to manage Willys Overland. He had been running the Cadillac dealership in San Francisco. There was quite a bit of intermingling up and down the west coast. Leavitt was a SF firm. Leavitt opened a Willys Overland in Portland in 1910 at the same time as the store here. Earlier, Capitol Hill’s first auto shop (we’ll hear about them in an upcoming article) opened up a branch in Portland as well. I’ve also discovered since writing this that Dawson sold Patten Hupmobiles in 1917 and then Fageol tractors in 1918 before the Daniels company got started.

  6. It’s just these connections that make looking at the history of the area so much fun. Dennis Saxman has an enormous collection of data on auto row (Pike-Pine, Broadway) — wish there were a way to help him start that data base for us all! Of course, I want to add dancing schools as well. This was one I didn’t know about. Thanks!