v25-3 Motoring Through Edgewater

Vol. XXV No. 3 - FALL 2014

By: Tiffany Middleton and Kathy Gemperle

On Thanksgiving Day in 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored an automobile race, now recognized as the first such race of its kind in the United States, and it came through what is now Edgewater. The newspaper promised $5,000 in prizes to the winner of the 54-mile round-trip race between south of downtown and Evanston, and audiences across the country awaited results. Frank Duryea, inventor of the gas-powered automobile, won the race with a record time of 7 hours and 53 minutes. While the race put Chicago on the national map as an automobile city, it also put Edgewater in the center of the automobile revolution about to unfold.

The current exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Museum features the story of this dramatic change in Edgewater from the horse and buggy to the automobile. The Museum is open Saturdays and Sundays, 1-4 p.m., and admission is free. Come prepared to be amazed at all there is to see.

Within the ten years after that first race, from 1895-1910, car manufacturers, including Henry Ford, began setting up shop in Chicago along South Michigan Avenue. By 1920, Chicago’s Motor Row had developed into the largest concentration of automobile sales and service in the country, offering customers a selection from over 100 manufacturers. By 1925, automobiles exploded throughout Chicago, and across the country. Once reserved for the wealthy, cars and trucks were increasingly affordable and commonplace for members of the middle class. It was not long before sellers along Michigan Avenue wished for additional locations outside of downtown to serve a growing customer base.

“We all know that the automobile had a transformative effect on American life in the 20th century, but in this exhibit, you will see how that happened in one community, Edgewater, and how that looked to people living in the community,” explained curator Tiffany Middleton.

Broadway through Uptown and Edgewater quickly developed into a neighborhood motor row, which industry insiders dubbed the “Northside Motor Row.” It became a center for automotive sales and service, with numerous dealerships, garages and parts sellers located along Broadway. These businesses flourished and brought much activity to the Edgewater neighborhood. Many residents may remember some of the showrooms on Broadway. The Cadillac dealership that once stood at the corner of Foster and Broadway, for example, was one of the largest dealerships along the Northside Motor Row, and remained there until the 1970s. Unlike that Cadillac dealership, many of the Northside Motor Row buildings still remain along Broadway, often with new facades and, in some cases, new businesses that disguise their original purpose. Showroom architecture on Broadway ranged from the elegant Riviera Motor Sales showroom (formerly Broadway Bank) at Broadway and Elmdale, to the more modest Hudson showroom at Broadway and Rosemont (now the Ismaili Center). Some car showrooms featured models that are no longer in production and the last clue that they were ever there is a medallion on the facade. Take a look at the former Studebaker showroom at Broadway and Glenlake (now L.A. Fitness). The exhibit at the Museum features a 1928 map of Broadway showing all of the car dealerships and related businesses. In addition, there is a collection of car ads that list the showrooms and provide a window into the advertising culture of the new automobile.

In addition to automobile showrooms and service, Edgewater was home to many garages. Many of these buildings still exist, both on Broadway and along cross streets. Take a look at the Public Storage facility at 5733 N. Broadway, for example. Note the two drive-in/out entries, and note the details on the outside of the building – tires with wings. The public garages along the Northside Motor Row offered residents over 2,000 parking spaces in which to house new automobiles. As a customer of a garage, you could call the garage from your home and have your car driven to you, rather than walking back to the garage yourself.

If showrooms and garages were not enough activity along the Northside Motor Row, there were also auto shows. They were often hosted by the North Broadway Dealers Association, which was a group of approximately 25 dealers from along Broadway. The Broadway Armory hosted several of these shows. Auto shows often included beauty contests, fashion shows and dog shows, in addition to the automobiles on display.

The famous Edgewater Beach Hotel, located along the lakefront at Balmoral Avenue, was home to a chapter of the Chicago Motor Club, which hosted glamorous automobile salons in conjunction with the Chicago Auto Show downtown. The Edgewater Beach Hotel gained national fame in 1924 when it opened its underground parking garage, and again, in 1927, when it purchased two motor coaches to transport guests downtown. These activities at the Edgewater Beach Hotel are presented in the current exhibit at the museum.

Edgewater was also home to automobile scene leaders, including Thomas Hay and Arthur Greiner. Hay lived on Glenlake Avenue and was a leader in the automobile sales industry in Chicago from approximately 1908 until 1945. He worked as a distributor for a variety of auto companies, selling Fords, REOs, and Hupmobiles. Hay was also a founding officer of both the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and the National Automobile Dealer’s Association, two of the first professional organizations available to automotive sales representatives. Arthur Greiner, an early race car driver, lived at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. He gained national fame in 1910, when he won the Algonquin Hill Climb in Algonquin, Illinois. Both Hay and Greiner are profiled in the exhibit.

“The automobile era exploded between 1900 and 1950,” explains Middleton. “It permeated culture – advertising, music, radio and television.” Viewers of the exhibit will see examples of all of these media, in addition to photographs from Edgewater history. Photos of cars taken by residents in front of their homes show the great pride people took in owning this new machine.

In addition to photos, the exhibit includes a display of Illinois license plates, decade by decade, since their inception in 1911. One of the most interesting things in the exhibit is a map of the United States, which guides drivers on a “radio tour” of the country. “The idea of the road trip, be it a Sunday drive or a cross country tour, really began to take hold of America’s imagination, and Edgewater played a role in that development.”

Plan a visit to the museum to see “Motoring Through Edgewater” before it ends March 13, 2015. Programs will be offered relating to the exhibit, including some guided gallery talks and presentations. The first presentation will be held on Saturday, August 23, at 10:00 a.m., at the Edgewater Library. “Motoring Through Edgewater” curator Tiffany Middleton will discuss motor trucks, which developed alongside the car, but were marketed toward different audiences, and performed different duties. Tiffany is the author of The Clydesdale Motor Truck Company: An Illustrated History, 1917-1939. Watch for additional updates about these events as they are scheduled.