by SUSAN RICHARDS JOHNSON | photos courtesty of KC LIBRARY ARCHIVES
Automobiles have become an important part of American life. We practically live in our cars and most of us couldn’t imagine a day going by without owning at least one. There exists in Kansas City’s history an area once known as “Automobile Row.” This important commercial district was located mainly along Main, Walnut, Grand, McGee, and Locust streets between 11th and 18th streets, during the first half of the 20th century. The area is now commonly known as the East Cross Roads District and has become a part of the city’s “First Fridays” art, commerce, and community scene.
This article explores a particular car dealership that represented a thriving business in Automobile Row, which was located in the Kirkwood Building at 1737 McGee Street. When the building’s construction was completed in 1920, automobiles had only been in production in the United States for 24 years. The Benz Company in Germany was the first to put an automobile into production, a three-wheeler built in 1885. In the United States, there were tinkerers, but no real industry until 1896. Between that time and the early 1920s, the industry in the United States grew from only a few producers to hundreds, many of which began as carriage companies.
When the automobile was introduced, it was a machine only the wealthy could afford. The price, $2,000 to $3,000, represented twice the average salary of a U.S. worker. By the end of World War I, automobile manufacturers produced 1.5 million cars a year, and as the production process became streamlined, the automobile became more affordable to everyone. By the mid-’20s, many working-class people owned automobiles, and innovations such as Henry Ford’s introduction of continuous plate glass made closed cars possible at an affordable price. Closed cars not only allowed passengers to remain clean and dry, a transportation luxury in the beginning of the century, but also created less of a distinction between higher and lower priced cars.
As the economy grew after World War I, automobiles became quite common. By 1920, the United States had 76 cars per 1,000 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the United States in 1920 was 106,102,537 people, translating into over 8 million automobiles in the United States. Two million farmers owned automobiles, and by 1922 more than 100,000 suburban homes in the United States were wholly automobile dependent.
From its introduction, the automobile caught on quickly in Kansas City. Only a couple of hundred Kansas Citians owned automobiles when the first car show came to town in 1907, but 20,000 people attended the show. Between 1908 and 1923, the rise of the number of automobiles in Kansas City was staggering. In only 15 years, Kansas City’s motor population had grown from a mere 400 automobiles to 55,000, streets from 300 to 600 miles. The growing number of automobiles was evident from the many new houses built with garages, as well as the new garages that were being added to existing properties. This increase in automobile use allowed the growth of the city to occur several miles south of downtown, because Kansas Citians were no longer dependent on electric streetcars for transportation.
As people bought more cars, the entire automotive industry grew to become a major aspect of Kansas City’s commerce. Early on, automobile makers determined that it was far costlier to ship fully assembled cars to showrooms across the country than to assemble them in regional factories for the regional market. Ford opened a plant in Kansas City in 1912, and a number of carriage manufacturing businesses in the West Bottoms also began the assembly of automobiles, including the Studebaker Company. Furthermore, the wholesaling of cars, parts, and accessories became an integral part of Kansas City’s overall wholesale trade.
Because of the city’s role as a major wholesale distribution center for manufactured goods, the development of a regional center for automotive sales in Kansas City was assured. The rapid growth in automobile use spurred the construction of specialized buildings rated to the sale of automobiles. Businessmen already engaged in other transportation-related sales and services — livery stable, blacksmith shops, and carriage dealers — were among the first dealerships to emerge. By the time automobile business became well established, owners dropped other endeavors and concentrated solely on car and truck sales.
Along with the development of these specialized buildings for auto vending came the birth of a new type of commercial district — Automobile Row. These districts related to the automobile industry and were located in an area just outside of the downtown retail and financial center in order to avoid higher real estate costs.
Kansas City was no exception. According to the 1909 Sanborn Fire Map, the neighborhood around 18th and McGee streets was filled with middle-class housing and related commercial buildings that supported the area. By the mid-1910s, many new commercial buildings were constructed, replacing the housing that had existed there before. By the 1920s, the area was largely commercial and became known as Automobile Row.
As mentioned earlier, one such automobile dealership was located at 1737 McGee Street and was known as the Kirkwood Building, constructed by Irwin Kirkwood, the son-in-law of William Rockhill Nelson, the founder of the Kansas City Star newspaper. Kirkwood developed the building to accommodate two auto-related businesses; each tenant area of the first floor of the building had a separate entrance along with its own wash rack. The main tenant was the Gridley Motor Company and the building’s design boasted a beautifully ornamental plastered display room, a used car department, a repair shop, as well as additional rental space. A mezzanine that was utilized for offices was placed above the machine shop. As the Gridley Motor Company grew from a one- car showroom highlighting a $75 car into a million- dollar business in only six years, the demand for more space increased rapidly . . . hence, the need for the Kirkwood Building.
The Gridley Motor Company was the city’s only authorized dealer of the Auburn car. The Auburn Automobile Company, from Auburn Indiana, would produce three American classics — the Auburn, the Cord, and the Duesenberg. The Duesenberg was arguably the finest car ever built in this country, America’s answer to the Rolls-Royce and the Bugatti. Gridley also sold the Peerless and the Locomobile, both high-priced luxury cars.
In 1922, Gridley Motors became Peerless Automotive and B. E. Gridley became the vice president of the newly formed company. In the same year, Peerless moved into another building and Hathaway Motors moved into the Kirkwood Building. In 1923, the Kansas City Durant Company moved in. William Durant, owner of the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, the largest maker of horse-drawn carriages in the country, became the head of General Motors. Before long, Durant added other names to his line, including Flint Autos, which was listed as a tenant in the Kirkwood Building from 1925 to ’26. Durant Motors was a tenant of the building from 1923 to ’26. In 1927, the Kirkwood Building’s automotive character continued with the Faeth Company Auto Suppliers and later with Republic
Gear Corporation, and Thompson Auto Supplies, who leased the building for many years. From 1922 forward, other types of businesses occupied the building, including the Grand Aerie of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, Southwestern Bell, and the Central Surety and Insurance Corporation.
Many well-known architectural practices left their design mark in the Automobile Row neighborhood, including Wight and Wight, Root and Siemens, J. O. Hogg, Victor Jacques DeFoe, Nelle Peters, and Van Brunt and Howe. Their commissions included designing prestigious buildings with large, expansive glass display windows to showcase the gleaming automobiles inside.
Find a little time and take a drive in the historic Automobile Row area and picture what it must have been like when the area was bustling with automobile dealerships and tire and battery businesses, as well as automotive garages and repair shops.
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