With its plain cream brick facade and run-down interior visible through a large display window, the Ford Motor Company showroom at 1444 S. Michigan doesn’t look like a landmark. But the utilitarian building has a revolutionary past–legend has it that while Henry Ford was here in 1905 to oversee the construction of his first showroom outside of Detroit he took a break to watch meat being processed at the nearby stockyards and hit on the idea of the auto assembly line.

The Ford showroom was phenomenally successful, in part because of its proximity to the silk-stocking Prairie Avenue District and to the Loop, with its growing business base. Michigan Avenue was also one of the best-paved roadways at the time, which made for a smoother test drive and an easier sale. Other automobile dealers soon flocked to the 16-block stretch of Michigan between 12th and 28th streets, which became known as Motor Row.

One dealer sold the Reo Speedwagon, a delivery truck. Another sold the Nyberg automobile, which was built both in Indiana and at 2500 S. Michigan. Al Capone probably bought his wheels at the Cadillac dealership across the street from his office at the Metropole Hotel, in the 2300 block of South Michigan. Related auto businesses spilled onto Wabash and Indiana. “It was just gigantic,” says auto historian David Kerr. “If you wanted to buy a car this is where you went.” Kerr went through the 1915-’16 phone directory and counted 216 auto businesses in the Motor Row area.

During the 1920s the lights dimmed a little on Motor Row as the number of auto manufacturers dropped. Yet two big new showrooms were built in 1922–the Marmon, at 2222 S. Michigan, and the Hudson, at 2232 S. Michigan. Both were in an ornate Spanish-revival style, a sharp contrast to the simple Ford showroom.

The Cadillac dealership is gone. Ditto the Metropole Hotel, which was demolished in 1975 and is now the site of City Chevrolet. But the Ford, Marmon, and Hudson showrooms still exist. The Ford, now empty, was most recently home to a catering service. The Marmon and the Hudson are being used for storage. The three are among 55 Motor Row buildings given landmark status last year by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. “From my perspective,” Kerr says, “with so many buildings remaining, it would be a shame to lose them, because in all of the other cities in the U.S. nobody has anything like this.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.