Seattle Now & Then: Auto Row

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The brand new N&K Packard dealership at Belmont and Pike in 1909.  Thanks to both antique car expert Fred Cruger for identifying as Packards the cars on show here, and to collector Ron Edge for finding them listed at this corner in a 1909 Post-Intelligencer. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry.)
THEN: The brand new N&K Packard dealership at Belmont and Pike in 1909. Thanks to both antique car expert Fred Cruger for identifying as Packards the cars on show here, and to collector Ron Edge for finding them listed at this corner in a 1909 Post-Intelligencer. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry.)
NOW: Jean Sherrard has posed a celebrating “Senior,” AKA Phil Smart, at the front door of his Mercedes dealership.  This year Senior has been meeting the public for a half century here at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Pike Street.
NOW: Jean Sherrard has posed a celebrating “Senior,” AKA Phil Smart, at the front door of his Mercedes dealership. This year Senior has been meeting the public for a half century here at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Pike Street.

The whereabouts of Seattle’s first Auto Row is easily figured by counting the locations listed in the 1911 Polk City Directory under the simple heading “Automobiles.”  Of the forty-one sellers named, thirty-one are either on Broadway Avenue or Pike Street, with 17 and 14 dealers respectively. “Auto Row,” then, was two rows intersecting.

In 1903 there was but one dealer listing for automobiles, and it was not on Capitol Hill, but on “Bike Row,” or on Second Avenue, near Madison Street.   There Fred Harrell’s Cycle Company sold motorcars as an alternative to bikes and trolleys for a very few well heeled customers.  Our first auto, a Wood’s Electric, arrived here in the summer of 1900.  Another twenty years of improvements in machines and roads were needed for the motorcar to become commonplace following World War One.

The historical scene here is from 1909 when this garage and showroom at the northeast corner of Belmont and Pike was brand new, and owners Arthur Nute and J. Trafton Keena had set their joined initials, “N & K,” in tiles at the top of buildings supporting columns.  We may imagine the urge to drive away with one of the luxury Packards twice on display: in the show room and on the street.

A century later luxury cars are still sold at this corner and the dapper and gregarious Phil Smart, standing near the front door, is celebrating both his golden anniversary here with Mercedes, and this September his own 90th birthday as well.  “Senior,” Smart’s popular name, is the neighborhood’s good-humored stalwart.

Also this year the Seattle City Council under the leadership of councilman Tom Rasmussen, gave its unanimous decision to designate this now old “Auto Row” neighborhood as a conservation district with incentives to restore or incorporate old buildings, like this one, into future plans.

WEB-ONLY EXTRA

smart-senior-at-desk-4
Phil Smart Senior at his desk, a treasured portrait of George S. Patton on the wall behind him.

Jean writes:

Phil Smart Senior, affectionately known around the dealership he founded as “Senior”, gamely posed for our repeat, even renting a bowler from Brocklind’s for the occasion. He welcomed me into his office with the genuine charm and affability of a great salesman – in the best sense and perhaps the rarest, that of a man who knows and perhaps fosters a simple truth: it’s not just about the car, it’s about you and me.

He told me about his hero Patton – a rare portrait of whom hangs on his office wall – in whose motorized unit he served during the war, thereby missing the birth of Phil Smart Junior. About his long marriage to his wife and sweetheart. About his forthcoming 9oth birthday, at which I expressed genuine amazement – really, some are blessed with damn fine genes.

With picture of himself in North Africa
With picture of himself in North Africa

Senior still comes into the office several times a week, and he hasn’t lost the touch. During our session for the repeat photo above, wearing the bowler, and leaning casually up against the brick wall, he bantered easily with every passerby, offering them a sweet deal. And as I left, even I felt the pull – and I write as someone who has a built-in resistance to a sales pitch – but I really wanted to buy a car from that man.

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Auto Row”

  1. I’m trying to recall the name of a dealership from the fifties. It was in the downtown area. Does “Leigh Motors” ring a bell? Thanks. Max

  2. I remember my Dad bought a 1962 Pontiac Catalina at Central Pontiac, Broadway and Pike. The building is still there (NE corner).

  3. It’s been difficult finding anything on James Trafton Keena. Fifteen years ago I knew he had moved to Seattle and since a few bits & pieces occasionally pop-up.. “Trafton” Keena ’03 was the first football captain for Detroit University School in 1899. The school is now University Liggett School located in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. He won several state championships in track & field as well as state & national records. His half-sister, Margaret Keena Gillis flipped the coin at the 100th anniversary homecoming football game in 1999.
    Tracks were 1/6 mile in diameter and made of dirt or cinders recovered from heating processes in the early 1900’s. Here are Keena’s marks:

    Pole Vault 9’ 7’’
    High Jump 5’ 7 3/4’’ (feet first style)
    Broad Jump 19’ 9’’
    half mile 2:11 3/5
    quarter mile 53 3/5 seconds
    220 yards 23 4/5 seconds
    220 yard hurdles 27.0 seconds

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