(click to enlarge photos)
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.
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.
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.