Great Neighborhood Walks: Motor Row, Where Anything Can Happen

Motor Row Walk

The plan was to photograph some grand old buildings. Then things got a little weird.

I was in the company of a dozen fellow members of the Chicago Street Photography Group. Our route was one of the city’s great neighborhood walks—Motor Row.

We spotted the old Hudson showroom down at 2222 South Michigan Avenue. It was frozen in time, the checkerboard-tiled floor untouched for decades. One by one, we crouched on the grungy sidewalk to photograph this relic of old Chicago.

Marmon Showroom

Marmon Showroom

“We NEED to get inside and shoot this!” said Chuck Jines, our fearless leader. Alas it was locked, so we went next door to another deserted building, the Marmon showroom.

“Hey, this door is open—we should go inside!” said another group member.

“Let’s just try not to get arrested,” said a third, more cautious member of the group. In the interest of documenting the past, I forged ahead. We street photographers scoff at your silly trespassing rules.

For the most part, the old Motor Row showrooms are tightly locked. Before the inevitable redevelopment, gastropubs and Starbucks arrive on South Michigan Avenue, it’s a fascinating walk to view the last remnants of a bygone era.

BF Goodrich Building

BF Goodrich Building

Rich Kolar, our guide and historian, explained how and why Motor Row became THE place to go car-shopping.

“This was one of the first paved streets in Chicago, so when people wanted to test-drive a car, this is where they came,” Kolar said. “It still has the largest number of intact car showrooms in the U.S.”

None of these buildings still sell cars, and they look far different from the sleek auto showrooms we’re used to seeing. These are much smaller buildings, with detailed ornamentation. They usually have a wide window at ground level, where customers could peer in to check out the new car models.

Locomobile Showroom

Locomobile Showroom

Some of the noteworthy structures on our walk were the 1925-era B.F. Goodrich Building at 1925 South Michigan, the 1909-era Locomobile Building at 2000 South Michigan, and the first Ford Motor Car showroom outside of Detroit, at 1444 South Michigan. The 1905 Ford building now houses an eyeglass store.

On our walk, we also encountered a cheerful 68-year-old Army veteran who was hustling to get home to his 28-year-old girlfriend. “I get around ok,” he said with a grin.

This being Motor Row, our next encounter was appropriately a head-turning car. Not a Model T, which would have been too perfect. It wasn’t a bad substitute, though. This was a shiny new Lamborghini.

Veteran On Michigan Ave

Veteran On Michigan Avenue

Around Michigan Avenue and 18th Street (the vicinity of Al Capone’s various hotel residences back in the day), Kris, one of the Street Photography group members, explained that her grandmother was well acquainted with Mr. Capone, who took a fancy to the lamps for sale in Kris’ grandmother’s shop. So much so that Capone visited her once a month—with his entourage—to flirt with the shop-owner and buy a new lamp.

Chess Records

Former Chess Records building

At 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Motor Row deviates every-so-briefly from the world of automobiles to music. It’s the former home of Chess Records, where Chuck Berry recorded “Johnny B. Goode.” The Rolling Stones immortalized the studio in their instrumental “2120 South Michigan.” Actually, Mick Jagger had a couple of Chess LPs under his arm at Dartford Station on October 17, 1961 when he met another student for the first time who also liked the blues. The other bloke was, of course, Keith Richards. Jumping back across the pond, in 1948, Muddy Waters recorded “Rolling Stone Blues” at Chess.

Which brought one another story, from historian Rich Kolar. You see, by day, Rich develops e-learning programs. He also used to dabble as a high school basketball referee. Once time, at Westmont High School, an acquaintance told Rich he’d be refereeing a game in which a certain Joe Morganfield, Jr., would be playing.

Oh, and his friend mentioned, Joe Morganfield, Sr. just happened to be up in the stands watching.

“Who’s that?” Rich asked. None other than the great bluesman himself, Muddy Waters.

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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