Reviving Detroit’s Dealer Row

April 3, 2016

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By Matt Wolfe

Amid Detroit’s bustling Midtown corridor, two buildings that were once part of Detroit’s “dealer row” have undergone a transformation from lifeless industrial complexes to vibrant retail and living spaces. Situated on the block of W. Willis and W. Canfield, these structures are among the last artifacts of what was the hotbed of Detroit’s automotive sales and service industry.

On the Willis side, a four-story brick building that is now called the Willys-Overland Lofts was once the Willys-Overland Motors’ Detroit sales & service center. The building was completed in 1912. Cars were sold out of the first floor and serviced on the upper floors, which were accessed by two large freight elevators. The building also hosted the 1918 Detroit Auto Show. Willys-Overland Motors was founded in 1908 by John North Willys (pictured right); a young, successful entrepreneur from New York. Willys first made his fortune selling bicycles, but developed an interest in cars and became a dealer for the Overland Automobile Company in the early 1900’s. A capable salesman, Willys could sell cars faster than Overland could build them, and he eventually bought Overland Motors and formed Willys-Overland Motors.

On the Canfield side, a former Olds Motor Works service garage is now home to Detroit-based businesses like Shinola. This structure was originally completed in 1920, and was the Detroit Service Center for Olds Motor Works before being sold to a distributor of Hudson and Essex vehicles in 1923. Olds Motor Works was founded by Ransom E. Olds in Lansing, Michigan in 1897. Olds Motor Works was one of the earliest American car companies, and became famous thanks to vehicles like the Curved Dash, which was the first mass-produced car. Olds was also the first to utilize the assembly line to manufacturer vehicles.

Though these buildings were once at the epicenter of Detroit’s automotive service industry, they would soon become little more than dormant warehouses. Willys-Overland was purchased by Kaiser Corporation in 1953. As a result, the Detroit sales and service garage was sold to Davidson Wholesale Dry Goods and later, the Detroit Public schools. The former Olds Service Center changed hands several times, but would also be purchased by the Detroit Public Schools in 1950. These buildings would become essentially dormant until 2005, when they were purchased for redevelopment.

The interior of the Willys-Overland building was extensively renovated to become a loft space, but most of the building’s exterior brick, skylights, and other architectural features remain original. Even the iconic “Willys Overland Service” mural has been restored. In 2013, Shinola opened a flagship retail store in the former Olds Motor Works service garage. A manufacturer of hand-crafted watches, apparel and bicycles, Shinola chose Detroit as a home to leverage the city’s industrial experience and history.

A former hotbed of automotive activity, this block has been transformed into a model of Detroit’s revival. Though the city still has a long road to recovery, these buildings stand as a symbol of Detroit’s enduring entrepreneurial spirit.

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