Thursday, April 02, 2009

Packard's Corner, Boston, and the World's Oldest Car Park

During a bike ride through the Allston and Brighton neighborhoods of Boston last weekend, I passed by the building pictured above at a bend in Commonwealth Avenue called "Packard's Corner."

I snapped the photo because the building, which today houses apartments above first-floor shops, looked a lot like a repurposed parking garage, and the name of the building (like the name of the neighborhood) is the same as a defunct American car company, Packard Motors.

After some research, I found out that this building isn't merely a historic garage, but a historic car factory. In fact, this was the first car manufacturing plant designed by Albert Kahn, who later in his career would become famous as "the architect of Detroit."

According to the Brighton Allston Historical Society,
The name Packard's Corner refers to Packard's Sales Stable and Riding School which was located in the vicinity of Commonwealth Avenue's intersection with Brighton Avenue from 1885-1920. The Packard name was perpetuated by the important early 20th century Boston businessman and political figure Alvan T. Fuller who built the Packard Motor Car Company building at 1079-1089 Commonwealth Avenue in several stages between 1909 and 1930. This area has significant historical associations with Boston's early 20th century automobile industry. It was part of a larger "auto mile" of office buildings, show rooms and automobile related businesses which stretched from Kenmore Square to Packard's Corner along Commonwealth Avenue.

So Packard's Corner turns out to be an influential nexus in the history of Boston transportation. When the neighborhood was first known and named for its stables, the neighborhood was a hinterland. The stables occupied rural and urban spheres simultaneously.

And, in part because that's where the stables were, the neighborhood developed well-used road and street links with the rest of the city. In 1909, electric trolley service along Commonwealth Avenue helped to establish the neighborhood's dominant industry: the manufacture of automobiles and auto parts. The streetcar (which runs to this day as the B branch of the green line) enabled the transport of car factory workers and customers to Packard's Corner, which occupied a strategic middle ground between the city itself and its growing customer base in well-to-do suburbs like Brookline, just to the west. That Packard Motors happened to share a name with Packard Stables turns out to have been a coincidence (albeit one that helped potential car customers navigate their way to the showroom).

Packard Motors shut down along with Studebaker in the late 1950s, and through the late 20th century, the influence of motor vehicles on the landscape of Packard's Corner declined significantly. At some point in the late 1980s or 1990s, the Packard building was gutted and transformed into apartments, pictured above. It looks odd, with the apartment windows set back from the original windows, but the facade itself is probably preserved as a historic landmark. After all, according to the Brighton Allston Historical Society, "Kahn, in his design of the Packard building, 'deviated from traditional design to use a reinforced concrete frame and steel sash, introducing a new form of industrial architecture which combined beauty with utility.'"

In 1909, when it was built, this building was something entirely new: a reinforced concrete structure designed so that its interior spaces were substantial and open enough to handle motor vehicle traffic. In looks like a parking garage because it was designed like one: in fact, it's the first example of this type of architecture in the entire world.

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