Past and Present: Automobile Row’s Studebaker Building

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Even if this were not in Crown Heights, I would still say that this is one of Brooklyn’s coolest buildings. I recently found a 1942 photo of Bedford Avenue’s Studebaker Building in the archives of the Museum of the City of New York. It shows the Studie Building in its glory, the large electric “Studebaker” sign flying high above the building, and the elegant showroom space below, with heavily draperied windows, the curtains pulled back to reveal the large touring sedans within. Out on the street, the streetcar lines and tracks run along Sterling Place. Bedford Avenue was still called “Automobile Row” in those days, and the street, especially between Empire Blvd and Atlantic Avenue, was lined with car dealerships, garages, service stations and other automobile-related businesses. The Studebaker Building was the largest and finest of them all.

The Studebaker Corporation was founded in the 1850’s by five Studebaker brothers, all blacksmiths or foundry men, in South Bend, Indiana. They made wagons, and wagon parts, and made a fortune during the California Gold Rush, and another fortune supplying wagons for the Union Army. After the Civil War, they expanded into carriages and fancy rigs. By 1895, the company was looking at the new “horseless carriages”, and a new generation went into production in the early 20th century, debuting with an automobile that ran on electric energy.

They were well before their time, but the technology was not up to the demand, and the gasoline powered car became the norm. Studebaker introduced their own line in the ‘teens, and was soon designing and producing a very successful line of elegant touring cars, as well as buses and trucks. By 1920, the company, run for the first time by a non-Studebaker family member, underwent tremendous expansion, and it was during this time that Brooklyn’s Studebaker headquarters was built.

This building was designed by New York architects Tooker & Marsh, in 1920. Aside from its large and elegant design, the building is notable for the Gothic-style ornamentation, and for being entirely clad and ornamented in while glazed terra-cotta tile, all manufactured by the Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company, the country’s largest terra-cotta works, with factories in Staten Island and New Jersey.

By 1942, when this photograph was taken, Studebaker was back in the military business, supplying trucks and personnel carriers for the US Army engaged in World War II. Production of war vehicles took precedence over civilian cars, so the vehicles in the showroom may also have been used cars, which were being sold from this location. It’s also a photograph of the end of an era.

The date for the photo may actually be wrong, as other sources say Studebaker stopped selling cars here in 1939. At any rate, give or take a couple of years, the building would drastically change. In 1941, the owner of the building hired architect Irving Cohen to make alterations on the building. The large plate glass showroom windows were removed and the first floor, mezzanine and second floors of the building were altered. By 1946, the first floor was a dress shop and showroom, the mezzanine was offices, the second floor was a pick and pack company shipping sweaters, the third floor was a furniture showroom, and the fourth was hired out to a furniture manufacturer, probably the same one with the showroom below.

In 1999, the building was sold to a developer, and in 2000, he converted the building into affordable housing with 27 apartments for the formerly homeless, and people with special needs. It remains that today. Although it no longer has those spectacular showroom windows, the building was altered by Irving Cohen with great care. He obviously looked at the neo-Gothic charm, and made his design choices with taste and a nuanced hand. It’s still a great building, landmarked, and lauded as a well-designed, and important reminder of Brooklyn’s industrial past. GMAP

1942 Photo: Museum of the City of New York

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