This appealing commercial building illustrates
the facilities that a prosperous automobile dealership constructed just
before the First World War. On the
first floor were the showrooms displaying new Columbia motor cars. Presumably,
automobiles were repaired and stored for sale on the upper floors. Land close
to downtown was expensive and most people lived close to the city’s
center, so dealership did not occupy acres and acres of suburbia. Throughout
Detroit, you find auto dealers’ buildings with showrooms on ground-level
floors and repair shops above.
This is also an example of the influence of Louis Sullivan's architectural style upon commercial building. If you will look carefully, you will see the use of terra cotta trim on this building. Note the attractive pedestrian entrance on Cass surrounded by the curved stone arch. Lions holding shields in the frieze are visible at the roof line—long before the city's professional football team elected that totem. I suspect that it has been a long time since an automobile dealer in Detroit erected a building with as many attractive architectural details as this one.
The Cass Corridor area was a major location for the auto industry before World War I and for the following decades. The Buick Building at 460 West Canfield has been remodeling into the Cass Lofts. Another building designed for vehicle sales, Cass Motors at 5800 Cass is listed on the state and national registers of historic sites. The large and impressive Willys-Overland Building on West Willis between Cass and Second has also been converted to lofts. The architects who designed these structures probably never thought they were designing residential building for prosperous Detroit residents.
The Stuber-Stone building was built to serve as a dealership for the Columbia Motor Car Company. That firm was founded in Detroit on January 15, 1916 by William Metzger—who had founded a number of moderately successful auto manufactures, including the EMF firm—and four other investors. They leased a building at East Jefferson and Bellevue Street and assembled a few vehicles for display at the January, 1917 auto show in New York City. They hoped to obtain numerous orders for their cars at what was then the nation’s leading auto show. Apparently they were successful.
The Columbia was entirely an assembled car. That is, the Columbia Motor Car Company made few, if any, of the component parts. The parts were purchased—Continental Motor, for example, supplied the engines—and assembled into cars at the factory on East Jefferson. Columbia, in 1917, offered a moderately-priced, but rather high-quality, touring car. About 800 were sold that year. In 1918, the line expanded to three models: a touring car, a sports touring car and a sedan. The nation’s participation in World War I limited the firm's access to component parts.
The firm enjoyed prosperity in 1920 and produced about 4,800 cars. The popularity of their vehicles led the firm to imagine great success. They recapitalized and announced that they would produce about 27,000 cars in 1923, a number that seemed improbable in the highly competitive industry.
The Liberty Motor Car Company was also founded in Detroit in 1916. Their sales grew rapidly, and in 1921, they produced 11,000 cars. On the basis of that success, Liberty Motor Car secured financing to build a large complex of factories on 24 acres on Charlevoix near St. Jean on Detroit’s far east side. Most impressive, was the office building resembling Independence Hall that they built on Charlevoix (see Liberty Motor Car on this website). Liberty was, I believe, a car assembled primarily or exclusively from parts made by other firms. The firm apparently, expanded too rapidly and lacked capital, so they quickly ran into financial difficulties. They went into receivership in January, 1923, less than two years after their banner sales. The Columbia Motor Car Company purchased the impressive Liberty Car complex in hopes of greatly increasingly their production. However, they did not have sufficient capital and did not succeed with their acquisition. By 1925, the once-promising Columbia Motor Car Company was broke. Edward Budd purchased their east side plant and it was used by the Budd Company for the manufacture of auto parts until that firm was purchased by Germany’s Krupp-Thyssen Steel Company. They manufactured auto parts there until late in 2005 when that plant closed. After the demise of the Columbia Motor Car Company, I presume that the Stuber-Stone Building was used to sell another brand.
The Detroit Columbia Motor Car Company should not be confused with a firm of the same name that produced electric and gasoline cars in Hartford, Connecticut from the 1890s to 1913. Indeed, that company may claim the honor of selling the nation’s first hybrid. In the early 1900s, it was unclear whether electricity or gasoline would be the best energy source for cars. The Hartford manufacturer—founded in 1899 as the Electric Vehicle Company, but renamed Colombia Motor Car in 1910—produced electric cars, but in 1904, made and promoted a model that used a gasoline engine to power electric generators that powered the vehicle.
For several decades after the 1960s, the Cass Corridor was one of Detroit’s more troubled neighborhoods, but this began to change in the 1990s. Employment increased in the nearby Detroit Medical Center and the Ford Hospital complexes, and enrollment in Wayne State’s professional schools rose. A younger generation of people who worked or studied in the geographic area stretching from Detroit’s riverfront to New Center found it appealing to live in this upgraded neighborhoods. Real estate developers increasingly use the term Midtown for this area, a term that has more positive connotations than Cass Corridor. In 2005, The Stuber-Stone Building was remodeling into 14 lofts of 1,200 square feet. The building features hardwood floors, 16-foot ceilings and indoor parking. The asking price began at $199,000.
Architect and builder: David M. Simons
Architectural style: A commercial building influenced by Louis Sullivan
Date of Completion: 1916
Use in 2012: Lofts and condominiums
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P911
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed April 4, 1996; Reference #96000369
Photo: Ren Farley; November, 2003
Description revised: January, 2012