In the early twentieth century, as automobiles became more common, owners of livery stables and carriage shops seized the opportunity to sell cars. Soon they began constructing new buildings to display their wares. These new stores adhered to the standard Main Street commercial form, with the distinguishing trait of huge plate-glass display windows. A new type of commercial district began to emerge: the “automobile row,” where shoppers could easily try out the latest models from several manufacturers. Oshkosh’s Automobile Alley emerged incrementally during the 1920s, and it remains remarkably intact. Although the buildings exhibit different stylistic treatments, they share a wall of display windows framed by a continuous border of masonry, crowned by a shaped parapet.
The former Gibson Tire Company (1925; 537 N. Main) has a cream-colored terra-cotta facade with classical egg-and-dart and bead-and-reel moldings, an ornate cartouche, and urn finials atop the corner pilasters. The one-story former Foute-Slate Auto Company (1921; 563 N. Main) of orange and brown brick has a shaped parapet wall that combines an elongated arch with crenellated corners. Concrete ornamentation on the corner piers, suggesting rain dripping from stylized clouds, and battered jambs at the pediment window show Craftsman influences. The Hathaway Buick Company (1922; 609 N. Main) has a cream brick front with classical ornamentation. Its stepped parapet wall forms a pediment at the center, and a fluted motif accents the pilasters.
Today’s Automobile Alleys are typically found well outside of downtown areas, in lower-density suburbs and commercial strips. Functional glass-and-steel buildings and football field–sized display lots have become the distinctive architectural form of the car dealership, replacing the stylish showrooms of an earlier age.