The Capitol Retrospective - The Chanslor & Lyon Building: The Golden House of Auto Row

Monday, June 22, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Before 1912, your gas-powered Ford lit the often-precarious road ahead with nothing but acetylene gas headlamps and required a hand crank to start the engine.  However, that year, everything changed when Charles Kettering and Henry Leland designed and built the first electric starter and lighting system. If you lived in Seattle and wanted the upgrade, chances are you would purchase the Gray & Davis model from what was then claimed to be the largest automotive equipment retailers and distributors in the world: the Chanslor & Lyon Company (C&L).  

 

Founded in 1904 in Los Angeles by Waller G. Chanslor and Phillip H. Lyon, it opened a branch in Seattle in 1908 that steadily expanded and outgrew the 20,000 square feet of floor space in its second location at 10th Avenue and Pike Street -- the building now occupied by Comet Tavern and Lost Lake Café. Most impressed by this growth, Chanslor visited in May 1919 to plot out the next phase of expansion in the Pacific Northwest: a custom designed state-of-the-art facility to fit his company's needs. 

 

Within a few weeks, C&L purchased a tract of land from H. M Schweppe, Harry Krutz and the estate of David Keith (deceased) for roughly $25,000.  Thereafter, they hired local engineer Henry Bittman to design the new facility, which is now the southwest wing of Trace Lofts.   

 

Four years later, Bittman would become a registered architect and go on to design many prominent downtown buildings including the Terminal Sales Building, Eagles Temple and the final addition to the King County Courthouse. (His Wallingford home recently went up for auction.) 

 

 

Bittman's design called for a three-story, semi-triangular structure of yellow brick to fit the irregular intersection of 12th, Madison and Union. Both the roof and the sill below the second-story windows would be lined with terra-cotta; the first floor ceiling would reach 19 feet.  All told it cost $150,000 and provided more than double the amount of floor space. C&L vice president Charles F. Noyes was the first man to oversee business within the walls designed by Bittman.  Noyes, born on April 13,1869 in Boston Massachusetts, moved out to San Francisco with his family in 1880.  In 1896, he co-founded the Boswell & Noyes Drug Company with his brother-in-law Frank Boswell, his sister Nellie, and his wife Nettie before joining C&L in 1916. 

 

The most significant characteristic of the building Noyes would come to manage was its size.  It was C&L’s largest facility and they claimed it was the largest devoted to automotive equipment in America. A substantial claim indeed and, while quite possibly true, one cannot deny the sense of urgency it carries.  It suggests that the automotive market was very competitive and growing astronomically — particularly in Seattle and if you didn't act quickly and boldly, you'd be left behind. 

 

 

And that's precisely what all the big players were trying to avoid for only seven months prior to C&L's opening day on 12th Avenue; a different company opened a similarly sized facility at 45th & Brooklyn (most likely what is now Hotel Deca), boasting that it was the largest in the Pacific Northwest.  Clearly C&L had just one-upped them. 

 

This competitive nature found expression in recreational activities as well.  By 1924, there probably wasn't a single automobile business in Seattle (including C&L) who didn't have a bowling and/or baseball team or whose members didn't play golf. In fact, Noyes himself hit the golf links religiously and the C&L baseball team went on to clinch the Auto Row division championship in 1926. 

 

 Less conventional competitions also took place. In the summer of 1923 John A. Kennedy, founder of Ken Tools, had been touring the U.S. in his 1917 D-45 Buick, parading his title as the “champion tire changer” using his company’s recently developed “Pacific Rim Tool.” When he came to Seattle, he naturally visited C&L to display his handiwork.  Apparently unimpressed with Kennedy's showy self-assuredness, a C&L employee, William Dickson, took Kennedy's “world record” by changing six tires in just under four minutes in a competition held at Pantages Theatre a few weeks later.  Most of which was probably an extensive publicity stunt.
 
The timing was also perfect and perhaps even planned. Only two months prior Noyes had announced that C&L would begin manufacturing its own line of tires.  He claimed that the West Coast’s climate and direct access to rubber and cotton imports made it the most logical choice. However, just when it seemed there wasn't a new height C&L couldn't reach, trouble lay within its own walls. Seattle branch janitor Ulysses Campbell, was arrested on Aug. 6, 1923 for slowly stealing $10,000 worth of merchandise.  He plead guilty on Nov. 3 after returning 90 percent of it and claiming he’d been refused a raise so he determined to steal it.  He was sentenced to 2 to 12 years in prison.   

 

The very next day, Noyes, undoubtedly distraught, announced his retirement and moved back to California soon thereafter.  At 54 and ailing in health, he was clearly ready to call it a day.  He died seven years later.  As for Campbell, he was ironically killed when a car hit him at the corner of 23rd and Thomas 17 years later. He was 61 years old. 

 

Despite the setbacks, business continued steadily in Seattle.  At a 1926 employee convention, C&L planned to nearly double its 1925 sales quota and likely succeeded because two years later the increasingly popular Pennzoil made C&L its official distributor in the Pacific Northwest.  But unfortunately, this success was short lived.  Only four months later, C&L lost that title after suddenly closing its Portland branch and the closures didn't stop there.  The following January, C&L sold its remaining holdings in the Pacific Northwest.  Apparently, C&L had gone public in 1928 in order to finance an “aggressive expansion program” in California by buying out smaller businesses there.  To this end, it deemed it necessary to exit the Pacific Northwest market.  Thus ending its tenure at the golden house. 
 

However, the building would remain an attractive facility. The Nagelvoort-Stearns Cadillac Dealership across the street expanded there before eventually passing that torch on to Bekins Moving & Storage in 1935.  Ownership and use of the building would continue to change hands over the next 70 years as the building slowly decayed.  

 

In 2008, developer Ted Schroth brought the building new life upon reopening it as Trace Lofts making it the home of 42 condos and multiple businesses including Tavern Law: a 1920s themed establishment with an upstairs speakeasy paying homage to building's glory days.  In it, a working replica of a 1920s mechanical television my friends and I built sits on display.

 

 

 

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