Ford gets a lot of credit for some of the earliest automobiles available to consumers, but did you know that Buick dates back even earlier? It’s how we ended up with a gorgeous, 1920s historic Buick building on 45th Avenue NE in the University District—but let’s start with little bit of history.
Although the automobile was invented in 1886, or at least one that we might recognize as an automobile today, the first versions weren’t the most reliable or safe contraptions to put your family inside of, and so it took about a decade for the machine to be made available for personal use. The 1908 Ford Model T was marketed as failsafe, easily maintained personal transportation, and within a few days of its release, Ford had received 15,000 orders.
Meanwhile, David Dunbar Buick had been in the auto business since 1899, a full 14 years before the Ford Motor Company was formally established, making Buick the oldest automobile company in the United States and one of the oldest in the world. The Buick Model B was exhibited at the 1905 New York Automobile Show—it just didn’t get the same name recognition as Ford.
Which brings us to the West Coast. Still reasonably early adopters in the automobile industry, the Eldridge Buick company opened in Seattle in 1912, owned by Portland-based Howard Auto, which owned most of the Buick dealerships on the West Coast at the time. It was operated by and named after Arthur Eldridge, a Michigander and engineer who’d constructed barges, bridges, and buildings in Oregon, New York, and Philippines, as well as for the U.S. Navy.
In 1909, Eldridge, who was from Flint and had lived and worked in Detroit years before, bought a Buick in Portland, Oregon, and became obsessed with the thing. Upon driving it from Portland to Seattle, he found that there were few Buick dealerships up north and that sales here were weak. In short order, he and his partner Mel Johnson opened Buick dealerships in Seattle, Wenatchee, and Spokane, even though he still lived in Portland at the time. His first Seattle dealership was at 905 Pike Street, in a building long since replaced by the Washington State Convention Center, and he sold 88 Buicks in his first year in business—eleven times more than had been sold in the whole city the previous year.
Eldridge bought out his partner, Johnson, in 1914, then opened a Buick showroom and dealership at Pike and Harvard and started selling GMC trucks from 11th Avenue. The business snowballed quickly; within four years, Eldridge had added Buick dealerships in Everett, Mount Vernon, Walla Walla, and Yakima.
This brings us to Eldridge’s mid-1920s expansion: a one-story Mediterranean Revival dealership spanning half a block at 45th Avenue NE and NE Roosevelt Way in the University District.
Architectural firm Schack, Young & Myers was brought in to design the building in 1926. The firm had recently designed the Civic Auditorium on Mercer Street, later used by the Seattle Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet, as well as the stately, ornate Seattle Chamber of Commerce at Second and Columbia. The new Eldridge Buick dealership became “perhaps the most flamboyant example” in the firm’s portfolio, as author Jeffrey Karl Ochsner described it in his 1994 book, Shaping Seattle: A Historical Guide to the Architects.
Running the whole width of the southern edge of the block along NE 45th Street, the dealership was built in the Spanish Revival style. Its most distinctive feature has to be its carved, spiraled terra cotta columns, almost like barber poles, which flank each bank of windows, painted in two shades of green and crowned with classical capitals. The roofline is characterized by red tile—that’s the Spanish Revival part, along with the twisty columns—and two rounded triangular-ish pediments. The cornice is held up by scrolled decorative brackets. All around the sides of the building that face the street is a floriated frieze with beveled light blue medallions. Transom windows, or rows of small square windows above the main windows, have been painted over, but the shapes remain visible from the street. Because the building includes two typically Spanish baroque entry surrounds but also features Italian Renaissance ornaments, it was described as approaching the Mediterranean Eclectic architectural style in a landmark nomination for a similar automobile building.
In 1935, Arthur Eldridge switched gears and went into the insurance business, selling off all of his the Buick dealerships. (His insurance company later became Safeco.) The business end of the University District store was sold to M. O. Anderson, who moved it downtown, and the property was sold to John Eli Blume. Blume then sold two Chevrolet dealerships he owned in Los Angeles, reopening the 4500 Roosevelt building as University Motors a year later—which eventually became University Chevrolet.
During Blume’s tenure, the building got a remodel by Richard Bouillon—who had a short life and a short career, but designed several other buildings in the Seattle area—that got official honors from AIA Seattle. The renovation added some design elements, like a car display platform with a canopy, but most notably included a fountain.
It stayed this way until 1985, when the dealership moved downtown. That’s the same year that John’s grandson, Bruce Blume, redeveloped the building into University Center, which involved adding a multiplex cinema—formerly known as Metro Cinema and Sundance CInemas, but now known as AMC Seattle 10—and restaurant space slapped on top of the building like a (somewhat skewed) tiered cake, with entrances just to the west on 9th Avenue NE. The original Eldridge Buick structure was also chopped up into a bunch of separate retail shops. When it was done, the final square footage of the whole complex measured 130,000.
Dozens of other genres of things have been sold out of this building since the last time it sold cars. It was a Wherehouse Music from the 1990s until the mid-2000s, and a Contempo Casuals—kind of a faux hip-hop Jay Jacobs—before that. It’s also been a few different bike shops, and it was a U.S. Army enrollment office at one point. Until a few months ago, it was Performance Cycles, a bike shop. That space is currently empty, although We Yoga Co. remains in the northern half of the building’s ground floor. At some point in time, its address changed to 4501 Roosevelt Way.
With the spate of glimmering new buildings sprouting up on all sides of this quaint little tile-roofed antique as of late—although that’s nothing new, as a 1988 Seattle Times piece on the younger Blume noted—and new upzones around the property, one may be understandably nervous about its safety, especially since it doesn’t presently have any kind of landmark status. Here’s hoping the Blume Co. is invested enough in its family history to retain the lovely exterior, if nothing else.