This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Boston's Original Auto Mile
No single technological innovation of the 20th century has had a greater impact upon the character and the quality of American life, both positively and negatively, than the automobile.
The headquarters of the auto industry in Boston for over a half century was the so-called Auto Mile, now largely forgotten, that portion of Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues lying between the B. U. Bridge and Allston’s Union Square.
The founder of the Auto Mile was the fascinating Alvan Tufts Fuller (1878-1958), a native of Malden, Massachusetts, who was a major figure in both the business and political history of Massachusetts.
A champion bicycle racer in his youth, Fuller’s business career began with his establishment of a bicycle shop in his home town in 1895, which he soon after moved to Columbia Road in Boston.
Fuller became convinced, however, that the future of transport belonged to the motor vehicle, and took bold steps to ensure himself a central role in the rise of that industry.
After travelling to Europe in 1900 to investigate the fast-growing auto industry there, the ambitious entrepreneur persuaded the Packard Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan to make him its exclusive dealer in the Boston area. A year later he added a Cadillac agency to his dealership, which was then located in the Auto Mart Building, a facility he shared with other Boston auto dealers.
In 1908 Fuller decided to move his growing dealership to an undeveloped tract at the intersection of Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues in Allston, a location known, by strange coincidence, as Packard’s Corner, having been named for a well-known stable and riding school run by John D. Packard located at 25 Brighton Avenue.
At this Packard Corner location Fuller established the first combined auto salesroom and service station in New England. The massive facility comprised a sales salon and offices at the ground level, with the remainder of the building providing assembly, storage, and repair facilities.
Fuller’s handsomely furnished showroom had high ceilings and fluted columns, and was lit by a combination of elaborate hanging fixtures and a barrel-vaulted skylight. Here, historian Chester Liebs tells us, “customers could bask in the prestige of a grand interior space, relax, and survey the cars exhibited around them.”
The architect of Fuller’s dealership was Albert Kahn, who was on his way to becoming nation’s leading specialist in automotive-related structures. Kahn had designed the Packard Motor Company’s home office in Detroit. Other automotive structures by Kahn included the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park, Michigan plant, as well as Ford’s enormous River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan.
After establishing his Packard Square dealership on a solid footing, Fuller pursued one of the most interesting political careers in Massachusetts history---a career characterized by the same daring and brashness that so often marked his business ventures.
His rise in the political arena, like his rise in business, was amazingly rapid---catapulting Fuller from a seat in the State Legislature into the Massachusetts Governorship in a single decade. Always a political adventurer, Fuller entered electoral politics in 1914 under the banner of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, winning a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives by the razor-thin margin of just sixteen votes. Then, in 1916, he successfully challenged a nine term Congressman for a seat in the
U. S. House of Representatives, once again winning by the narrowest of margins. In 1920, in another long-shot candidacy, he took on the powerful Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in a quest for the Lieutenant Governorship, winning both the primary and general election. Finally, in 1924, Alvan Fuller capped his amazing political career by capturing the Governorship, defeating Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Michael Curley in the process.
While the popular Fuller easily won reelection to the Governorship in 1926, his political career ended abbruptly when he relinquished that office in 1929 at the age of just 51. His political demise was occasioned by two factors---a decline in the fortunes of the Republican Party in the depression era, and Fuller’s 1927 refusal to commute the death sentences of the immigrant radicals Sacco and Vanzetti who had sentenced to death in a trial filled with irregularities. Had Fuller’s controversial Sacco-Vanzetti decision not sullied his reputation with Americans of immigrant stock, one commentator suggests that he might well have received the 1932 Republican Vice Presidential nomination.
But it is Fuller’s contributions to the Auto Mile that chiefly concern us. And there can be little question of his success in that regard.
Other dealers were quick to follow Fuller to the Packard Square area in the century’s second decade. In 1912 Kissel Kars built a nearby showroom, and in 1913 the White Motor Company followed suit. By 1919 there were at least a dozen dealerships lining Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues, and Boston’s Auto Mile had been solidly established.
The Auto Mile experienced its fastest period of expansion in the 1920s. On the eve of the depression, no less than 117 automobile-related business establishments lined Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues. While the number contracted by about one third during the depression, the district survived.
Even at the depths of the economic turndown, in 1932, the Auto Mile was home to no less than fifty-four car dealerships specializing in a combination of new, used, and commercial vehicles, dealerships selling all of the following makes, many of which no longer exist: the Auburn, Cord, Oldsmobile, Ford, Hupmobile, Cadillac, Franklin, LaSalle, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Crystler, Plymouth, Reo, Nash, Buick, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce, Studebaker, and Stutz.
The heart of the Auto Mile remained Packard’s Corner. In the immediate vicinity were concentrated ten dealerships, some of the largest in the district, including Auburn Motor Cars (an Auburn and Cord dealership), Boston Hupmobile, Clark-Crowley Motors (a Pontiac dealership), the Packard Motor Car Company (Fuller’s pioneer Packard and Cadillac dealership), Pierce-Arrow Cars, and Rolls-Royce of America.
Truck dealerships also located in the general area, tending to cluster at the western end of the district. By 1932 some seven truck dealerships had taken up residence on North Beacon Street, west of Union Square, including the Mack Motor Truck Company at number 95 and the General Motors Truck Company at 103 North Beacon Street. Number 61 North Beacon Street, now the headquarters of New Balance Shoe, originally housed another important truck dealership, the International Harvester Company of America.
While a serious contraction of the auto sales industry occurred during the Second World War, owing to wartime shortages, with the war’s end the industry quickly rebounded, attaining its highest level of prosperity in the 1950 to 1965 period.
The most memorable of the many innovations that Alvan Fuller initiated were the open houses that his Packard Motor Company hosted annually on Washington’s birthday, giving customers an opportunity to view the latest models and to plan future car purchases. By the 1920s other dealers were following Fuller’s lead, and Washington’s Birthday open houses became an event looked forward to with great anticipation by the general public.
The Auto Mile went into rapid decline in the late 1970s as many dealers moved their establishments to more accessible suburban locations. While there were still twenty-one dealerships in the general area as late as 1975, by 1981 only eleven remained. The Packard Motor Company building has been converted to condominiums. The neighboring Oste Chevrolet building has become a Star Market. While a handful of auto dealerships still inhabit the Commonwealth and Brighton Avenue strip, they are but a pale reflection of the auto sales industry that once lined Boston’s thriving Auto Mile.