Historians note that the wide expanse of Broadway just north of downtown Oklahoma City’s central business district was designed so that a horse and wagon could do a full circle changing direction.
But in decades that followed Oklahoma City’s early days, Broadway quickly became known as “Automobile Alley” – the place to buy a car – or at least shop for one. It was where one could find showrooms displaying a seven-passenger Cadillac, a 3/4-ton Essex pickup, a “Super Six” Studebacker with rumble seat, or a Hupmobile roadster. At the close of World War I, the number of horseless carriages owned in Oklahoma City first exceeded the number of horses. By 1921, automobile showrooms filled the stretch of Broadway between NW 4 and NW 12. That next year, 95 percent of the 244,883 registered cars in the state were distributed from the showrooms along Broadway. The marketplace became known as Automobile Alley, with 50 different models – including Buicks and Pierce Arrows to Studebakers and Stutz-Bearcats – enticing buyers. The first showroom, the Buick Building, 504 N Broadway, opened in 1911 and is now the home of Red Prime Steakhouse. Unlike today, where customers can buy a car and drive it home within an hour, early day shoppers took test drives and then placed an order with the factory through the dealer.
Some properties remained in the ownership of the same families for decades. From the 1930s until the 1980s the 800 block of Broadway was home to a Chevrolet dealership. Bob McDonald’s father got his start working with the legendary Ford dealer Fred Jones, then owned the Chevy operation on Broadway which started as McDonald Chevrolet, then became McDonald-Scott Chevrolet and ended as Scott Chevrolet. Bob McDonald continued to own the buildings until selling them in the 1990s.
The area went into a steady decline beginning in the 1970s as automobile dealers followed their customers into newer suburban neighborhoods. Redevelopment began in the mid-1990s after some key properties were purchased by Chris and Meg Salyer, Nick Preftakes and Mark Ruffin. When the Salyers started buying up properties in the late 1980s, what few tenants remained consisted of loan shops, pawn shops and offices where the down-and-out could sell their plasma. The sidewalks were crumbling. The only landscaping consisted of weeds the size of preschoolers.
Preftakes and Ruffin were the first to introduce housing to the area when they purchased the former Buick dealership at NW 13 and Broadway and renovated it into the Garage Lofts. The project was still under construction when a bomb was set at the nearby Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. The blast devastated Broadway, collapsing roofs on some of the old buildings and shattering glass windows throughout the area.
Mayor Ron Norick secured quick funding to replace shattered windows. The Urban Land Institute came in and provided a quick analysis of the area’s damage and needs. Norick, working with the state’s congressional delegation, had secured millions in federal grants and loans to help property owners rebuild. Downtown was divided up into six separate zones, with workshops for Automobile Alley property owners coordinated by Ron Frantz, a former Main Street organizer who worked with the Oklahoma Commerce Department.
That plan kicked off the creation of the Automobile Alley Association and a revival that brought about the restoration of all but a couple of buildings along the street and an influx of housing, retail and offices. As of 2012 the street was still home to a Mercedes and Jaguar dealership – the last remnants of what was heartbeat of Oklahoma’s car sales industry.
The Automobile Alley Collection represents photos taken by the Automobile Alley Association as the area was on the verge of a revival in the late 1990s. The photos also include images of other areas of the city at that moment, including Paseo, Bricktown and the Central Business District, and vintage photos of Broadway when it was still home to dozens of car dealerships.