Image: Donovan
Al Behrman  /  AP
Sean Donovan displays a painting that shows how the private residence building he is standing in front of originally looked when it was built by Henry Ford to display Model T Ford automobiles in Cincinnati. The entrance to the building still has the original tile with Ford's name.
updated 12/27/2009 2:51:00 PM ET 2009-12-27T19:51:00

With hard times in the auto industry and car dealerships closing around the country, the gleaming showrooms that once featured next year's models are becoming this year's new store, restaurant, school, day care center or yoga studio.

In Lane County, Ore., Joe Softich from Catholic Community Services helps erect shelves and unload boxes for a new food bank warehouse inside a former auto showroom. In Tulsa, Okla., teenagers at Northside Christian Church skateboard in what was once a showroom's auto service center.

Students on the campus of the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio can learn in a space where evidence of automaking's proud past is still visible in the exposed concrete pillars, sturdy tile floors and ascending spiral vehicle ramp.

Architects and historians say the shock that American automakers could go bankrupt has combined with depressed real estate values and enthusiasm for green energy to bring a unique level of interest to reusing showrooms.

People are reducing their reliance on cars to save money on gas and shrink their carbon footprint; they are renovating showrooms because relying on recycled water or solar energy makes it cheaper to renovate than to build new.

"If you look historically at the times when we've had these big shifts in (building) use, they've coincided with societal shifts," said Erin Rae Hoffer, an architect on staff at Boston-based Autodesk.

The number of franchised new car dealerships in the U.S. was already slipping before the auto company bankruptcies, but 1,900 dealerships have closed since January 2008. U.S. auto sales fell to a 26-year low of about 10 million this year, compared with 17 million over most of the previous decade.

As part of its deep restructuring, General Motors Co. has said it will cut 2,400 dealers from its 6,000-dealer network by next fall. Chrysler Group LLC slashed 789 dealers in June. Responding to backlash from dealership owners, Congress passed a bill this month to give dealers a stronger arbitration process to challenge the automakers' decisions.

Many showrooms are still being torn down, observers say, but developers are not so quick to bulldoze the finer buildings before exploring other uses.

The transformation of the boxy, windowed space at Golden Bridge Yoga Studio in Los Angeles has been achieved with the smell of wafting incense, prayer flags draped from the walls and percussive Eastern rhythms. At NEO on Locust in St. Louis, long white tablecloths, stylish backlighting and tinkling champagne glasses turn a similar square space into a classy wedding venue.

Built to sustain thousands of pounds of moving weight, the showrooms are especially sturdy, naturally lit and often ideally located in high-traffic areas.

"There's more likelihood that they're going to be kept now than there was 10 or 15 years ago," said Andrew Wolfram, an architect at Perkins + Will who sits on the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. "There's an overall trend toward reuse (of old buildings), and there's also a sense that these particular buildings now have more value."

The same happened to Victorian-style homes that are now prized but were demolished by the thousands in the 1950s because they were seen as old-fashioned and fussy, he said.

The art school in Columbus invested $8.3 million in its new Design Studios on Broad in the longtime Byer's Chrysler showroom that began as Columbus Oldsmobile in 1919.

Ventilation ducts to an old coal-fired furnace became windows bringing in cost-free natural light. Layers of insulation and reflective white coating were added to the roof. Body shops became classrooms. The showroom will soon become a gallery.

Looking at all that cement can be a bore, said 22-year-old fashion design student Irina Burdak, who takes classes in the building. But she loves all the windows a former showroom provides.

"Sometimes you take a break, and you can look out the windows and see the city. I really like that," said Burdak, who was born in the Ukraine.

When the auto industry was young, the expansive windows were a way to draw people in, teasing passers-by with a view of dozens of makes and models of new cars.

Rows of elegant downtown showrooms — including Chicago's Motor Row and Cincinnati's Race Street — developed around the country in the 1900s.

Chief Deputy Sean Donovan, 61, of the Hamilton County, Ohio, Sheriff's Office, came to love Race Street so much in downtown Cincinnati after spending time there as a boy that he bought an old showroom building to house his wife's law office. He's developed a wine business at the street level.

"There was a time when cars were art," he said. "It was a big deal. You got dressed up and went out to buy a car. Not like today."

Steve Xiao, manager of the Hua Xing Asia Market in Ypsilanti, Mich., said the former showroom that is now his grocery store had something else going for it: The price was right.

"We were really interested when we heard they were selling and moving somewhere else," he said. "The first year, the price was too high. When we finally bought it, it had been on the market almost two years."

Len Love, who owned a small, independent auto dealership in Tampa, Fla., was staring down the opposite side of that equation. As he watched the steady decline of car sales at Love's Auto, he had a build-it-and-they-will-come moment.

"I was sitting in the office every day and literally no money was coming in the door. Nothing. Not a dime. Not one penny," he said. "That day I was standing in the showroom and said, 'Well, it feels like a nice little bar in here.'"

Love rented a catering unit, taught himself to cook and started Artifacts restaurant.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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