Tour turns back clock on downtown's former Auto Row

Tacomans with enthusiasm for vintage automobiles, and the architecture and dealerships that brought Tacoma into the automotive age, were treated yesterday to an organized, self-guided walking tour of the city’s former Auto Row.

“Autowalk,” a free walking tour co-sponsored by Historic Tacoma and Tacoma Historical Society — with participation by members of the PSC Buick Club, other local car clubs, and the LeMay Museum — drew several hundred people who dodged intermittent rain drops and leisurely strolled a route that snaked along South 9th Street and Broadway up to St. Helens Avenue to South 2nd Street.

“Many members of Historic Tacoma did research on the buildings along the route to better understand the past histories and uses,” said event chair Brett Santhuff, who was pleased with the cars displayed the number of people who turned out for the event. According to Santhuff, volunteers ran out of 250 route maps within 45 minutes, and raced to print a new supply. “The hope is that this research and the event will have done much to inform other Tacomans of this history. The greatest success of the evening was the stories that were told by those who knew more than we did, attendees recalling their personal experiences on old auto row.”

One tour highlight: a 1941 Studebaker, whose owner provided documentation of purchasing the car from Allen Motors at 616 St. Helens — now Mandarin Antiques.

Another highlight: Tacoma Historical Society’s exhibit center, located at 747 Broadway, which featured memorabilia — newspaper articles, photographs, toy cars, and old advertisements — from the Rudy Mueller Collection and Mueller-Harkins Buick in Tacoma. Similarly, the exhibit center offered visitors their first glimpses of “Revisiting Washington, A Guide to the Evergreen State” — an up-to-date, digital recreation of the Washington State guide first published in 1941.

According to Santhuff, as Tacoma’s Auto Row developed and cars evolved, so did buildings such as the ornate 1920s Packard dealership to the streamlined 1948 Buick facility, built as Mueller-Harkins and now USA of Yesterday, the last dealership to invest in a building downtown.

“In the era of Auto Row, there was excitement and activity downtown — shopping, entertainment, enterprise — and a number of car dealers,” he said. “Masses would gather in the streets outside papered showroom windows for the unveiling of new cars. Over a season dealers would roll out the new models — Buick, Studebaker, Ford, Pontiac, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Plymouth, Hupmobile, Packard, Dodge, Lincoln, Oldsmobile.”

According to organizers, the event was an effort to raise awareness of Tacoma’s automotive and architectural heritage by engaging residents and exploring this portion of downtown. At the end of the walking tour, participants were invited to join in a no-host gathering at St. Helens Cafe for conversation about historic preservation, automotive history, and economic development.

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To view photos from yesterday’s tour, visit