Published: Tuesday, June 06, 2017 @ 6:00 AM
By: Tom Gilliam
— Did you know that there’s a two story building in Dayton with a ramp in the center that makes it possible for cars to drive between the first and second floors?
This week on The Buildings of Dayton, I'm going to tell you the story of the Central Motors Building, located at 800 W. Third St. right outside of the Wright Dunbar Historic Business District, also known as the West Third Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1926, very little information exists about the Central Motors Building. The 1927 Dayton Williams Directory lists The Central Motor Sales Co. as selling Oldsmobiles, Sedans, Coupes, Touring Cars and Roadsters, plus providing sales and service at 800 to 812 W. 3rd St.
Colleen Harrigan Staver was 7 years old when her father Tom Harrigan started his dealership in the building.
"It was the late summer of 1975 when my family moved to Dayton from Louisville,” Staver said. “My father was given the opportunity to purchase the Oldsmobile franchise from Mr. Dick Swartzel and he leased the building on W. Third St. from Mr. Swartzel.”
The dealership was then renamed Tom Harrigan Oldsmobile. Swartzel's father was the founder of Central Motors, which was one of several GM dealer distribution centers in the United States. Every Oldsmobile that was sold in this area was first cleared through Central Motors.
Staver remembers how large the building appeared to her.
"You would enter through a door on the left side of the building and be immediately in a huge showroom. My father said that they were able to get 30 cars in at one time and this was the age of the 70's full size sedan and the era of the land yacht!” she said. “Other memories of the massive showroom were the sales offices along the back wall, where my father was in the sales manager office and a gentleman by the name of Dee Birdsall had the other larger office as he was in charge of fleet purchases. On the left side was the customer waiting room and behind it was the accounting office. These were the two rooms I spent the most time in with my sister who was two years my junior. So here we are, (ages) 7 and 5, playing in these two rooms where I guess they felt we could do the least damage."
"One of the most memorable features was this giant ramp that went from the back of the main level of the showroom to a service department on the second story,” Staver said. “I still to this day have never seen another dealership with a service department on the second floor. It was very unique and quite large even by today's standards. In speaking with my father he said in addition to the service department there was a body shop as well with 15 service bays and 10-15 body shop bays," said Staver.
There was also a time when the dealership had a visit from a local celebrity.
"I liked the waiting room because there were vending machines. It was also in this area that we were introduced to a Dayton legend, Dr. Creep,” Staver said. “My father, trying to start his new business, was running various promotions and one time through Channel 22, he had Dr. Creep make a special appearance. It was so exciting! Dr. Creep was one of the nicest people you could ever meet and he made us feel special. I will never forget it," she said.
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In 1976, Harrigan moved his dealership across town.
"We were only at that location for 18 months before moving the Oldsmobile franchise to Salem Avenue across from the Salem Mall, but even in that short time it made a big impression on me," Staver said.
Wright Dunbar, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the management and development of the historic Wright Dunbar Business District has owned the building since January 2010. Prior to the purchase, it was used as a recycling company.
Current commercial real estate listings call the building "West Side Chevy.”
"We'd love to see this as a brewery or restaurants or even creative collaborative space. We'd love something that would spur foot traffic, not storage or a warehouse. I think the building could even be awesome lofts," said Erica Hubler, Director of Real Estate/Property Management at Wright Dunbar, Inc.
John Gower, Wright Dunbar Inc. Board Member and Urban Design Director at CityWide Development spoke with me about the vision for this building’s future.
“I think that we could describe our vision with this historic building is to first seek a reuse which will reactivate it on a daily basis. We would like to see the building sensitively rehabilitated, re-establish the storefronts and large display windows along Third Street and have uses in the building that will create vibrant comings and goings throughout any day of the week.”
Special thanks to Tony Kroeger & Amy Walbridge from the City of Dayton's Planning Department, Erica Hubler & John Gower from Wright Dunbar, Inc. and Colleen Harrigan Staver for providing historical information and additional resources for this article.