Boston Motordom: Automobiles and the Transformation of the City, 1899-1930

Spelman, John, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bluestone, Daniel, Architectural History, University of Virginia
Li, Shiqiao, Architectural History, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Architectural History, University of Virginia
Norton, Peter, Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how the city of Boston accommodated automobiles in their first decades of use, from about 1899 to 1930. The technological advances related to automobiles and their rapid rise in popularity among consumers did not immediately lead to the creation of a city for automobiles, especially in the downtown area and elsewhere in the central business district. Rather, the center city was only remade for automobilists after a protracted period of conflict. This interim period – one that saw a city built largely for pedestrians transformed into one built largely for motorists – was marked by several trends. The earliest accommodation was discrete, with automobilists adaptively reusing the existing public and private landscape. This dissertation discusses that reuse, especially the transformed customs that guided everyday use of the street and the transformation of urban stables into experimental and highly flammable garages. It offers a geography of the automobile landscape that emerged to sell, service and store motor cars, discussing the formation of Boston’s two “automobile rows” and the distribution and changing designs of garages and showrooms. It presents an architectural history of important but overlooked buildings, such as a livery stable designed by Peabody & Stearns, the Massachusetts Automobile Club (first built in 1902), and the Motor Mart (first built in 1905). This dissertation also accounts for the role of planners and other city officials as they worked to undo Boston’s fossilized landscape in a series of aggressive campaigns to widen existing roads and to create new boulevards for suburban commuters, beginning around 1917. Though these campaigns consistently failed in their promises to alleviate automobile congestion, Boston’s planners undertook increasingly drastic measures to chase this goal, with great repercussions for traditional urban form.

Though Boston is offered as an arena in which to conduct a vivid reconstruction of early automobile use in a dense urban center, this project is not exclusively about a particular large city. Rather, it is about the impact of a technological paradigm shift on the built landscape and ordinary urban practices. Broadly, this dissertation provides insight into the transformative process of a now-familiar revolution, interrogating our assumptions about the development of the automobile-centric twentieth-century century city.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
architecture, automobile, garage, parking, stables, horse, fossilization, geography, adaptive reuse, fire, pedestrian, subway, streetcar, automobile row, dealership, traffic regulation, urban planning, highway, street widening, Boston, Edison film, Central Artery, congestion, city, downtown
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