Lustine Dealership Showroom
The Lustine showroom/service center at 5710 Baltimore Avenue (Route 1) is one of the few remaining automobile dealership plants dating back to the decade following World War II which have not been demolished or altered beyond recognition. In D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, it is the only one to survive. Based on merchandising studies and meant to capture the attention of motorists, the design of the Lustine showroom reflects the consumerist zeitgeist of the years following World War II, the intensely personal pleasure most Americans took in purchasing and using automobiles from 1945 to the early 1960s. Although its design followed guidelines which General Motors provided to its dealers in the shape of a profusely illustrated manual published in 1948, the Lustine showroom is unique; our research leads us to believe that its massing-curved show windows forming two staggered bays under a flat but sweeping canopy-had no precise equivalent in the United States. During the decade following World War II, there was no new building of comparable visual impact and glamour, elegance and monumentality, in all of Prince George’s County, and very few of that caliber in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Lustine’s Beginnings, 1923
“Lustine-Nicholson Motor Company” was the precise name given to the Chevrolet dealership founded in 1923 by Philip Lustine and originally located at 301 Seventh Street, SW. The Washington Post provides us with two self-fashioned retellings of his automotive beginnings. In 1983, Philip Lustine reminisced having a haircut and overhearing “another customer predict that Chevrolet was going to dominate the low-cost car market … As soon I could get to a phone, I called General Motors, applied for and received a dealership then and there.”(1) Another, remembered by his relatives upon his death, was that “he got the idea while shining shoes in a Washington barbershop,” as he “overheard what was obviously a prosperous group of men discussing afternoons at the race track and dinners at expensive restaurants. When he discovered that they were in the automobile business, he decided that was the business for him, too.”(2)
Lustine in Hyattsville, 1926-1950
Philip Lustine opened his Hyattsville dealership in May 1926 at 5610 Baltimore Avenue. He apparently had no personal ties with Hyattsville, but selling moderately-priced Chevrolet models-from $510 for a roadster up to $765 for a landau in 1926-in the most populated, commercially active and automobile-oriented town in Prince George’s County seemed logical. Lustine-Nicholson serviced existing vehicles, sold auto parts and second-hand vehicles-by GM and other makers-which it advertised as “reconditioned by expert mechanics in our modern workshop.”(3) By 1936, it had become one of Chevrolet’s top performing franchises and started representing Oldsmobile. In 1939, Lustine had an annual business of $2.5 million and a crew of 35 salesmen. Once World War II-related restrictions had been lifted, Americans everywhere were anxious to replace their old, decrepit cars. Year after year, Lustine proposed new and exciting offerings: in 1948, the Oldsmobile 98 adopted a novel streamlined profile; in 1949, Chevrolet introduced a Fleetline of “sleek fastback bodies”; in 1950, Chevrolet’s new Powerglide line offered fully automatic transmission and was well suited to driving on expressways. Such a favorable climate, and the fact that some of his local competitors had already modernized their plants, pushed Lustine to enlarge, expand and revamp his facilities. There were numerous reasons why Philip Lustine needed a second plant. His success called for additional space, as did the increasing range of models in both the Chevrolet and Oldsmobile lines, and the popularity of large-sized cars. A few local competitors had already modernized their plants. The parcel Lustine selected for his new showroom (5710 Baltimore Avenue) measured approximately 1 acre, with two adjacent pieces of land to the south of approximately four acres. This northern section of Route 1 in Hyattsville remained essentially residential, with old and rather modest houses on large lots, contrasting with the dense commercial blocks to the south.
Opening the New Chevrolet Plant, 1950
Philip Lustine made sure that the opening of his new plant would receive the attention it deserved. On March 19, 1950, the real estate section of the Washington Post reproduced a photograph of the gleaming, nearly transparent, showroom, taken from Route 1, with the following caption:
This is the new streamlined, modern plant of Lustine-Nicholson just completed at a cost of over $200,000 at 5710 Baltimore ave., Hyattsville, Kacko [sic] Jackley was the architect Cummins-Hart builder. The building, one of the Nation’s most modern showrooms and service centers, will officially make its debut next Saturday and Sunday. A feature of the formal opening will be the gift of a new 1950 Chevrolet to some lucky visitor.(4)
On Thursday March 23, the Prince George’s Post published on its front page news about the impending opening of the “new showroom of Lustine-Nicholson Chevrolet Motor Co. which has been readying its streamlined modernity for some months”:
Representing one of the largest investments in the Hyattsville area, the new plant features an excitingly decorated auto show space, sun-bright daylight, the latest service department assembly line operation, and one of the largest parts departments on the eastern seaboard.(5)
On the fourth page of the same issue, the Prince George’s Post reproduced a swanky perspective of the new showroom, taken from its northern end, which appeared the next day on the cover of the weekly Hyattsville Inquirer, with the following comments:
That’s a super-duper opening Phil Lustine and Chris Dworken [Lustine's son-in-law] are planning for the new Lustine-Nicholson Chevrolet building ….
And it’s a super duper new building. too…
Don’t miss the opening of the building next Saturday and Sunday. It’ll be just like being in Hollywood, bright lights, glamour and all. The modern new showroom and service center is something in which folks of the community may take real pride. It has been made as the result of the confidence Phil Lustine had in this community when he opened his business here 23 years ago, and the confidence he has built among the folks of the area as the result of his honest, progressive and friendly policies. Genial Phil is among the pioneer big time businessmen of this fast growing Maryland area of metropolitan Washington.(6)
1950-1972: Lustine’s peak years in Hyattsville
The erection and opening of his new showroom coincided with a golden age not only for Lustine, but also for Chevrolet, General Motors, and the American automotive industry in general. Fast, reliable cars became a necessity to navigate the new interstate highways and taking automotive vacations turned into a mass phenomenon. In 1972, the Lustine Company sold 6,000 Chevrolet and 2,000 Oldsmobile models, boasting an annual sales volume of more than $30 million; three-quarters of customers lived in the District of Columbia or Prince George’s County.(7) Along with Ourisman and Rosenthal of Arlington, the Hyattsville franchise was one of the seven largest Chevrolet had throughout the entire country.
Last Years In Hyattsville
In the late 1960s, Philip Lustine’s only son, Burton, who was born in 1934 and was a Tufts University philosophy major, became Vice-President and General Manager of the dealership. The oil embargo of 1973 (and that of 1978) triggered a sharp drop in sales. Inflation caused major “sticker shocks.” Consumer groups objected to repair surcharges imposed by dealers. Lustine’s reputation (like that of many local competitors) was tarnished by accusations of over-inflating the size of its operations in advertisements, of selling damaged cars without informing buyers of their conditions, and of advertising used cars as new. Such allegations were brought to the attention of the Federal Trade Commission attorneys and of local judges, and reported in the press.
Overall, the glory days of authorized dealers and striking roadside showrooms were coming to an end. As stated by Chester Liebs in Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture, cars had become “a highly recognizable, standardized product that could be sold ‘off the shelf’ like sticks of butter or cans of soft drinks. Auto showrooms were, by and large, superfluous. All what was needed was an open lot filled with rows of automobiles for the customer’s inspection.”(8) In the far suburbs of every large American city, “a new type of automobile row was germinating, where cars instead of buildings were the primary means of attracting attention” and where the “entire sales-and-service-building, showroom and all, is now set back from the highway instead of being positioned close to the curb line.”(9)
This exodus affected long-established dealerships. Indeed, General Motors was pushing its dealers to abandon old locations in congested and often economically declining districts and to move to newer suburbs. Judging his Hyattsville facilities too cramped, Burton Lustine tried to relocate further north, at the intersection between Route 1 and the Capitol Beltway (I-495).(10) As his plan fell through, he followed the nation-wide trend toward multifranchise dealerships, starting a Toyota/ Dodge dealership in Woodbridge, Northern Virginia in 1981, and purchased Gee Dee Datsun, a Nissan franchisee located on Annapolis Road in Lanham the following year.(11) Lustine in Hyattsville remained a well-known parts dealer until it closed.
The Architect of the Showroom
The reason Philip Lustine preferred hiring a lesser known Baltimore-based architect to design the showroom is not currently known. Francis Dano Jackley was born in 1900 in Frankton, Indiana. He studied at the John Heron Art Institute in Indianapolis from 1919 to 1922 and at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1925-26. From 1929 to 1948, he was employed by the Chesapeake & Telephone Company. His exchange in the small town of Armiger, MD was published in The Architectural Forum in June 1946. It is during the short period when Jackley went into private practice – 1948-49 – that he designed the Lustine showroom, as well as the Bowser System Mechanical Parking Garage in Des Moines, Iowa. Thereafter, he became an Associate at Taylor and Fisher of Baltimore.
The Design of the Lustine Showroom
As World War II drew to an end, major automobile manufacturers were once again willing to act as tastemakers for their franchisees, who were expected to spend $450 millions on new showrooms.(12) In 1944, GM held a Design Competition for Dealers Establishments, which was “approved by the American Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of Canada” and attracted 217 submissions.(13) The outcome of this competition, and of additional research by GM services, was the publication, in 1948, of Planning Automobile Dealer Properties. Conceived as a “presentation of ideas rather than plans,” a “practical guide of features that yield larger returns on money invested in remodeling or new construction,” a “reference for analyzing space requirements,” and a “basis for discussing building specifications with architects or contractors,” this profusely illustrated book gave GM dealers exhaustive merchandising and styling advice and undoubtedly informed the Lustine design.(14)
Locating and shaping showrooms “in relation to traffic” was of the utmost importance. Windows needed to be placed within the field of vision of drivers and designed in such as way as to increase their viewing time. On an “Inside Lot,” as was the case for Lustine in Hyattsville, Planning Automobile Dealer Properties recommended to “expose the showroom out to the property line at the far end of the lot,” to set back “other portions of the building that would obscure the showroom to approaching traffic.” Using a three-sided window helped maximize daylighting, a key merchandising concern since car bodies, generally painted in dark colors at the time, absorbed a lot of light. A minimum height of 10’6″ was recommended to “achieve good product lighting with good atmosphere.” It was best to extend windows “up close to the ceiling to permit light from bright skies to strike the ceiling and be reflected down on to the displays.” Tilting window inward (a rather fashionable thing to do at the time) was not advisable. Dealers willing to espouse the “modern trend toward surrounding the showroom with a continuous expanse of glass” could chose between several corner treatments:
When curved walls are used in forming the corners of a store front, it is architecturally consistent to use curved plate glass to make the building more attractive. Curved window panes are more expensive than flat panes, and are available only on special order. Surface glare is more pronounced on curved glass windows but this is not serious an objection.(15)
Built-in canopies, as used in the Lustine showroom, were recommended to reduce glare and keep showroom interiors cool, as was the idea to carry “the materials used on the outside pier or wall to the inside wall,” in order to “suggest the absence of glass” and to lead “people into a salesroom psychologically.” For the same reasons, using doors “entirely of glass” – as was the case for Lustine – was recommended. Doors and doorways needed to be located and designed to “cause the least interference with approaching traffic’s view of showroom displays.”(16)
By comparison to the Lustine showroom, most dealerships in the Capital Region still looked rather dowdy. For instance, in 1948, Ourisman Chevrolet, probably Lustine’s most direct competitor, built a two-story, slightly projecting, show window for its Southeast dealership. Manufactured by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, the three-sided outsized opening was surmounted by extremely large and simple letters spelling OURISMAN across its length. At roughly the same date, Bethesda’s Covington Motors (7301 Wisconsin Avenue, presently Air Right Building) built a three-sided, rectilinear show window. On Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Al’s Motors, a Chrysler dealership established in the early 1920s, boasted a new plant designed by architect Raymond Mims and built in 1948; it featured streamlined curved glazing, glass curtain walls, metal cornice, glass block siding and transom but was smaller than the Lustine showroom. It has been preserved and adaptively reused as a health club using preservation tax credits.
The architect, Francis Jackley, was very ingenuous in adapting GM’s recommendations to existing site conditions as the showroom was not “ideally” located at the intersection of two streets, recessing the second show window simulated a “corner statement.” In plan, the double curve eased the spatial and traffic flow between the grand car showroom and the smaller parts sales area. The resulting wall contour resembled the profile of a car (this may not have been a conscious decision on Jackley’s part, however). Jackley retained the essence of the Streamline Moderne of the 1930s – in particular dynamic sweeping curves, both vertical and horizontal.
The Lustine showroom is a singular example of a 1 ½ story building with a double curved facade. Its height was far above average for suburban dealerships. Using such large sheets of curved glass would have been quite costly, but greatly contributed to the beauty, elegance and grandeur of the showroom.
The placement of, and lettering combination for, signs was also rather unusual, if not unique (most dealership had signs on concrete posts which were not integral to the design). Parallel to Route 1, the edge of the canopy carried metal letters spelling LUSTINE NICHOLSON, and, to cater to both inbound and outbound traffic, diagonally placed metal frames on either end of the canopy supported signs indicating Lustine (with a particularly prominent curvilinear L) on top, and CHEVROLET at the bottom.
The blurring between exterior and interior, the impression of lightness, of a building “floating” along Route 1 is memorable; it is made possible by the use of a steel frame. High quality materials were used for finishes, the aggregate used to cover the piers and frame the glass doors has visual interest and nice coloring.
The Lustine showroom “captured the spaciousness of the open road” and transcended its commercial purpose to become a local landmark. It is not exaggerated to state that the monumentality of the Lustine dealership a modern version of the eighteenth-century concept of the “Sublime,” as its mass and design trigger mixed impressions of awe and admiration.
1 “Lustine Grabbing the Chance,” Washington Post, October 21, 1983, AS17.
2 Bart Barnes, “Philip Lustine, 87, Pioneer Auto Dealer, Dies,” Washington Post, December 18, 1985, B6.
3 Display Ad, Washington Post, November 25, 1933, 23.
4 “Modern Showroom to Open,” Washington Post, March 19, 1950, R6.
5 “Lustine-Nicholson To Open New Plan Saturday Morning,” Prince George’s Post, March 23, 1950, 1, 4.
6 “Public Opening of Beautiful New Lustine-Nicholson Chevrolet Building Here March 25-26; Sparkling New Chevrolet to be Given Away-Nothing to Buy,” Hyattsville Inquirer, March 25, 1950, 1.
7 William H. Jones, “Battling Burt Goes National. Auto Dealer a Volcano Buff,” Washington Post, February 15, 1973, H11.
8 Chester H. Liebs, Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), 92.
9 Liebs, 93.
10 Lucy Starr Norman, “Auto Dealer Offers to Improve Ramp,” Washington Post, August 28, 1980, MD5.
11 Advertisement, Washington Post, April 25, 1981, C44; “Lustine Adds Lanham Datsun,” Washington Post, October 22, 1982, AD19.
12 Liebs, 88.
13 Robert Genat, The American Car Dealership (St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks Internation, 1944), 44.
14 General Motors Corporation, Planning Automobile Dealer Properties (Detroit, 1948), 1.
15 GM, 7, 13.
16 GM, 69, 16.