Little castle still is a giant

The entrance from Broad and Federal leaves side walls for display windows.

The northern half of Broad Street was nicknamed "Automobile Row" in the early 20th century, but South Broad also had its share of dealers and stores catering to the car. Though only a single story tall, the little art moderne castle at Broad and Federal still stands out as a giant.

The showroom, which now houses senior services, was completed in 1936, and, like all good retail buildings, it takes full advantage of its site to capture the eyeballs of potential customers. The designers started by shaving off the corner - creating what is called a chamfer - so the main entrance could be angled toward both Broad and Federal Streets. That freed the side walls for large display windows. The plate glass runs the entire length of the building, ensuring the shiny new models inside would be visible to passing pedestrians and motorists.

On a block lined with vertical townhouses, the dealership also uses its architecture to emphasize linearity and speed. Like many auto showrooms of the day, it was designed in the streamline moderne style, which took its cues from the sleek aerodynamic forms of airplanes and automobiles. The bundled columns that flank the entrance terminate in stepped crowns resembling the tail fins of a classic Cadillac. A strong band runs along the top of the windows, reinforcing the horizontal lines.

Above the windows, the facade is embellished by stars and medallions, now painted a royal blue on an ecru background. Given the effort that went into fashioning the display windows, it's ironic that a subway entrance was plunked in front of the glass only two years after the showroom opened. But, because the entrance is also an art deco design, the juxtaposition shows how the style was applied to two different modes of transport.

Little is known about the showroom's original occupant or architect, but it appears the building functioned as a car dealership until 2001. It was occupied in its last decades by Bernicker Motors. Old photographs show that the roof line was crimped with crenellations during Bernicker's tenure. If the unfortunate advertising hoardings were removed from the windows, the auto showroom could be as beguiling a retail space today as it was in 1936.

South Broad's auto showroom is two long blocks south of Washington Avenue, at the Ellsworth-Federal stop of the Broad Street line.