One day in the late 1980s, I got caught in bumper to bumper traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway, along the Hudson River shore on Manhattan’s West Side. Stuck in time, I scanned the skyline and found myself doing a double-take. Peeking out from under an arch of Riverside Drive, I thought I spotted a familiar shape in the white cornice of a handsome old industrial building. (Screen capture from Google Maps)
This was years before the existence of the web, and it was some time before I had a chance to research the image at my local library. There, I found a photo of the ornament in question. It turned out to be a striking sculpted porcelain representation of the wheeled logo that I’d seen on the radiator shell of many a classic Studebaker, enlarged to heroic proportions and tiled into the Chiclet frosting of a finishing plant erected in West Harlem in 1923, and now housing financial offices for Columbia University.
Studebaker had, by far, the longest history of any car maker in America, growing from a family wagon business in late 1700s Pennsylvania into one of the largest vehicle makers in the world by the time of the U.S. Civil war in the 1860s, and becoming a major supplier for the Union Army. They dipped a toe into the fledgling car business as early as 1897, and first applied the wagon wheel logo to an auto radiator shell in in 1912.
From then on, they secured their corporate look with both mobile and immobile wheels. The flat, stylized image used in print and on radiator medallions took on a decidedly pneumatic character in its architectural form, showing details of tire, rim, lug nuts and wooden spokes. It can still be found on the surprising number of Studebaker buildings that survive.
Debra Jane Seltzer’s great site, Roadsidearchitecture.com has the above photos of Studebaker buildings among its 2400 images.
Contemporary when conceived, the wagon wheel logo was dated by the 1930s, when the separate rims and wooden artillery wheels it represented had been replaced by welded, all-steel pressings. Squeezed by the exigencies of depression economics, and reeling from consecutive failures of two low priced marques, the Erskine and Rockne, Studebaker felt compelled to drop the classic medallion for a bauhaus inspired design more in keeping with the streamlined models then in their showrooms. There seemed to be no market advantage in looking to the past.
The change also ended application of the Edwardian-era medallion to Studebaker architecture. Raymond Loewy’s “Lazy S” logo, derived from the Bauhaus ’30s type font, gradually took center stage over the next 30 years.
By mid-century, most of Studebaker’s success lay in the past. The now legendary 1953 would be their last totally new design (outside of the low volume Avanti) and would go to the grave with their car business in 1966. The early, missed opportunity of re-establishing prominence with that sensational body is well documented, but what if it had lived up to its promise? What if Studebaker had made all the right marketing decisions, and the car had become the smash hit it deserved to be?
Would that success have led to a new raft of iconic Studebaker buildings to enjoy for generations to come?