COLUMBUS, Ohio - With hard times in the auto industry and car dealerships closing around the country, the gleaming showrooms that once featured next year's models are becoming this year's new store, restaurant, school, day-care center or yoga studio.
Students on the campus of the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio can learn in a space where evidence of automaking's proud past is still visible in the exposed concrete pillars, sturdy tile floors and ascending spiral vehicle ramp.
Architects and historians say the shock that American automakers could go bankrupt has combined with depressed real estate values and enthusiasm for green energy to bring a unique level of interest to reusing showrooms.
"If you look historically at the times when we've had these big shifts in [building] use, they've coincided with societal shifts," said Erin Rae Hoffer, an architect on staff at Boston-based Autodesk.
The number of franchised new car dealerships in the United States was already slipping before the auto company bankruptcies, but 1,900 dealerships have closed since January 2008.
U.S. auto sales fell to a 26-year low of about 10 million this year, compared with 17 million over most of the previous decade.
As part of its deep restructuring, General Motors Co. has said it will cut 2,400 dealers from its 6,000-dealer network by next fall. Chrysler Group LLC slashed 789 dealers in June.
Responding to backlash from dealership owners, Congress passed a bill this month to give dealers a stronger arbitration process to challenge the automakers' decisions.
The transformation of the boxy, windowed space at Golden Bridge Yoga Studio in Los Angeles has been achieved with the smell of wafting incense, prayer flags draped from the walls and percussive Eastern rhythms. At NEO on Locust in St. Louis, long white tablecloths, stylish backlighting and tinkling champagne glasses turn a similar square space into a classy wedding venue.
Built to sustain thousands of pounds of moving weight, the showrooms are especially sturdy, naturally lit and often ideally located in high-traffic areas.
The art school in Columbus invested $8.3 million in its new Design Studios on Broad in the longtime Byer's Chrysler showroom that began as Columbus Oldsmobile in 1919.
Ventilation ducts to an old coal-fired furnace became windows bringing in cost-free natural light. Layers of insulation and reflective white coating were added to the roof. Body shops became classrooms. The showroom will soon become a gallery.
Steve Xiao, manager of the Hua Xing Asia Market in Ypsilanti, Mich., said the former showroom that is now his grocery store had something else going for it: The price was right.
"We were really interested when we heard they were selling and moving somewhere else," he said. "The first year, the price was too high. When we finally bought it, it had been on the market almost two years."
Len Love, who owned a small, independent auto dealership in Tampa, Fla., was staring down the opposite side of that equation. As he watched the steady decline of car sales at Love's Auto, he had a build-it-and-they-will-come moment.
"I was sitting in the office every day and literally no money was coming in the door. Nothing. Not a dime. Not one penny," he said. "That day I was standing in the showroom and said, 'Well, it feels like a nice little bar in here.' "