By Rebecca Ragain
For the Hollywood Star, January, 2010
A car salesman sits behind his desk at the Buick dealership, talking to a husband and wife about their transportation options, while a teenager peers through the showroom window, dreaming about the day he’ll have a car of his own. Behind him, cars, buildings and commercial signs are visible; business goes on as usual on Sandy Boulevard, circa 1949.
This scene is replicated, life-size, as a vignette in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. It’s one of nineteen settings that make up a 26,000-square-foot exhibition called America on the Move, which explores our country’s transportation culture from the 1870s through 2000. Trains, boats and ships, cars and motorcycles are all represented, as are different areas of the country, from Santa Cruz, California to Salisbury, North Carolina.
The Sandy Boulevard portion of the exhibit is 54 feet long. Half of the exhibit is a scaled-down replica of the Wallace Buick dealership, which is still in business today at 3434 N.E. Sandy Blvd. as Breslin and Wallace Buick Pontiac GMC.
Co-owner Joe Breslin explains how the company name expanded over the years: “The Wallaces started out in the Studebaker business in 1919. They were having a hard time outselling Franklin [a competing dealership], so in 1921 [Mr. Wallace] hired Franklin’s top-selling salesman away from them. That was my grandfather.”
Joe Breslin’s father, Jim Breslin, started working at the dealership when he was just 10 years old. During World War II, Joe’s grandfather bought a percentage of the dealership; in 1983, the Breslins purchased the last of the Wallaces’ share in the company. Five of Jim Breslin’s six children eventually went into the car business. Today, Breslin and Wallace Buick Pontiac is run by partners Joe Breslin, who started officially working at the company when he was 15, and his brother, Dennis Breslin.
To accurately replicate the dealership, a designer on the Museum’s team visited Breslin and Wallace Buick Pontiac multiple times, taking measurements and photographs to capture the look of the showroom. (In fact, the designer visited frequently enough that Breslin jokes that the East Coast resident must’ve just liked to vacation in Portland.)
The designer even recorded the details of the furniture in the office, which dates back to 1949, when Wallace Buick moved from its downtown location to Sandy Boulevard.
“Mr. Wallace liked to buy quality things, so they stood up over the test of time,” says Joe Breslin, referring to the dealership’s mid-century office chairs.
The designer’s visits were one part of a massive amount of research that went into creating the Sandy Boulevard exhibit. Associate curator of road transportation Roger White says that he worked on the Sandy exhibit, off and on, for one to two years.
He spent untold hours in the Library of Congress going through old Portland phone books, insurance maps, and references such as Harry Stein’s book, Portland: A Pictorial History, to glean the details of life along Sandy Boulevard
White says that the Museum team picked Sandy Boulevard for the exhibit because it’s an example of a typical automobile-oriented corridor of the period. The final display shows “a mix of things unique to Portland and things that were common in a lot of big cities in 1949,” he adds.
The backdrop of the exhibit, beyond the replica of the Wallace Buick showroom and the street where the teenager stands looking in, is a huge mural depicting Sandy Boulevard landmarks of the period: the Tik Tok and Jim Dandy drive-ins, the Joseph Lucas Music Mart.
White enjoyed learning more about Portland as he worked on the Sandy Boulevard exhibit. “It was a marvelous experience; and it will be there for a very long time,” he says.
As a permanent exhibition, America on the Move will be on display at the National Museum of American History for as long as the next 20 years. Portlanders traveling to Washington D.C. can visit the museum any day except Dec. 25; admission is free. An online version of the exhibition is available at http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove/exhibition.