The story of the Zell Motor Car Company starts in 1902 when Arthur Stanley Zell established the business—the first automobile distributor in Maryland started by one of the first people in Maryland to own a car. Before joining the automotive industry, Zell drove in early automobile races winning a number of records on the East Coast. As a member of the Baltimore Automobile Dealers’ Association, Zell helped to organize the first automobile show in Baltimore in 1906. He also served as a founding member of the Maryland Automobile Trade Association and, at his farm at Riverwood, he raised Guernsey cattle, Jersey Duroc hogs, and show dogs.
Plans for the firm’s modern showroom on Mount Royal Avenue first appeared in December 1908 when trade publication "The Automobile" reported that the Zell Motor Car Company had solicited plans for a three-story garage about 50 feet deep by 100 feet wide. The design boasted a large open fireplace (a new feature for showrooms borrowed from examples in Paris), a large electric elevator to carry cars between floors, and a special room for chauffeurs with a “telephone connection” to let owners “be in touch with their drivers at all times.” The structure, erected by the Baltimore Ferro Concrete Company, cost around $40,000 to build. The Baltimore Sun observed on December 22:
The rapid success of the Zell Motorcar Company in the sale of the Peerless and Chalmers-Detroit motorcars since its incorporation last August has compelled it to seek larger and permanent quarters, its present temporary location at 1010 Morton street being totally insufficient.
The building’s architect, 35-year-old Edward H. Glidden (1873-1924), brought the same tasteful design sensibility he applied to a growing number of apartment houses in the city’s growing northern suburbs: Earl Court (1903), the Winona (1903), the Rochambeau (1905; demolished 2006), the Washington (1905-6), the Marlborough (1906), and the Wentworth (1908). Not limited to apartments, the architect’s designs also included the National Marine Bank (1904) and the Seventh Baptist Church (1905) on North Avenue. Gildden’s later commissions, often with his partner Clyde Nelson Friz, included the Latrobe (1911; Glidden & Friz), the Esplanade (1911-12; Glidden & Friz), Calvert Court (1915), and Tudor Hall/Essex Arms (1910, with Friz; 1922), Furness House (1917), and the Forest Theater (1918-19). The French precedent for the grand fireplace at the Zell Motor Car Company showroom are likely based on Glidden’s studies in Paris around 1908 to 1912.
Zell hired Glidden again in early 1914 to expand and improve the showroom on Mount Royal Avenue, according to a February 9, 1914 mention in Industrial World noting that Gildden had “drawn up plans covering the same general design and character of building as their present one.” The business thrived as the local dealer for the Packard—an independent automaker based in Detroit that specialized in high-priced luxury automobiles. The Zell Motor Car Company also operated a service facility nearby (set back from North Avenue on Whitelock Street at Woodbrook Avenue) from around 1901 up until Packard stopped manufacturing automobiles in the late 1950s. The service facility is better known for the last few decades as the location of Greenwood Towing.
Dealerships and service stations on Mount Royal Avenue, Charles Street and North Avenue flourished in the 1920s, endured through the Great Depression in the 1930s and still continued after World War II. Nearby dealers to the Zell Motor Company included Backus Ford, Weiss Ford, Chesapeake Cadillac, and Oriole Pontiac. Unfortunately for the Zell Motor Car Company, whose founder had died in 1935, the end of Packard’s automobile production in 1956 marked the end of their operation. Like other landmarks on Mount Royal Avenue, such as the conversion of Mount Royal Station into studios for MICA in 1968, the automotive showroom turned into offices and remains in use today. In 2015, the sign above the building’s Mount Royal Avenue entrance reads “The Towne Building” and the structure is up for sale.