Few people driving past the corner of Main and Water streets in Ashland recognize the old car dealership.

Few people driving past the corner of Main and Water streets in Ashland recognize the old car dealership.

For almost half a century, the structure that stretches close to a city block across from the Plaza has been reconfigured into stores as part of what is now known as Claycomb's Plaza Mall.

Today, a warren of halls and odd-angled walls divide the 30,000-square-foot building into retail shops such as Bug A Boo children's clothing and toy store, and treatment areas for clients of the Plaza Salon and Spa.

Occupying much of the storefront space is Nimbus, a men's and women's clothing and gifts store that is the mall's oldest tenant.

Over time, irony has also found a place here.

The parking lot, which was once a sales lot promoting the latest cars, has become a tug-of-war between the Claycomb heirs who still own the property and people who have had their cars towed for staying too long.

There is tragic irony, as well. In 1948, Walt DeBoer leased the property to launch Lithia Motors, a Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealership named after the nearby springs that contain lithium.

In his first year, DeBoer and his four employees sold 14 cars. The business slowly grew. Then in 1968, he was killed by a car while out for a walk in Phoenix.

His oldest son, Sid, who had been working as his bookkeeper, took over the company. Today, Lithia Motors is the ninth-largest automotive retailer in the United States, with 87 stores and $3.3 billion in revenue last year.

Cars have sculpted Main Street, also known as Highway 99, even before the Claycomb family built the structure in 1920 as a Ford dealership selling Model Ts and As.

In the 1940s, the front of the building was cut back by 40 feet and remodeled, and in the mid-1950s, Main Street became a one-way street to streamline traffic.

After 1966, when cars were bypassing Ashland by taking the new Interstate 5 freeway and city shops were closing, desperate city officials paid a consultant $36,000 to suggest ways to improve the boarded-up downtown.

Recommendations included promoting the thriving Oregon Shakespeare Festival, restricting sign clutter and removing parking meters, according to Joe Peterson's book "Images of America: Ashland."

Before the freeway skirted Ashland, there were a dozen gas stations on Main Street. Afterward, inventive landlords offered inexpensive rents to artists and craftspeople to encourage them to open studios and shops.

After Lithia Motors moved to Medford in 1970, Kim Appleberry leased the car dealership building for his labyrinthine indoor mall, which included his ice cream parlor. The next year, Nimbus Leatherworks took over a storefront space with two swinging barn doors that opened to the sidewalk.

In the abandoned lawn mower repair shop, Nimbus founder Brooks Pride Hodapp built a workbench in a corner where he would toil into the night making belts, bags and other leather craft, says Ken Silverman, who started working at Nimbus in 1974 and bought the business 10 years later.

"After the plays, people would come by to see the belts Brooks would tool during the day," Silverman says, while standing in the original part of the store, which now has men's contemporary clothing, hats and shoes, some of which are sold on Silverman's online store hisfavoriteshirt.com.

According to the late Ashland Daily Tidings columnist Lance Pugh, Hodapp paid Harry Anderson, who would later star in the 1980s mega-hit TV comedy "Night Court," $5 a day to perform magic in the store.

When Anderson later asked for a raise to $15, Pugh says, "Brooks declined, saying, 'Good luck finding somebody to pay you that much money.' "

Silverman learned leatherwork from Hodapp. He also made leather-banded driftwood flowerpots from salvaged redwood under the name Nimbus Woodworks. Later, Silverman expanded the store to include clothes and gifts.

Nimbus' women's department is in a step-down space where mechanics once fixed cars. The store's American contemporary craft and art gallery is in the place that once housed the Village Fair shop, which carried pottery, turquoise and silver jewelry.

"Nimbus kept evolving," says Silverman.

And so does the Plaza.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com