Car Culture

Some Cities Convert Historic Parking Garages into Lofts or Lots.

The Hotel LaSalle was demolished in 1976, but its 1918 garage remained.

Credit: Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois

Dust coats the upper windows, rust flakes off the 60-year-old neon sign, and rickety scaffolding protects passersby from debris from the brick-and-terra-cotta facade of Chicago's—and perhaps the country's—oldest parking facility, the Hotel LaSalle garage.

Built in 1918 when Model T cars reigned and motorists sported goggles and scarves to keep road dust at bay, the Hotel LaSalle garage could go the way of Pierce Arrows and Crosley automobiles.

The city's Commission on Chicago Landmarks recommended last year that the building, which it contends is the nation's first multi-level parking garage, be denied landmark status. The commission had awarded preliminary landmark status in 2002 to the six-story facility designed by famed architects Holabird & Roche.

"There is no way to update to make it useful," says city spokesman Tony Binns. "It was built for Model Ts, and only one car could get it in and out at a time, not for traffic constantly coming in and out today."

Local preservationists were disappointed with the commission's decision. "It is quite disappointing when the commission takes action to save an important historical building and then reverses itself in the 11th hour," says Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago. "This action only ensures that the building will definitely be demolished."

The building's manager, Dennis Quinn, didn't want landmark status. "The garage is very inefficient," says Quinn, president of System Parking Inc., which manages the facility. "It takes a ton of valet parkers to get cars in and out of the garage in the morning and the evening." He says the garage hasn't turned a profit in seven years. "In today's market, there's no way we can compete with the self-park garages." 

This 1924 Los Angeles parking garage is now a loft-style apartment building.

Credit: Architectural Resources Group

Other garages nearly as old as the Hotel LaSalle have been successfully rehabbed. In August, an eight-story Beaux Arts garage in Los Angeles was recently granted historic status by the California's Historic Resources Commission. Designed by Curlett & Beelman, the 1924 building was constructed to alleviate reduce traffic and provide extra parking in the then busy downtown. A state-of-the art mechanical lift hoisted Studebakers, Pierce-Arrows and Fords into parking spaces. "It's truly a piece of car culture particularly in Los Angeles, defining the landscape until after World War II," says Trudi Sandmeier, a historic preservationist with the Los Angeles Conservancy.

In Milwaukee, the Gimbels Parking Pavilion also was rehabbed and is being used for office space and parking. "The Gimbels garage is important because it's a nice example of Streamline Moderne styling through a building that is poured-concrete but is a nice piece of design work," says Jim Draeger, Wisconsin's deputy state historic preservation officer. "It's high style. It's a handsome, attractive building and it helps connect us to the early history of transportation."

Parking garages began as one-story brick affairs at the end of neighborhood alleys of residents who could afford automobiles. But the hotels, particularly in downtown Chicago, revolutionized parking, making garages a critical part of the urban landscape. While automobiles were invented in the 19th century, they didn't become common until 1905. when hundreds of companies churned out "horseless carriages." In cities everywhere, these early automobiles jockeyed for space with carriages, horses, and trolley cars, and there simply wasn't enough street parking available to accommodate them all. There was only one way to go: up.

"Cities had to develop a new type of building, and Chicago was famous for rethinking the building as more than just a utilitarian structure," says Tim Samuelson, Chicago's cultural historian. The Hotel LaSalle was among the first hotels in the country to meet this challenge. It built a free-standing garage, a red-brick, multi-level facility with enclosed windows to keep out the rain and a ramp to ensure speedy parking. The hotel touted it as "America's finest garage." 

Detail of Milwaukee's Gimbels parking garage

Credit: Eric Oxendorf/Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1927, DuPont Co. invented Duco-lux, a durable automobile paint finish that revolutionized the parking industry. Cars could be left outside in the rain or snow overnight without damage, an innovation that led to garages without windows. Although the construction of new garages came to a halt with the Great Depression, and later World War II, new construction began again in 1947 with the first self-parking garage. With few exceptions, early garages had valets, which still exist. As many as 30 attendants parked and retrieved cars for shoppers 24 hours a day at the four-level, three-story Gimbels parking pavilion in Milwaukee, built in 1947.

Among the first to incorporate basement space, the Gimbels structure was considered the newest wave in modern parking. Beginning in the 1950s, old buildings in major cities were demolished with alarming frequency to make way for new parking facilities. At the same time, people were moving out to the suburbs, where there were no streetcars. Retail also moved from downtown to the suburbs, creating a need for new parking lots. By the end of the 50s, virtually all parking garages were self-park, not valet.

Preservationists such as Draeger contend that the old garages are worth saving. "They still have viable uses," he says. "There's no need to take a parking garage down as long as people are driving cars to park. It makes sense to rehab. It's a lot less expensive than building a new one. You get to preserve a piece of history that is probably the most innovation of the 20th century and put it to a use that's probably the best use for it."

Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer living in Chicago.  

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