Double helix parking garage

Video Double helix parking garage


Okay, of all the structures dotting the American landscape, few are so unlovable as the parking garage. But spend a few minutes at the National Building Museum’s exhibit about them and while you may not start loving parking garages, you might just come away with a crush.

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Unidentified Man #1: Where are parked cars tucked away in pigeon holes?

Unidentified Man #2: A car drives up, and in a matter of seconds, an elevator that moves both vertically and horizontally at the same time is ready to whisk it away to a private slot in the two-section building.

SIEGEL: The National Building Museum itself has no parking garage, but lucky for us, it’s just five blocks from our studio in Washington. So we walked over to sample the models, photos and films from a time when a really great, new parking garage was something exciting. Dateline, Washington, 1951.

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Unidentified Man #3: Washington gets what may be a solution to parking problems. The motorist drives into the (unintelligible) and hands a card over to the one attendant on duty. The gear shift is set to neutral, the brakes off. A push button sets the loading mechanism to work. Befitting any car, it grabs the car and loads it onto the elevator.

SIEGEL: Henry Ford was the father of automobile assembly lines, and President Eisenhower was the father of the interstate highway system, but paternity for the parking garage is more vague. Like most inventions, its mother, of course, was necessity.

Ms. SARAH LEAVITT (Curator, “House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage,” National Building Museum): The parking garage needed to be invented. It really didn’t exist before.

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SIEGEL: That’s Sarah Leavitt, the curator of “House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage.” As you enter, a legend on one wall says: With 23 million cars driving on American roads by 1929, parking quickly became a problem. Cities looked for solutions.

Ms. LEAVITT: What we’re showing here in the first gallery is that these structures just look like ordinary buildings. They’re not going to read as garages to most of us until the mid-century when you get that open-deck, concrete garage.

SIEGEL: Here’s a sign over the – it’s called the Denver Motor Hotel, and they don’t mean motel, they mean it’s a hotel for cars.

Ms. LEAVITT: Hotel for cars, absolutely. And those gentlemen that are standing there in the photo will probably park the car for you. Most, if not all, garages were valet parked in the first couple decades of the 20th century. You don’t get self-parking in a wide scale until the ’40s and ’50s.

SIEGEL: Sarah Leavitt says the first multistory garages used elevators, but by the 1920s, designs were being drawn up for ramps, including one design for two spiral ramps using a name that wasn’t used for DNA until three decades later.

Ms. LEAVITT: This is the double helix and the continuous ramp. One goes up, and one goes down, so the cars never meet each other. When you get into self-park garages, that becomes especially important because you don’t have professional drivers anymore.

SIEGEL: It’s a double-helix ramp from 1928 in Richmond, Virginia. So there’s a subculture of American engineers for whom double helix automatically meant a parking garage.

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Ms. LEAVITT: I suppose so. They might have more technical names for them, as well.

SIEGEL: Do we know if people were at all wary of leaving their car in a garage?

Ms. LEAVITT: I think that’s absolutely true, and a lot of the advertising speaks to that: We’ll take good of your car. You can trust we have the finest grade of men. Some of the garages actually had whole – and we’re talking about the 1920s here – had whole floors for women, the idea being that women wouldn’t feel safe in a garage so that there are special amenities for them. It’s only women on that floor. They can get their packages delivered to their cars. Even some offered babysitting while you’re shopping, things like that, through the garage.

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SIEGEL: And who are these three gentlemen in jodhpurs, riding boots and�

Ms. LEAVITT: It’s funny. They do look like either military or stable workers.

SIEGEL: The Germans gave that look a bad name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEAVITT: Yeah, this was pre-that. This was in West Virginia in a garage in Wheeling, West Virginia. They’re going to park your car for you.

SIEGEL: These guys looking like storm troopers, they were just parking attendants?

Ms. LEAVITT: Yup. Yeah.

SIEGEL: They look like they’re ready for�

Ms. LEAVITT: It’s all very official, yeah.

SIEGEL: For battle or chasing bad guys down the back roads.

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It was a look that implied discipline, training and competence behind the wheel. Parking garages permitted shoppers and workers to spend time and money downtown. And despite some ardent efforts at design, efforts that the Building Museum documents, a parking garage is ultimately a parking garage. It’s more likely to be an eyesore than a sight for sore eyes. For that aesthetic problem, a new solution ultimately sunk in, literally.

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Unidentified Man #4: Pittsburgh is digging a $4 million hole in the heart of the city to provide underground storage for thousands of cars. Above the surface, a beautiful park will camouflage the busy activity below.

Ms. LEAVITT: The idea for building things underground, the idea that you could preserve the park above and still bring the parking downtown came pretty early.

SIEGEL: Here’s a giveaway. Here is a sketch from the Los Angeles City Planning Commission in 1951. It says: proposed underground parking facilities and bomb shelter.

Ms. LEAVITT: Yeah, that was a common thing during the Cold War. You could get federal funding for parking garages if you also met certain specifications for the bomb shelter.

SIEGEL: That’s curator Sarah Leavitt showing us around “House of Cars.” The parking garage exhibit is parked at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. until next summer. If you drive here, the nearest garage is only two blocks away. But compared to the old days, it’s not much of a show.

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Unidentified Man #5: There’s usually a good crowd on hand to watch cars being stacked like so many wheat cakes with never a wasted moment, nor a dented fender.

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