Exhibit Review

House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage

National Building Museum; Washington, DC

October 17, 2009–July 11, 2010


In the words of the artist Mark Shetabi, parking garages are structures that "seem only to exist when we use them."(1) With the House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage exhibition, the National Building Museum encourages visitors to consider the history and legacy of these oft-overlooked buildings. Using an array of interpretative techniques, from rich exhibit labels to film clips, the exhibition explores how parking facilities have shaped the built environment, civic life, and even popular culture. Through its discussion of preservation and urban development, House of Cars spurs visitors to think about the future of parking garages, as these buildings become hubs for 21st-century transportation networks and historic landmarks attesting to America's motor age.

A fully-restored Ford Model A greets visitors at the entrance to House of Cars, and the National Building Museum uses the 1927 classic to evoke the early decades of the 20th century, when an emerging car culture transformed the nation's urban spaces. In 1900, only 8,000 cars vied for parking spots in American cities. By 1920, that number had grown to 9 million; in 1929, it exploded to 23 million. As curbside parking and parking lots proved inadequate, forward-thinking entrepreneurs and city officials began to invest their resources in multi-story parking garages. For the first time, parking was seen as a possible source of revenue. House of Cars studies this innovative period in depth, with text and image panels packed with fascinating details. Though many visitors are familiar with the environmental impact of cars, they may be surprised to learn that urban horses created an earlier environmental problem, consuming fifteen million acres worth of feed annually and emptying four million pounds of manure (and 40,000 gallons of urine) on city streets.

Built in the 1920s, the first generation of parking garages differed remarkably from the structures we know today. Since early automobiles lacked the weather-resistant exteriors of modern vehicles, parking garages needed to be fully enclosed. Architecturally, most garage-builders chose to mimic the styles of surrounding buildings, installing windows and outer facades that made their garages look like a typical office or warehouse. Once inside, drivers handed their vehicles off to professional valets, who often used elevators to move the cars between floors. Historic photographs enliven this section of the exhibition, revealing that both men and women earned their living parking, cleaning, and servicing cars.

As the century progressed, innovations in building materials, automobile technology, and consumer culture transformed the multi-story parking garage. A variety of ramp systems supplanted elevators, since the latter could not handle the massive influx and exodus of vehicles that came at the beginning and end of each work day. The exhibition uses large diagrams, as well as a fun hands-on model (complete with toy cars) to explain how ramps solved a critical engineering problem. Around the same time, garage-owners discovered that, when given the choice, drivers overwhelmingly preferred to park their own cars. The exhibition uses a series of historic ticket-dispensing machines to bring this particular customer preference to life, beginning with a vintage coin parking meter and ending with a digital paystation. Following World War II, advances in concrete and steel, coupled with the weather-resistant exteriors of modern cars, gave garage builders even more freedom in their designs. As a result, urban garages grew taller, deeper, and much more open-air. By the late 1950s, architects had arrived at the ramp-based, wall-less garages we recognize today.

Throughout the House of Cars exhibition, the National Building Museum grounds its discussion of parking garages in the larger context of American society, showing how these structures influenced the development of American cities, as well as the daily life of drivers. In the early 1960s, as the personal automobile eclipsed every other form of transportation, city leaders invested heavily in new parking facilities—hoping that garages would staunch the flow of consumers and businesses out of their downtown districts. Although their efforts failed, these leaders did foster a new public attitude towards parking garages. As the exhibition shows, by the sixties, city-goers saw adequate parking facilities as a public entitlement. When this right was threatened, drivers took to the streets in protest. In Washington, DC, a city spotlighted throughout the exhibition, government employees demonstrated in the 1970s when city leaders removed parking spaces from the National Mall. In a more abstract sense, parking garages became an iconic part of the urban landscape. Using paintings, sculpture, and films, the exhibition demonstrates that these utilitarian structures have often become places of both contemplation and mystery in the popular imagination.

The exhibition's concluding section analyzes the future of parking garages. Through scale models and case studies taken from across the United States, visitors learn how engineers have already begun to "green" urban garages, integrating new buildings into robust systems of public transportation. Several panels take an in-depth look at the preservation issues surrounding parking garages. Fifty years ago, many preservationists saw parking structures as the enemy, decrying how historic landmarks were bulldozed to make room for new garages. Today, the debate has switched, and over a dozen garages are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Prized because they embody a particular design, a style of architecture, or the history of a particular region, these buildings pose a particular set of challenges for historic societies and other preservationist groups. As cars have grown larger and safety regulations have changed, many former garages can no longer function as parking facilities. House of Cars gives several examples of how historic parking garages have been retro-fitted for new purposes. At the University of Georgia, designers converted a former garage into science classrooms, using built-in ramps to make the structure handicap accessible. Though intriguing, the exhibition's examples only scratch the surface of what these large, weight-bearing, and grid-friendly buildings could do. In the years to come, historians and preservationists will need to find innovative uses for these historic buildings, especially as the United States begins its long and painful shift away from the 20th century's car culture.

Jordan Grant
American University



1. National Building Museum, Gallery Label, Mark Shetabi's Garage Interior I, 2006 (June 11, 2010).