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Parking Garages: A Multilevel History05:48


Henry Ford was the father of automobile assembly lines. President Eisenhower was the father of the interstate highway system. But the paternity of the parking garage is less clear. Like most inventions, its mother, of course, was necessity.

An exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., traces the history of these ever-present structures that dot the American landscape.

While the exhibit doesn't pinpoint the actual birth of the first parking garage, it does offer some facts about its early years and some of the design challenges associated with storing cars.

By 1929, there were 23 million cars on American roads, and parking quickly became a problem. Cities looked for solutions.

"The parking garage needed to be invented — it didn't really exist before," Sarah Leavitt, the curator of the exhibit, "House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage," tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

An early engineering solution for multistory garages was car elevators, Leavitt explains. In the 1920s, designs were also being drawn up for ramps, including one design called the "Double Helix" for its two spiral ramps to get cars into the structure.

These early garages were staffed with professional parking attendants. Drivers weren't allowed to park their own cars. Some places also offered whole levels just for women so they could feel safe in the structures. And others offered babysitting while drivers shopped.

By the 1950s, the country was experiencing a parking garage construction boom. That's because parking garages permitted shoppers and workers to spend time and money downtown. Self-parking came into wide scale at this time too, Leavitt says.

And while the exhibit includes some ardent efforts at design, a parking garage is ultimately a parking garage. It's more likely to be an eyesore than a sight for sore eyes. So the garages soon went underground.

There was an added perk for these underground structures: Builders took advantage of federal funds by making them serve a dual purpose as bomb shelters.

"House of Cars" runs through next July. But if you plan to travel by car, the National Building Museum offers no parking garage. The closest one is two blocks away.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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