ART: A drive through garage designs of past and present

“House of Cars” at the National Building Museum proves that the parking garage can be an urban asset, even a beautiful structure to behold. This fascinating exhibition traces the history of the prosaic building type, from horse stables used for auto storage to a pool-topped car shed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.

The concept for the show was brought to the museum by Shannon Sanders McDonald, author of the 2007 book “The Parking Garage: Design and Evolution of a Modern Urban Form.” Curator Sarah Leavitt worked with exhibit designer Patrick Rogan to expand Ms. McDonald’s ideas through an animated installation of photos, architectural models, drawings, artworks and film clips.

A real 1929 Model A convertible brings car culture to life in an introductory section devoted to the earliest parking garages. Such multistory buildings were erected to protect the open tops and sensitive engines of the “tin lizzie” — and her descendents — from the rain and cold. They increasingly became common in cities as the number of drivers increased from 8,000 in 1900 to 9 million by 1920.

Often extensions of gas stations, early garages weren’t as ugly as modern-day parking structures. They often resembled office buildings with window-filled masonry facades to blend into neighborhoods.

Automobiles were parked by car jockeys who also worked as mechanics. Some multistory garages were fitted with elevators to lift vehicles into place, while others were designed with spiraling driveways to handle larger cars.

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Soon the ramp became an essential design feature as shown through various configurations in the exhibit. Particularly intriguing is architect Albert Kahn’s 1928 drawing of the elongated double helix for the garage of his art deco Fisher Building in Detroit.

Demand for parking mushroomed after World War II as millions commuted between city and suburb. As noted in a section of the show devoted to mid-20th century garages, 90 percent of Americans traveled by car on a regular basis by 1950.

Efforts to keep business downtown led to underground and automated garages. “Never a dented fender” proclaim the promoters of mechanically stacked “pigeon hole” parking in one vintage film. Similarly efficient, robotic designs for storing and dispensing cars have surfaced in recent years as a means of reducing the size of garages on valuable urban lots.

With the freedom of driving came the proliferation of the self-park garage, giving motorists the opportunity to come and go without the hassle of an attendant. Washington builder Morris Cafritz’s “park at your desk” proposal from the 1950s pushed the convenience further by allowing drivers to park their cars in a garage right outside their offices.

While efficient, the open decks of self-park garages were often disastrous for historic streets and neighborhoods. The exhibit makes the point with before-and-after shots of a block along F Street Northwest, showing the loss of two old buildings to a modern parking garage of unadorned slabs.

Such bare-bones designs soon gave the parking garage a bad reputation. A 15-minute video of film clips, from “The French Connection” to an episode of “Seinfeld,” shows how the building type came to be seen as a place of violence and disorientation in popular culture.

Contemporary artworks displayed in the same gallery similarly play up the perception of the parking structure as austere, labyrinthine and forlorn, especially when emptied of cars.

Given this negative image, can a parking garage rise to the level great architecture? “Yes,” the exhibit clearly answers, while pointing out design is often sacrificed to “funding limitations or other practical reasons.”

Forfeited parking schemes by master architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn introduce the last gallery where the beautiful garage finally emerges as a reality.

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