How a Hotel in Chicago Convinced Drivers They Needed Parking Garages - Atlas Obscura
Our new kids' book is on sale! Shop now.

How a Hotel in Chicago Convinced Drivers They Needed Parking Garages

In the 1910s, city stables were replaced by a hot new amenity.

An ad targeted towards auto travelers. (Photo: Landmarks Illinois/Public domain)

The arms race for parking in cities began at an upscale hotel in Chicago. 

The city’s La Salle Hotel was an opulent, 22-story hotel built by the same architects who designed City Hall, around the corner, and its new, five-story parking garage was meant to be an additional luxury. Added in 1918, the La Salle garage was “probably the oldest example of a commercial parking garage in the U.S.,” an American historian told the AP.

It was meant to be a temple for vehicles. Its ramp “had every appearance of a mountain road, which rose in a spiral to the top of a five-story building.” There was an elevator to bring the cars back down, to avoid traffic on the ramp. It could hold 350 cars, and had a state-of-the-art fire alarm system, as well as an “automobile doctor” on call to address cars’ ailments. Its north and south walls were lined with windows, and the top floor had five skylights. The garage hired a man just to clean those windows.

It was, wrote The Hotel Monthly, “a unique travel experience…a new note in hotel accommodations.” Another hotel journal wrote that “hotel men must now consider accommodations for the cars of their guests as well as their baggage. They have become of equal importance.”

Today, urban planners fight against parking requirements that determine how many spaces residential buildings and businesses, like hotels, have to provide to their tenants and guests. But before it was treated as an unassailable right, parking in cities started out as an amenity—a service for the very rich.

At the beginning of the 1910s, horses still outnumbered cars in many American cities. But cars were gaining fast. The first version of the Model T went on sale in 1908, and by 1910, there were almost 470,000 automobiles registered across the U.S. By the end of the decade, there were eight million, and where once cities had to accommodate herds of horses, now they had to somehow house fleets of cars.

A major Chicago street in 1903. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-57355)

Even as cars began to encroach, some cities were still building new, multi-story stables to keep horses in. In Chicago, the stables tended to be smaller than in other major cities, but since the city’s stable regulations were lax, many people simply kept their horses in their homes. In 1901, in Chicago, one social worker found that “unmarried Greeks frequently share their own rooms with their horses and Italians often stable them on the lower or basement floors of their tenements.” Chicago law also required stables be cleaned only once each year—a nicety that, Clay McShane and Joel Tarr report in The Horse in the City, “was rarely enforced.”

By 1915, though, the number of horses in America had peaked, and cars began taking over. The first places to store cars in cities were often at private auto clubs or dealerships. The earliest garages weren’t the empty boxes we know today, but were more like auto shops that also offered storage for cars, particularly over winter, when they had to go into hibernation.

What made the La Salle garage different was that it was owned and operated by an existing commercial establishment, as an amenity for its customers. The five-story building was two blocks from the hotel, but it guaranteed automobile travelers could park their car in a convenient, safe place connected to a particular business. Today, this seems self-evident: when you go to the grocery store, there’s parking. When you go to the mall, there’s parking. When you go to a hotel, there’s parking. Even in cities, if you live in buildings of a certain size, there has to be parking.

Model Ts coming off the line. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-20077)

That’s because there are now laws requiring those spots to exist. In the late 1910s no one took parking garages for granted, and the La Salle’s was a novelty, but as early as 1923, cities like Columbus, Ohio, began passing laws required parking for multi-family dwellings. Dozens of cities passed minimum parking requirements in the years following World War II, and soon they were ubiquitous. A parking garage was no longer “a unique travel experience,” but an ugly, in-between space to leave as quickly as possible.

By the end of the century, the La Salle garage wasn’t much to look at either. The red of its terra cotta facade had faded and was crumbling; the mountain-road ramp was cramped and too small to allow two-way traffic. There was no dedicated window washer. Although there was some effort to landmark the building and save it, in 2005, it was torn down, and no one missed it. There was plenty of parking elsewhere.