CCLaP Fridays: The Early Parking Garages of San Francisco, by Mark D. Kessler


The Early Parking Garages of San Francisco: An Architectural and Cultural Study, 1906 – 1929
By Mark D. Kessler
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

As the title should make abundantly obvious, The Early Parking Garages of San Francisco: An Architectural and Cultural Study, 1906 – 1929, by Mark D. Kessler, is aimed at an academic audience. Whether it appeals to the average, non-specialist reader will depend on how much he or she is actually interested in the subject matter and whether that passion is worth the investment. While I sometimes identify myself as an “architecture nerd,” even that fact made Early Parking Garages a bit of a challenge. Granted, I used to read numerous dense, heavily-footnoted, jargon-laced academic texts when I was a graduate student. But first, a little context. McFarland is a publisher that specializes in academic texts on numerous topics. Last year I read one book by McFarland focusing on shape-shifters (werewolves, vampires, etc.) in popular culture, a second volume reassessing the study of organized crime, and the third volume was a comic about werewolves in Wisconsin and other hauntings. McFarland spans the gamut: from the popular to the downright obscure. Early Parking Garages is pretty obscure.

Since it is an academic text, it gets a bit wonkish and jargony. A handy working knowledge of architectural terms and styles will come in handy. The book is divided into two sections. The first section is a typological overview of the garages being examined. Kessler focuses on garage architecture following the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to the Great Depression. During this period, the United States transitioned from horse and carriage and train travel to primarily automobile travel. The garage developed from the dual genealogy of the livery stable and the train station. The second section, called “The Significance of the Garage,” goes into more detail with the history and cultural significance of these San Francisco garages. This section also includes a chapter on The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. This forgotten chapter of American history was an international exposition that celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal. Within the history of American public celebrations, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition bridges the period between the 1893 Columbian Exposition of Chicago and 1939 World’s Fair held in New York City. The Columbian Exposition has had a major impact in popular culture, everything from The Devil in White City to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. Not so with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Prior to this chapter, the majority of the book is a typological inventory of the early parking garages. Why devote an entire book to these garages? Kessler explains, asserting that these parking garages are examples of lowbrow historicist architecture. Lowbrow in terms of use (garage, automobile mechanics, etc.) and historicist in terms of style (Gothic, Mission, etc.). He also states that these are examples of “good, not great” architecture. This distinction is important, especially for those attuned to the issues of historic preservation and adaptive re-use. Unlike major architectural landmarks, these garages suffer from issues of invisibility and stylistic flair.

The demolition of Penn Station was a call to arms to historic preservationists. The old parking garage turning into a Walgreen’s goes completely unnoticed. But where there are threats, there are opportunities, to wax corporate-speak for a moment. Kessler calls for developers and property owners to respect the architectural integrity of these early garages. While it would be optimal for these buildings to maintain a function associated with automobiles, that isn’t always possible. Some have been adapted for other uses. One became the aforementioned Walgreen’s, while another became a music agency. The adaptability and flexibility comes from the structural design of the parking garages. By their very nature, these parking garages have large open spaces on the ground floor and an upper floor ready for development. While San Francisco is the focus of this case study, there are other cities that could be redeveloped by adapting similar parking garages for new uses. Besides the obvious advantage of space, the historicist architecture creates a visual appeal for consumers and users. When arts administrators are searching for potential spaces, they shouldn’t overlook parking garages, especially parking garages from this era in American architectural history.

I can’t recommend this book for everyone, but for those in specific categories, this may provide some guidance and education. Academics in architecture, members of the creative class looking for work space, and historic preservationists should find this book rewarding.


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