John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Garages from around 1930 could mechanically stack hundreds of vehicles as high as two-dozen stories.
Today, the building standing at the northeast corner of 61st Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan blends in well with its tall, dirt-colored brethren:
But back in the 1930s, the tower was anything but a bunch of apartments and offices. Indeed, it was the fantastic, futuristic “HOTEL for AUTOS”:
Perhaps the city’s most beautiful hole for cars, the building was one of two automatic garages that Milton A. Kent erected in the late 1920s, early 1930s. (The other was at 209 E. 43rd Street.) In the wake of World War I, America was going wild for cars, and architects had to devise new ways to accommodate them, especially in dense cities. The firm Jardine, Hill & Murdock designed Kent’s perplexities as an answer to the parking crisis. They were huge, vertical sardine cans that for a few coins would snatch your car and lift it as high as two-dozen stories above the pavement.
The May 1929 issue of Modern Mechanics lays out the the basics:
Traffic congestion in New York City has become such a serious problem that a special parking garage, or more properly a hotel for automobiles, is now being erected near Times Square after the design pictured above. Cars are handled automatically—all the attendants have to do is drive the automobile onto the elevator, press the proper button, and the car is whisked to the correct floor and stored in its individual stall, all without the need of human assistance.
Taking advantage of this high-tech miracle cost 50 cents for two hours and a nickel for each hour thereafter, according to The New York Times. But for that chunk of literal change motorists could marvel at a system that retrieved any of a thousand-plus cars in a flash. (Compare that mammoth capacity with New York’s biggest existing automated garage, a 270-car complex in Brooklyn.) And as a bonus, female drivers “need have no fear of [a] greasy steering wheel or soiled upholstery” from a filthy, human parking attendant, according to a contemporary media account dug up by the Times.
A Wikipedia article, citing material behind a paywall, explains how the mechanical system worked:
The parking facilities were convenient, beginning with electric automatic parkers which received vehicles. Autos could be stored and returned to patrons at a moment’s notice. Specifically, cars were handled by an electric parker, a small rubber-tired machine which ran beneath the auto and engaged with the rear axle by means of a rubber-cleated coupler. The parker required approximately fifteen seconds to move sixty feet from an elevator, lift the car, and return with it. It saved time by bringing a car from its parking space and returning it to the ground floor, without starting the motor. The auto rolled on its own wheels but was moved by the parker.
However, the auto-scrapers were not long for the world. Kent’s company imploded just a couple years after they opened. The ballooning size of cars also cut down garage capacities, and the arrival of large-scale underground parking made them further obsolete. The structure on 43rd Street was turned into offices in the 1960s, the Ninth Avenue one into a fireproof warehouse in 1943 and later condos, according to a historical-landmarks report.
But to this day on Ninth you can see the gaping entrance where cars were driven in to be hoisted, decorated in terracotta, Art-Deco patterns. They’re meant to invoke another people who loved technology, the Aztecs: