The city that pioneered high-rises also pioneered the high-rise parking garage. We had to. When Chicagoans figured out they could drive to those downtown skyscrapers where they worked, street parking stopped traffic cold. James W. Stevens, part-owner of the now departed Hotel LaSalle, figured out a solution: the five-story Hotel LaSalle Public Garage, 215 W. Washington.

Chicago architects Holabird & Roche, better known for structures like the Palmer House and Soldier Field, designed the garage in 1917. The trick was getting cars in and out quickly during the morning and evening rush. They developed a curving ramp that cars of the era could handle. Attendants drove cars up in the morning, down at night. The few cars reverse commuting took an elevator. These days the original ramp is still in use, but the elevator is out of commission, “which is why you hear honking all day,” says the garage’s current owner, Joan Goldberg of System Parking, Inc. (Added in the 50s, the flashy light-in-motion sign is a rare survivor of the breed, which once thrived downtown.)

Decades of grime mask the garage’s red and black terra-cotta facade but can’t hide its austere, gridlike design. Holabird & Roche made this garage in the highest Chicago- school style. Ironically, the Chicago school was out of fashion by then, so the architects used it for cheaper buildings like this one. The elegant simplicity of the garage’s geometric masonry-and-glass composition represents the last stand of the famous early-20th-century skyscrapers.

Ventilation is simple–open the windows, which make the building look like a dignified commercial high-rise rather than a lowly garage. In fact, the garage was listed as the “Washington Warehouse” in its building permit because the city’s building code didn’t allow storage of combustible materials downtown–and cars were considered combustible material. The architects did take pains to make it the “most thoroughly fireproof garage ever built,” as it was advertised, by building it entirely of concrete, brick, and terra-cotta.

Parking–or “storage” as it was called then–was 75 cents for ten hours or less. A car wash cost two or three dollars, depending on whether you had a “touring car” or a “closed car” and whether your wheels were wooden or wire.

–Tim Samuelson

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Hedrich-Blessing.