Prowling motorists are nothing new to the Hyde Park area, which has been short of parking practically since the dawn of the automobile. One early solution appeared in 1929 at the busy corner of 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue, where architect M. Louis Kroman designed and built a splendid high-rise parking facility that he named the Ritz Garage.
While its interior appearance was dictated by its use, the new building’s exterior was as fancy as its name. The lavish art deco motifs that popped up all over the terra-cotta along the building’s south and east facades announced exuberantly that this garage was also a shrine.
A local firm, Northwestern Terra Cotta, carried out the decoration work, but the look was a change for the company’s old-world craftsmen. “In 1929 art deco was a new style,” says Tim Samuelson, curator of architecture at the Chicago Historical Society. “It was introduced in France in 1925 at a big expo in Paris, where it attracted international attention.”
With its fresh appearance and emphasis on smooth, fluid lines, art deco was a natural choice to dress up a structure built in the service of modern transportation. “The motifs you see on the outside of the garage echo the automobile,” Samuelson explains. “For example, there’re the speeding autos bursting out of the roof. Along the sides of the building you see columns where the top becomes a traffic signal.”
This marriage of automobiles and art deco is almost as striking today as it must have been 70 years ago. Vertical decorations, such as camshafts surrounded by lengths of chain, are abundant in the building’s window areas. Cogwheels top each window wall. Dashboards alternate with gearshift motifs in setting off one floor from the next. Little headlamps “shine” down toward the street at the base of each tall column decorating the building’s sides, and arcs of tires emerge where, inside the building, the first tier of parking begins.
You’ve got to look closely to find any sign of drivers, passengers, or other people on this temple to the auto. “There are a goggled driver and a female passenger depicted in the repeated roadsters roaring out of the building,” Samuelson says. “I’m not sure if the flowing plumes extending from the back of her head represent her hair flying in the breeze, or a scarf a la Isadora Duncan.”
The human element is more prominent in the Ritz Garage’s behind-the-scenes story–one of tension between its rival factions of European craftsmen. “When it came time to build this garage, Northwestern Terra Cotta brought in several modelers from the French expo to train their staff,” Samuelson says. “The French modelers worked directly with the architect, and in some cases would design a whole piece of the front. The old German guys really resented these French guys, and there was friction all during the project.”
The garage survives with its original embellishments pretty much intact, though the building is now called the Deco Arts Building, and the University National Bank now occupies the ground-floor space. It isn’t unique in Chicago. “There are quite a few of these garages around the city,” Samuelson says, including the colorfully tiled Chicago Park District facility at 3640 N. Halsted, which has golden wings springing from three wheels along the roofline. “But the Ritz,” he says, “is the most fanciful of them all.”