L.A.’s over-the-top garage

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Garage for J.W. Robinson’s a Los Angeles department store. (Classic Planning)

This is, believe it or not, a parking garage.

I am informed by Nir Buras, author of The Art of Classic Planning, that the parking garage pictured above, built at 9th & Hill Sts. in Los Angeles in 1926, designed by Alexander Edward Curlett and Claud W. Beelman, once stored the cars of Angelenos shopping at J.W. Robinson’s, a nearby department store completed at 7th and Grand Avenue in 1915.

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The original Robinson’s. (USC Dornsife)

Buras, an architect, city planner and founder of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, whose book was published earlier this year, called the garage “my current favorite parking structure.”

Indeed, this garage is almost too much. Should a garage, any garage, look this grand? It is classical and it is beautiful, and it looks not like a garage but like the department store it serves. Is this okay? That sounds like the old saying that a typical building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe looks like the box a lovelier building came in. Yet the over-the-top quality of the Robinson’s garage violates the classical principle of hierarchy, which holds that, say, a tackle shop must not look like a state capitol.

In this case, however, I’m not sure I’d agree. Violate that principle, sez I!

Alas, that’s exactly what L.A. did. If it had followed the Law of Hierarchy, it’s most imposing buildings would not make the Robinson Garage look like the Taj Mahal. Instead, the City of Angels thumbed its nose at hierarchy, so today most of its architecture would make a tackle shop cry out for mercy.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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10 Responses to L.A.’s over-the-top garage

  1. Ron Blatman says:

    David,

    It’s the former May Co garage, not Robinson’s. May Co’s huge terra cotta store was around the corner at 8th/Broadway and its transformation into a major mixed-use project should be done later this year.

    The garage is also slated for a renovation — https://urbanize.la/post/first-look-proposed-revamp-dtlas-may-co-parking-garage.

    Stay healthy!

    Ron

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  2. John the First says:

    In the country where I live, Belgium, which would make up a perfect study of ugliness of modern residential homes (there being comparatively little regulations), you see many houses of common people which contain one or two garages, built into the houses. Proportionally, the space these garages take in relation to the size of the houses signifies that it is an item of worship, something with a high status. It is even so that they also build houses with two garages at the front, where the two garage entrances (mostly in industrial grey colour) occupy about 80 percent of the facade (sometimes even the full facade). Also, the front yard is often paved with just stone, designed to be able to provide parking space for cars (aside of the garages).

    Talking about over the top.

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  3. John the First says:

    It is inline with semi-barbarian modern culture in as far as the car is mass man’s holy cow. The style being classical, makes it a cultural mismatch, of former high brow culture mixed with an item of worship of contemporary man. The ridiculous space this item of technological worship occupies is not only a matter of the sphere of architecture, it is infrastructural, social and economical too, it pervades the whole of society. It is symbolic of a machine society, society as a highly organized ever moving technological consumerist machine, which is counter to art and beauty. As said, as such a mismatch, the style being borrowed from historical cultures. The architectural structure now houses contemporary mass man’s mobile.

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  4. berke2@aol.com says:

    David, There was an equally grand parking garage that served the Halle Bros. department store in downtown Cleveland. Faced in terra cotta with all the trimming, this was one of those 1920s gems. It was across the street from the store, which used part of the garage space for retail. And I believe it still stands. A question you’ve raised in my mind’s eye is what the interiors of these grand garages looked like. Were they any more appealing than the garden-variety garages? Arnold

    Arnold Berke / 5600 Wisconsin Ave., Apt 1403 / Chevy Chase, MD 20815 / Berke2@aol.com / (301) 652-8195 

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  5. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    Let elegance envelope the mundane…

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    • John the First says:

      Clothing an item of primitive technological worship symbolic also of many primitive cultural obsessions, with elegance. I dare say, what the latter stands for, of what it is an expression of, is in opposition to everything what the former is an expression of. Sort of like there being limits to enveloping a toilet bowl with elegance, before it becomes ridiculous.

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  6. LazyReader says:

    I understand the logic of this game……..
    Also I remember a similar discussion about it before pertaining to garages.
    We treat parking garages like basements; It’s not exactly the social gathering place unless you’re doing drugs or mugging someone. Trying to find an additional use of what most consider a blight. But you need to have lots of parking even in major cities or the retail and commercial activities leave or fail to be attracted. Portland attributes the growth of it’s downtown areas and various neighborhoods to transit innovations. Far from making downtown Portland car free, the city used Tax Increment Financing money to build numerous parking garages such as this one.

    Classicists like classical architecture, they never said what we could use it for.
    What’s happened is utility has become a phrase that applies to everything. Our stores, our offices and our affordable housing. Winston Churchill’s statement, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”, I agree however, civic virtue does stem from our generational perseverance of preserving our city’s oldest edifices. This garage is worthy of our preservation efforts.

    What we’re now discussing is the architecture of the utilitarian and industry…………… factories, powerplants, warehouses… at the turn of the century applied the same architecture practices we knew.

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