Greater Greater Washington

In 1931, a parking lot in Cleveland Park changed how Washington shopped

Many people are perplexed as to why Sam's Park & Shop in Cleveland Park is a historical landmark. While it may look like an ordinary strip mall, the Park & Shop was one of the first examples of retail architecture designed around the automobile.


The Park & Shop's parking lot made it the vanguard of modern design in 1931. Image from Architectural Record.

In the May 1932 Architectural Record, the author praised the Park & Shop in contrast to a traditional main street retail strip, which he derides as "Coney Island Architecture." He might as well have been describing the Connecticut Avenue service lane, which many neighbors are now trying to have removed.

It's easy to look back on the beginnings of autocentric planning and think that the people who conceived it must have been deluded, but to them these choices seem eminently rational. Modernism and Le Corbusier often get blamed for the rise of the automobile during the 20th century, because its supporters posed it as the only way to solve urban issues like traffic and overcrowding.

But this magazine is unequivocal about the need to redesign retail for the automobile, and merely reports on the International Style as an interesting trend in Europe.

If only they'd bulldozed those awful storefronts the strip wouldn't be faltering!
Page from May 1932 Architectural Record.

If anything, Modernism was an attempt to create an aesthetic for the rationalist fixations of modern, 20th century society, like efficiency, objectivity, and hygiene. After all, the first auto-oriented shopping malls, like Country Club Plaza in Kansas City or Highland Park Village near Dallas, were executed in Colonial Revival styles. When you take the two ideologies apart, it's easier to see how parking fits in.

It's a complicated story, one that I don't really know much about. Luckily, a professor I knew in college, David Smiley, recently wrote a book about the development of the shopping mall, Pedestrian Modern. It discusses how the desire to accommodate the automobile and pedestrian safely crossed with American modernists' interest in retail, before 1960s radicalism rejected capitalism outright.

Our Park & Shop comes in towards the beginning of the story. Architects were grasping how to design for a motoring consumer. They started by expanding the curbside into a parking lot:

A 1932 Architectural Record article on "neighborhood shopping centers" perhaps explains why shopping projects of the interwar period did not quite challenge the curbside paradigm. Buried in the "Drafting and Design Problems" section of the magazine were two juxtaposed images - a typical Main Street with "Coney Island Architecture" and a "planned grouping" of stores set back to make room for parked cars.

The former image implied congested conditions where parking was difficult, the building were "confused," and the street lacked design coherence. The latter image, by contrast, so that order, coordination, and "uniformity," and abundant parking were all evident. The shopping center shown was the 1930 Connecticut Avenue Park and Shop, in Washington, DC, which Knud Lönberg-Holm had lauded as utterly rational in his 1931 Record article on stores.

Set back from the road and making space for the then technological "fact" of the car, the center appeared to rationalize and make more efficient the elements of the new metropolis. Merchandizing was, in these terms, one among many social programs that could be made to function "better." …

Frey, Kocher, and Lönberg-Holm saw in this project a rational approach to the retailer's need to accommodate a new set of auto-borne customers - the shopper was a driver, not yet a pedestrian.

The new parking configurations try to make sense of the flow of automobiles, paying particular attention to making parking easy for women. As the article points out, they did most of the shopping.


"Modern" parking configurations that preserve the flow of traffic.

These represent ideal conditions to the author. Smiley also describes the efforts to retrofit existing cities:

In a process akin to urban bricolage, not yet urban renewal, they considered the turning radius of the car, raised platforms connecting older buildings, ramps or lots squeezed into unexpected places, new technologies, alleys remade into walkways - in sum, they attempted to reimagine the older fabric as an integral part of something new.
Ultimately, these "expanded curbs" couldn't solve the parking problem. Designing for single-use convenience led naturally to the enclosed shopping mall. Everyone involved wanted to keep the "king's way" clear for the flow of automobiles and create comfortable places to stroll while shopping. The mess of a city street impeded this.

First they brought coherence, then centralization, then separation, and finally climate control, and now have the pedestrian-oriented shopping mall. All it took was making it impossible to walk when you're not in a mall.

Given the growth of internet shopping, how Cleveland Park's retail will cope remains an open question. But the history of designing for parking suggests that focusing on automobile access would harm what is so desirable in Cleveland Park, rather than save it.

A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He writes on architecture and Russia at цarьchitect

Comments

Add a comment »

Way, way more significant and historic than the world's crappiest Mies van der Rohe building.

by Crickey7 on Feb 11, 2014 10:25 am • linkreport

Its amazing to me how "modern" the facade of that shopping center looks. Its 80 years old. Just looking at it I would have guessed it was from the 1950s - 1970s era.

by Nick on Feb 11, 2014 10:28 am • linkreport

Well that is an interesting perspective. Thanks! I certainly understand what was done and why to accomodate auto travel and it was absolutely not all bad, but in hind sight we swung the pendulum way too far in that direction. That's why I think the new paradigm shouldn't be war on cars but absolute commitment to multimodalism that works for everyone equitably.

by BTA on Feb 11, 2014 10:31 am • linkreport

@BTA

But the War on Cars is precisely an "absolute commitment to multimodalism that works for everyone equitably. " To suppose that other modes of transportation should be given equal weight with the automobile is to declare war on cars, just as surely as saying "Happy Holidays" is a declaration of War on Christmas.

by alurin on Feb 11, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

Professor Richard Longstreth, head of the Historic Preservation program in the American Studies Department at George Washington, is the top expert on retail architectural history in DC and he was the lead, along with the much-maligned (on this site) Committee of 100, in saving this shopping center when it was threatned with demolition.

by GWalum on Feb 11, 2014 10:43 am • linkreport

I have heard someone who works for the developer state that redeveloping this parcel to preserve the very small parking area was a mistake and that the lot should have been expanded to provide more retail. Of course, this was with the benefit of almost 20 year's of hindsight.

I think the Committee of 100 is not maligned enough.

by fongfong on Feb 11, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

Great article Neil! My research was that architects of every aesthetic stripe where looking to solve the problem of the automobile. In fact this is where the rationalist mantra of the early 20th century began to move the art of architecture to the background when the "science" of architcture looked to become the foundation of a new style.

The problem of modenrism is that they took this idea to an aesthetic extreme with the obliteration of ornament, history, and the whole notion of style. You can even see this in the literature you point out, where the incoherant "Coney Island" architecture is a not-to subtle slam on a visually dynamic street. The irony is that the buildings are incredibly similar in their disposition to the street while having varying stylistic treatments. Compare that to the coherance of many a suburban street where all the buildings are modernist in style but their relationship to the street is the very definition of an incoherant street scape.

Another irony of the modern city is that while the internet is killing off many retail establishments, it's also increasing a desire for people to congregate in public by reducing the reasons we used to have for this kind of casual co-mingling.

As for the balance between cars and pedestrians, that's a transitory stance for the simple fact that most of our environments are impossible to navigate without a car. But when you consider our ever expanding knowledge of walking's benefits, both physical and mental, it seems clear that the healthiest cities prioritize walking (including transit) as means of getting around.

by Thayer-D on Feb 11, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

Looks almost exactly like Edmondson Village Shopping Center, the first automobile oriented retail shopping center in Baltimore, built in the 1940s.

by Jed on Feb 11, 2014 11:40 am • linkreport

The Coney Island comparison is a pretty typical City Beautiful gripe about disorder and crassness. This is the point I was trying to make. You may dislike Modernist architecture or not, but it's counterproductive to confuse it with auto-centric urban design.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 11, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Don't people still rely on the "coney island" trope by referring more generally to "theme park" when they feel off about a new mixed-use/CNU style development?

I see echos of it at least.

by drumz on Feb 11, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

Neil,
I was agreeing with you that it's counterproductive to confuse modernism with auto-centric urban design. I said right up front "that architects of every aesthetic stripe where looking to solve the problem of the automobile." That includes the Beaux-Arts as you rightly point out.

My point was that modernists took a rational approach to modern problems like the automobile to an extreme, like a fetish. They lost sight of whom they where designing for ultimatly. People, not machines.

by Thayer-D on Feb 11, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

Though, when people complain about "theme park" architecture today, they're actually complaining about the sameness of everything (because a lot of the retail is dedicated to national brands) rather than the disjointed styles of architecture.

by drumz on Feb 11, 2014 12:20 pm • linkreport

drumz,
I think there are parallels, but Neil is right in his interpretation of the coney Island remark. In a lot of literature from that period and back to the 1890's there was a reaction to the "battle of the styles" streetscapes from the Victorian era where it was thought many of our main streets lacked the "order" of thier European cousins.

The "disneyland" criticism of New Urbanist developments is a hold over of this modernist bias against decorative facades where the "coney island" criticism is more about the stylistic cacophony of Victorian streets. As this strip mall shows, there was no problem with the historical neo-colonial style (that was to come 10 years later). just the lack of stylistic unity.

I think that will always be a matter of taste. Where some see noise, others see vitality.

by Thayer-D on Feb 11, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

At the same time that this article is dissing Coney Island, they're using a style cribbed from Williamsburg, Virginia. The disorder and congestion are signs that the economic and social aspects of cities are thriving.

That the author was willing to throw vitality under the bus for neat, Georgian ordering and cars suggests that architects lost sight of what a city was for somewhere before then.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 11, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

I posted before I saw your comment, but I am glad we agree.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 11, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

I think the disney land/ coney island complaint is also about urban planning that masquerqdes with the look only of traditional urban design without replicating the functions like walkability or mixed uses.

by BTA on Feb 11, 2014 12:44 pm • linkreport

What, you mean there wasn't widespread free parking and stripmalls back in George Washington's day?

by SJE on Feb 11, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport

It's too bad it's historical. It would make a great plaza for people to enjoy. Plus I bet you those stores would fare better if it were a plaza. And it would make a great compliment to a really nice and wide sidewalk on the next block. CP has so much potential, but no...cars.

by dc denizen on Feb 11, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

Is the surface parking part considered historic as well? Is the driveway to a historic farm house considered historic?

by BTA on Feb 11, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

dc denizen,
That's a great suggestion! I agree it's too bad it's historical, not becasue it's great, but becasue it's the first, and while I'm all for history, when not in the service of a better city, I'm less enthusiastic.

The only problem is the lack of height. A good public space is well proportioned, but I think most people would rather move the parking underground if they could get a genuine public space.

by Thayer-D on Feb 11, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

It's Sam's PARK and Shop,so yes, the parking lot is considered a vital feature.

by GWalum on Feb 11, 2014 1:21 pm • linkreport

We can paint stripes on the plaza for people so they can explore the history of white paint on asphalt.

We can put model cars in the pedestrian plaza so that people can see what it looks like when a car is parked in front of a building.

But let's say there is historical value in this asphalt slab: we can celebrate and commemorate the history of it without it functioning as it was.

by John on Feb 11, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

I think in honor of its historic heritage we should limit parking to cars built before 1950.

by BTA on Feb 11, 2014 1:59 pm • linkreport

Finding new uses for buildings is a time-honored tradition. It adds character.

A good architect can find ways to call out the historical parts while also re-interpreting it as part of a context that has changed. It's not as obvious, but I think often times that conveys the history of a place better than the building by itself.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 11, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

"I think in honor of its historic heritage we should limit parking to cars built before 1950."

In that case, in honor of the historic use of the MLK library, we will have to preserve its unique and well-known olfactory qualities.

by Crickey7 on Feb 11, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

The Park n Shop is one of the great things about Cleveland Park. The blocks just to the south -- with the Uptown on one side and the one and shops on the other -- are a nice counterpoint, and an example of the "Main Street" style that inpspired Bethesda Row(Bethesda Ave). These, and the great historic houses and apartment buidlings and the urban land conservancies make it one of DC's great neighborhoods -- what's called the "village in the city." I'm thankful the Park n Shop was saved. I saw a rendering once of what was proposed to replace it, and it looked like Van Ness.

by Joan on Feb 11, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

I'd dispute "Designing for single-use convenience led naturally to the enclosed shopping mall" because the enclosed shopping mall predates cars by a century. Or a couple thousand years if you recognize Trajan's Market. But by the late 19th century, purpose built, enclosed "shopping arcades" were fairly common in the industrial cities of Europe and North America.

by Another Nick on Feb 11, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

It would be nice to see the site evolve into a TOD, with a building at the parking lot and adjoining Meto. After all, the shopping center is now at the site of a Metro station.

by GWalum on Feb 11, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

FWIW, GWU American Studies professor Richard Longstreth has written extensively about retail in Greater DC, and in LA, and nationally. He has a bunch of articles about the development of shopping centers in Greater Washington, Hecht's developing stores in Silver Spring and Parkington, Silver Spring, etc.

He's a great writer. You'd enjoy the articles.

by Richard Layman on Feb 11, 2014 5:50 pm • linkreport

The "Park and shop" isn't about Sam (Fed. Realty owned the site long after anything significant happened and renamed the center after one of their principals). Park and shop was how these types of centers were described. Obviously, the one in Silver Spring is another classic example, but there are many around here and elsewhere. One in Carytown Richmond is beautiful art deco.

I hate cars as much as anyone but appreciate the form and the historic preservation based reasons for keeping the form in those exemplary examples like this one.

by Richard Layman on Feb 11, 2014 5:57 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman

Do you think the historic preservation value outweighs the loss from not being able to develop something more dense literally on top of billions in transit infrastructure?

by MLD on Feb 12, 2014 8:20 am • linkreport

@Jed

Looks almost exactly like Edmondson Village Shopping Center, the first automobile oriented retail shopping center in Baltimore, built in the 1940s.

There's also the Roland Park Shopping Center that predates it by 40 years. Maybe not as explicitly auto-oriented (after all there was originally a streetcar barn right next to it), it did still have a parking lot, albeit a much smaller one than is there today:

"Roland Park Shopping Center is a single building strip of stores which opened in 1907 to serve the community, located at the corner of Upland Road and Roland Avenue. It has been credited by Guinness World Records as the world's first shopping center (though some editions of Guinness incorrectly date it to 1896). Since it had only six stores, despite it being an important milestone, larger shopping centers such as the Country Club Plaza (1923) in Kansas City, Missouri have received more attention as being "first," depending on what definition is used." (from Wikipedia)

by burgersub on Feb 12, 2014 8:34 am • linkreport

oops, messed up the wikipedia link. should be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_Park,_Baltimore

by burgersub on Feb 12, 2014 8:35 am • linkreport

MLD -- you ask a very good question. One with big ramifications. Fortunately it is a question that won't be needed to be answered in my lifetime.

1. Currently, I'd say there is enough development capacity in the rest of the city that it is not a priority now and for a long time in the future to redevelop more intensely the Cleveland Park commercial district overall, including that site.

2. Especially if the height limit were increased which would add capacity to other areas likely in greater demand.

3. At current limits we're talking about 200-300 apartments probably. So that's the opportunity cost present within the site.

4. However, I can see after current development capacity is reached, and capacity from a height limit increase is reached, that the next stage of development will be redeveloping more intensely sites such as this one. Another example would be the 3- story apartment buildings along Hawaii Avenue NE and Fort Totten Drive NE that are within walking distance to the Fort Totten Metro, etc.

5. And there is a special merit process where a property owner can argue that the benefits of doing X are greater than the benefits of keeping that site the way it is.

Given current conditions I would argue that keeping the site the way it is is a worthy trade off. (FWIW, Ben Ross argued your position vis-a-vis the similar complex at Georgia Ave. and Colesville Road. I disagreed.) There isn't so much added benefit from the change that it makes much difference.

But yes, I wish that historically, they had developed the site with apartments above...

by Richard Layman on Feb 12, 2014 3:27 pm • linkreport

... the plaza idea is a good one.

... it wouldn't make sense economically, but like the parking lot at the corner of 1st and M NE next to the Woodward & Lothrop warehouse, where I argue for building an underground structure in return for using the space above as a public park, you could do the same here. Build an underground parking structure and turn the parking lot into a plaza.

That's a great idea.

So you subsidize the parking structure construction. Some people argue that such subsidy isn't justified, that subsidies like that should only go to impoverished areas.

I'm not so sure.

I have come to accept the idea of building municipal parking in districts like this, so that surface space can be used in ways other than providing car storage. It's expensive to do, but quality of life and sustainable transportation preferences for the use of the "parking" space make more sense to take that course.

by Richard Layman on Feb 12, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

"Currently, I'd say there is enough development capacity in the rest of the city that it is not a priority now and for a long time in the future to redevelop more intensely the Cleveland Park commercial district overall, including that site."

If the market value of real estate in Cleveland Park is any indication, many developers would salivate at the opportunity to build appartment buildings in Cleveland Park. It has almost all the elements people are looking for, but yes, much of that development pressure is being taken up in other neighborhoods, for better and for worse. What's holding back further development activity in Cleveland park is it's Historic designation and the fact that NIMBY resistance there would rival any in the city.

by Thayer-D on Feb 12, 2014 4:46 pm • linkreport

While many may think of Cleveland Park as the Victorian houses of Newark and Macomb St, the hood also has a lot of apartments and multi-family housing. The commercial district is anchored by the Broadmoor on one end that the Kennedy-Warren on the south, plus a number of other apartment buildings, While Sam's Park and Shop may be low-rise, there's quite a bit of density adjacent to it.

by Alf on Feb 12, 2014 5:24 pm • linkreport

I totally agree. Adding 5-8 stories of residential or even commercial to the two commercial blocks in CP would be totally within the context.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 12, 2014 5:48 pm • linkreport

I didn't say it would be in context (today). Of course it would be (today). What is out of context today is the one story (and somewhat two story) commercial district. But when DC was built, the nature of such development was much different, particularly in the neighborhood districts outside of the core. (Not that all of you don't know this.)

but yep, irrespective of the historic preservation designation, I think that there would be a lot of opposition by area residents.

2. Interestingly, I remember a conversation with Harriet Tregoning 18-24 months old, where she recounted a community meeting in Far Southeast where they were complaining about multifloor mixed use with retail on the ground floor, because they wanted a shopping district like on Connecticut Ave. in Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase.

The idea of the cost of land requiring maximal development of the potential building envelope was totally foreign.

by Richard Layman on Feb 12, 2014 5:59 pm • linkreport

There soon will be a lot more density on the west side of Cleveland Park where Cathedral Commons is going up. Of course, that's like a mile from the closest Metro stop. But it's also likely in a few years that CP will close itself off from Wisconsin Ave somewhat., much like Edgemoor by Bethesda, to try to discourage the Cathedral Commons patrons/residents from parking in the neighborhood (or driving through).

by PJ on Feb 12, 2014 8:13 pm • linkreport

Remarkable how increased setbacks for parking lots was accompanied by the thing for single story buildings. There is lots of wasted space above our strip malls.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Feb 13, 2014 2:13 pm • linkreport

They should raze this waste of space. It's time has long past.

Its historical value can be preserved in a nicely framed photograph.

by kob on Feb 19, 2014 9:19 am • linkreport

@kob

You are talking about the MLK library, right?

by Crickey7 on Feb 19, 2014 9:27 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or