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 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.
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.