Greyfields: a historic preservation gray area

Too frequently historic preservationists have failed to appreciate the entire urban landscape … Parking, as part of urban history, should not be rejected out of hand by any history aficionado — John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture

The National Council on Public History has published a new article on History@Work titled Blacktop History: The case for preserving parking lots. It examines the suburban parking lot as an unloveable yet important historic resource type.

Free Public Parking Big Factor In Silver Spring Success Story. The Washington Post, Nov. 27, 1949.

Free Public Parking Big Factor In Silver Spring Success Story. The Washington Post, Nov. 27, 1949.

In historic preservation’s infancy, parking lots were the enemy. Parking lots, urban renewal, and highways galvanized the modern preservation movement and they were among the developments that led to passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Old buildings were demolished in urban cores to provide space for new parking garages and surface parking lots. Sometimes the new lots were intentional; other times, they were a byproduct of failed business ventures or shortsighted planning.

By the mid-1960s, old and historic buildings were disappearing at an alarming rate. In 1965, the U.S. Conference on Mayors created a Special Committee on Historic Preservation. The committee’s report, published in early 1966 as With Heritage So Rich, provided Congress with the impetus to pass the NHPA later that year. The report’s authors wrote about urban parking lots:

There are still millions of Americans who believe as a matter of principle that anything new is better by the sole virtue of novelty … Such people are not easily persuaded that any existing structure is better than a new parking lot, although they may be persuaded that a new structure is better than an old parking lot …

In most cities, local laws favoring parking lot operations make it more profitable to maintain property as a black-topped open space than in use for human purposes.

At the same time urbanists (e.g. Jane Jacobs) and historic preservationists were marshaling their forces to preserve cities and make them more livable, the people who had abandoned the urban core were living, working, and shopping in new suburban sprawl — an artifact of automobile culture.

Subdivisions, strip malls, and freeways defined much of suburban America. It took less than a generation for postwar suburbia to lose its luster. In the years leading up to the publication of With Heritage So Rich, urban sprawl critics were writing about how suburban shopping centers were blighting landscapes. Peter Blake wrote in his 1964 landmark book, God’s Own Junkyard: “Suburbia’s other ‘symbolic’ buildings are those of the shopping center, which is certainly symbolic of something — though perhaps not of anything we would particularly want to symbolize.”

"Problems: Appearance," Oakhurst Shopping District Revitalization Plan, 1979. Decatur, Ga.

“Problems: Appearance,” Oakhurst Shopping District Revitalization Plan, 1979. Decatur, Ga. Note the “sea of asphalt,” a former 1960s Colonial Food Stores parking lot.

In recent years, the architecture and history of parking have been rehabilitated somewhat by historians, geographers, and architectural historians. Jakle and Sculle’s volumes on car culture and its architecture and cultural landscapes are among the most accessible literature arguing for more reflection by historians. The pair observed in Lots of Parking that some historic preservationists have embraced parking. “They seek to comprehend parking as one of the automobile’s truly significant landscape consequences,” Jakle and Sculle wrote.

Some examples: Parking lots have been included as contributing elements in National Register of Historic Places properties; parking architecture was the focus of a 2009 National Building Museum exhibition titled House of Cars: Innovations and the Parking Garage; and, former Miracle Miles have been documented as potentially vibrant sites for creative adaptive use among new immigrant populations inhabiting salad-bowl suburbs or melting pot suburbs [PDF].

Big Apple supermarket at Northwoods shopping center, c. 1952. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library

Big Apple supermarket at Northwoods shopping center, c. 1952. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

Northwoods Plaza, May 2014. New stores reflecting suburban succession include Little Szechuan, teh Oriental Food Mart, and El Chisme Mexican Restaurant.

Northwoods Plaza, May 2014. New stores reflecting suburban succession include Little Szechuan, the Oriental Food Mart, and El Chisme Mexican Restaurant.

Yet, as With Heritage So Rich‘s authors aptly predicted in 1966, many people — especially those who subscribe to New Urbanism’s call to retrofit suburbia — are easily persuaded that anything new is better than an old parking lot. Even historic preservationists with the best intentions find themselves overlooking and minimizing the historical significance of suburban commercial landscapes, i.e., parking lots.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

6 thoughts on “Greyfields: a historic preservation gray area

  1. Carefully considered, and well reasoned. This argument might also dovetail well with Paul Daniel Marriott’s studies of historic roads and their contexts.

  2. Preservation and sprawl apology only go along with “building of its time” rather than “building of its place.” Preservationists have been fighting the former since Modernist planning destroyed communities with arterials and highways that reamed our once beautiful, traditional urban realm. If you really want to “preserve sprawl” than go to it, but you are committing us to a future that is disconnected, inaccessible, anti-urban, unhealthy and economically and socially irresponsible. I hope it’s an “elaborate joke”…

    • Thanks for writing Ann. I am not suggesting that every (or even most) surface parking lot be preserved in-situ. I, like Jakle, et al., simply suggest that historians take them into account in all phases of historic preservation, from identification, evaluation to treatment (preservation or demolition). They are part of our history whether we like it or not. Historic preservation isn’t going to retain much credibility if its practitioners revert to interest in documenting and protecting pretty things.

      Planners shouldn’t immediately go from seeing a sea of asphalt to the next new urbanist development. Parking lots can be adaptively used in a wide variety of ways, some of which were described in Tim Davis’s 1997 article, “The Miracle Mile Revisited: Recycling, Renovation, and Simulation along the Commercial Strip.” Parking lots may be reimagined for new uses as urban green markets, public plazas, etc. in ways that allow for new development while also retaining some connections to 20th century history.

  3. “Historic preservation isn’t going to retain much credibility if its practitioners revert to interest in documenting and protecting pretty things.”

    Au contraire – I know many people, and continue to meet people – citizens – who have withdrawn their formerly dependable financial support from their local preservation groups because of preservation’s newly adopted (but woefully outdated) Modernist philosophy.

    To extend the logic about parking lots (holes in the city): At the Roman Forum, and certainly at places like Pompeii and others, there are holes that were dug by archaeologists a long, long time ago that were never filled up. Some were even dug by famous archaeologists. According to the chronological-standards-only measure suggested by contemporary preservationists for determining something’s historicity, these holes are now “historic” holes, aren’t they: They now form part of the historic record of these sites; AND they help to “tell the story” of late 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century archaeology. Shouldn’t these holes therefore be preserved as such, in perpetuity, never to be filled in with anything beautiful ever again? It could be a great campaign: Unlike anyone who came before us, WE in 2014 feel ourselves knowledgeable and wise enough to declare these spots to be free of anything beautiful from here on out! Save the Holes!

    Save the parking lots, indeed. But in all seriousness, if anyone reading this comes to Charleston, please look us up and we will very, very gladly give any preservationist here, or anyone else, a walking tour through the Historic District with MODERNIST INTERVENTIONS as the theme. We’d be passing a few historic parking lots, too, some even more than 85 years old! They all have a great story to tell. It’s about the catastrophic effects of Modernism in both urbanism and architecture, and our culture’s inexplicable lack of will to repair them.

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