The World's First Underground Parking Garage?

September, 2010.

At 12850 Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, Michigan stands the charred shell of the magnificent Art Deco-style Highland Towers apartment building, which as it turns out may also be home to the world's first underground parking garage (stay tuned to the bottom of this post for more on that).


To my shock, this gorgeous building was nearly destroyed by fire in early September of 2010, which was when we made our way inside. The building had always caught my eye whenever driving up Woodward Avenue, and it had stayed occupied and in use basically up until it burned. Jayla Records had also leased space in the storefront as well. The Highland Park Fire Chief said it was most likely arson, since at the time there were no utilities turned on to the structure.


Karen Nagher, then-executive director of Preservation Wayne (now Preservation Detroit), told the Detroit Free Press that preservationists had recommended the building be listed as endangered after it became vacant, but it burned down so quickly after it closed that there was really no time to take any steps toward preservation.


The Highland Towers was built as a luxury apartment hotel like Lee Plaza, and is located in the Highland Heights-Stevens' Subdivision, a National Historic District. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press from right after the fire, Highland Towers was favored by Chrysler and Ford executives who worked here in Highland Park, back when those companies still had a strong presence in the city. The living units were large and "boasted tin ceilings, Art Deco details and gleaming, dark woodwork" according to the article.


According to detroit1701.org, this building was most likely designed in the late 1920s and opened in 1932. Probably what happened was that it was planned and financed during the height of the Roaring Twenties building boom, but then the Great Depression struck and the financier was forced to go on with the project at a significant loss--nobody in their right mind would have planned such a lavish project after the Crash.

Then again, perhaps the original design was scaled back in light of the economic downturn, as happened with the Fisher Building and Book Tower projects...both of those were planned to have 70- and 80-story towers attached to them that were never completed. This mere four-story structure doesn't quite seem to live up to the name Highland "Towers."


The architects of the Highland Towers, Frank W. Wiedmaier and John B. Gay also collaborated on the Luxor and LaVogue Apartments in the Palmer Park neighborhood. Wiedmeier had a hand in the design of the Palmer Lodge, and probably many others in that district as well.


Luckily, even during the Great Depression there were still quite a few well-heeled auto company execs and managers looking to live in style, but this explosively popular hamlet was already on the wane by that time, with Ford Motor Co. shifting its headquarters from Highland Park's "Crystal Palace" Model-T plant to the even newer and more massive Rouge complex in Dearborn.


I wonder if this is Flint Faience Tile on the front here? I know for sure that Wiedmeier & Gay used it before on the Luxor, and this looks like the same stuff:


I remember there used to be a marvelous stained-glass window in the transom space above this doorway, but who knows where it went:


The window is pictured on page 83 of the book Art Deco in Detroit, by Rebecca Binno Savage and Greg Kowalski, albeit in black and white. If I recall correctly the window used to be backlit from inside, which made it stand out at night to people going up or down the street--especially when framed by that fancy Moorish archway. It stands out in my memory as a landmark along Woodward.


Detroit auto executives were not the only affluent professionals who chose to live in the Highland Towers. The Directory of the American Chemical Society for 1935 also shows a chemist living at this address named Mr. Hubb Bell, employed by E.H. Sargent & Co. Other journals I found via Google Books show that he also worked at the Pittsburg Testing Laboratory, the United States Testing Co., Inc., and the U. S. Trading Co., Inc. in the late 1910s and early 1920s. During World War I, Mr. Bell served in the Bureau of Mines Central Control Laboratory.

All of these laboratories were linked to the coal industry and were located in different areas, so it seems that he traveled often due to his profession, making a place such as the Highland Towers ideal for someone who had money and wanted to live comfortably, but who could not purchase a permanent residence.


There is a photo on Flickr of this building prior to the fire, to which someone by the screen name "Enuffs Zenuff" commented saying that he used to live there and knew some of the building's history. The same person seems to have also commented about life in the Highland Towers on a detroitfunk.com post.

He said that the rent back in the 1930s was $180/month--pretty spendy for those times--but it included many luxury amenities such as valet service, who drove your car into the secure underground parking garage where it was washed with heated water while your shopping bags were sent up to your apartment. I had no inkling at the time that there was a parking garage under this building, but keep reading.


As you entered the lobby, there was a clerk's desk on the righthand side where residents could pick up their mail and phone messages, a service that the Highland Towers continued even into the 1980s. Furthermore, since each apartment originally had non-dialing phones, to place an outgoing call you first had to call down to the switchboard operator to dial it for you, and "would often listen in if she were bored." Enuffs Zenuff also recalled that each apartment had a kitchen with a stained glass door over one of the cupboards.


The sumptuousness of the interior here compared favorably to that of the University Club...


The super-abundance of very dark stained woodwork and leaded glass windows was almost more than I (or my camera) could handle...


The main lobby, with the aforementioned front desk seen at right:


There used to be large chandeliers in here too, but like the aforementioned stained glass window, they have gone missing.


The fireplace is almost in perfect condition, as well as all the wood paneling in the room.


Frieze detail of children and dogs playing...


...I wonder if children or dogs were even allowed in the Highland Towers? I would guess not.




Windows looking out into one of the courtyards:




Nice crown molding in this side nook near the stairs:


In the courtyard:




We tried seeing what could be seen upstairs, but there wasn't much that could still be accessed. This hallway is almost completely destroyed:


A view up Woodward toward downtown Highland Park:




The creative and often chaotic brickwork styles of these '20s-'30s apartment buildings has always caught my eye.


This cornice is actually molded cement I think, not carved stone:




The tower of the Fisher Building can be seen in the distance:


The building across the street at 11 Farrand Park had also recently been vacated:


The middle "tower" or wing was the hardest hit by the fire, and was almost completely obliterated:


It looked like it had been the victim of the Great San Francisco Earthquake or the bombing of Dresden:


A look down what had once been a hallway shows nothing left except warped steel and pulverized gypsum blocks:


So you can bet that this fire got HOT...most likely the under-equipped Highland Park Fire Department was unable to reach this inner wing of the building effectively with their streams.


Yet some apartments remained essentially unaffected by the fire:


In 2009 the Moratorium NOW! Coalition held a rally and meeting in front of this building, almost exactly one year before it was turned into a ruin by the fire. Apparently the last owners of the Highland Towers had forgot to pay their electric bill, and as a result the tenants (who had all paid their rent) were unfairly forced to endure an 11-day shutoff before they were able to secure a court order to get it turned back on.


I'd guess no one was surprised when this place went out of business, with such careful and capable ownership at the helm.


With the lobby spaces and the facades still so intact, it is my belief that the Highland Towers could still be saved by chopping off the devastated residential wings and rebuilding another modern structure behind the existing viable portions.


After all, it's not everyday that you come across an apartment building with its own underground garage already built.


Here was a side lobby that connected to another entrance off of McLean Street:


More fancy--but totally different--porch columns:


It's weird...the architectural style of this room doesn't even seem to match the rest of the building:


Looking back into the main lobby:


The McLean Street side of the building:


The small brick structures flanking the side entryway look to have been light posts perhaps?


The bases of the two light posts featured colorful glazed terra cotta pieces, which looked strangely like ventilation grilles:


It's rare that you see an original entryway so well preserved like this, especially one made of wood and glass. Here's hoping that the coming of the M1 rail project will eventually rejuvenate real estate interest in this area.


According to the Free Press article mentioned earlier in this post, the Highland Towers also featured the first underground parking garage in the U.S.--I had no idea there was a parking garage underneath the place when we were there, nor especially that it could be the first of anything. A quick Google search turns up claims that not only America's, but the world's first underground parking garage is found in San Francisco's Union Square Park--except that it wasn't started until 1941, over a decade after the Highland Towers was completed.

Another hit brings up a 2009 article by NPR, though it doesn't seem to mention any "firsts," saying that it is not entirely clear when the first dedicated parking structure was built. So I went back to the Highland Towers to find out for myself in person. As soon as I walked back in the alley, I saw an opening...what have we here?


Holy moly...look at this!


It sure looked like a ramp to an underground garage, though it was mostly blocked by piles of refuse dumped here by some rather classy individuals. Another side-doorway into the jungle-like courtyard, with an interesting painted sign next to it:


"Peddlers, Canvassers, KEEP OUT," it reads. I walked down the steep ramp, noting that the traction pattern impressed into the driveway surface was consistent with other stretches of ~100-year-old concrete pavement I've seen elsewhere in Michigan.


I got to the bottom and saw that much to my regret it looked like there was no way in--both bay doors were tightly closed and much too heavy for me to even think about lifting.


The barred window in the corner was the only other way in, and it didn't look like any amount of persuasion that I could ever exert would convince it to let me through.


I decided that there must be some kind of other access from the garage into the apartment building itself via some stairwell or elevator, but after at least an hour of wandering the dank dungeons beneath Highland Towers I returned empty-handed and very sweaty. I did find this cool tunnel that I hadn't seen before however:


After I finally climbed back out of the dusty building, I headed back down Woodward Avenue to the Detroit Public Library, and pulled up the Sanborn map for Detroit Vol. 10, Sheet 68, just to confirm that what I was seeing was in fact a parking structure, since if there was such an underground garage it would surely be marked on the Sanborns.

As you can see below the map shows "Underground Structure, Garage," on the south side of the apartment building, constructed of steel and concrete with a capacity of 58 cars, "Built 1929":

Click for full size
That looks pretty proof-positive to me that Highland Park can lay claim to having the world's first underground parking garage--or at the very least a much older one than the current claimant, Union Square Park. Sorry, San Francisco.

What's interesting is that the garage doesn't seem to be under the Highland Towers itself, but under the lawn on the south side of the building. And I'll bet you that those two fancy brick structures I mentioned earlier flanking the side entryway with the colorful terra cotta pieces that had the holes in them were actually ventilation chimneys for the garage that lay below.


NOTE 1:
Reader Craig Bryson pointed out to me that the Alden Towers apartments at 8100 E. Jefferson Avenue have a sort of underground parking garage that predates the one in the Highland Towers. According to c.1951 Sanborn map Vol. 11, Sheet 98, the Alden Towers Manor was built in 1923, and in 1927 a 250-car parking garage was added at the same level as the first floor of the building, but it was covered in earth so as to make it blend into the landscape. Though it is debatable whether it is comparable to the Highland Towers c.1929 underground garage, it certainly predates it by two years:



NOTE 2:
Reader Ted Armitage has brought to my attention an apartment building in Barcelona, Spain called the Casa Milà, that had an underground garage as early as 1910, which I verified through a brief internet query.


References:
http://detroit1701.org/Highland%20Towers.html
"Another landmark goes up in smoke in Highland Park," Detroit Free Press, September 5, 2010, p. A7
Directory of the American Chemical Society, 1935
The Black Diamond, Volume 68, p. 248
http://detroitfunk.com/highland-towers-aftermath/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/71288712@N00/431133408
http://worldblog.eu/2009/09/14/moratorium-now-coalition-to-hold-street-meetingrally-at-highlandtowers-september-14-600-800pm/
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 10, Sheet 68
http://unionsquarepark.us/?page_id=15
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120545290
Art Deco in Detroit, by Rebecca Binno Savage and Greg Kowalski, p. 83