Art in Themed Parking


By John W. Hammerschlag

Photo courtesy of Mark McMahon.

The ubiquitous double-helix garage ramp design is beneficial for efficient traffic flow and enables developers to maximize stall count. A downside to this design is that it can add to customer confusion as to where they have parked their car. To help alleviate disorientation, many garages employ a theme reminder system. Some garages use music or theater themes, complete with a singer’s or production’s better-known songs piped through speakers on each floor. Others use esteemed authors or months of the year to help people return to their cars quickly. These mnemonic cues allow parkers to more easily remember that they parked on the Elvis or Robert Frost level than on Level 3 or 7.

In the late eighties, I was involved in the design and construction of the South Loop Self Park on a derelict site at the corner of Federal and Van Buren Streets in Chicago. The City of Chicago wanted an attractive streetscape. Due to its proximity to the federal Metropolitan Correctional Facility and Chicago Transit Authority elevated train tracks, foot traffic did not justify adding traditional retail stores at street level. With the city’s blessing, we commissioned Chicago artist, Mark McMahon, to create an art wall – consisting of 1,500 tiles depicting lively scenes and famous Chicago landmarks – to wrap around the east and south wall of the garage exterior. The garage opened in 1989 and the art wall has endured Chicago’s mercurial weather for nearly 34 years, thanks to McMahon’s attention to the durability of each tile and architectural protection from the elements.

The theme continues inside the structure, where each floor and elevator lobby are identified by one of the tile scenes from the art wall to help daily commuters and visitors locate their cars. This unique craftsmanship has made another non-descript parking structure a more captivating and colorful addition to the community.

John Hammerschlag is President of Hammerschlag & Co., Inc. and is a member of IPMI’s Planning, Design, and Construction Committee. He can be reached at