Autos, Autos Everywhere, and Not a Place to Park — 1971

cabell-fed-bldg_flickr_wayne-hsieh
Earle Cabell Federal Bldg. / Wayne Hsieh, Flickr

by Paula Bosse

The other day I was looking for some information on the 1971 opening of the new 16-story Federal Center at 1100 Commerce Street (the name was changed to the Earle Cabell Federal Building in late 1973 to honor the former Dallas mayor and U.S. congressman). I came across the Dallas Morning News article “Center Augments Parking Woes” by Earl Golz (DMN, Jan. 12, 1971) which had a couple of surprising tidbits. The new federal building — which was expected to be occupied by more than 5,000 workers — had a grand total of 59 underground parking spaces. …Fifty-nine. FIVE-NINE. Let that sink in. This was a brand-new building. It’s not like they squeezed those pitifully few parking spaces under an existing building. This was in the plans. That’s a lot of car-pooling.

Three years earlier, in 1968, One Main Place opened at 1201 Main — it was more than twice as big as the Federal Building. When it opened, it was noted that there were 800 underground spaces (with a planned-but-never-realized massive underground parking garage for 4,000 cars, to go along with the never-realized Two Main Place and Three Main Place complex). But, somehow, by 1971, One Main Place’s parking had decreased to a mere 400 spaces, all of which were completely filled daily. I have images of panicky office workers constantly circling blocks in search of a place to park. Stories were rampant that parking-lot attendants were reserving weekly and monthly spaces in pay lots for exorbitant under-the-table cash transactions. 

How did this happen? Who would design such large modern buildings with such woefully inadequate parking? Were “interested parties” strong-arming architects or city planners to skimp on the parking? Is there such a thing as a big “parking-lot lobby”? (What am I saying? I’m sure there is.) Ever wonder why Dallas kept tearing buildings down in the early ’70s and replacing them with pay parking lots? I’m sure there were many reasons, but I saw more than one newspaper mention that parking lots (not garages, mind you — just lots) could be more profitable than aging buildings. It’s always seemed odd to me that there were (are) so many surface parking lots downtown, rather than multi-story garages. Imagine how much more money parking lot operators would be making with garages. Not that multi-story garages are in any way more desirable, aesthetically, but why didn’t land developers build garages which could accommodate so many more paying customers than these puny little lots? Some lot operators insisted that it benefitted everyone to have these lots — insisting that the buildings which once stood on the land were old and ugly eyesores which needed to be torn down, and that these lots were basically just placeholders until a fat-cat developer forked over multi-millions to build something tall and beautiful on it.

Was the lack of underground spaces in these two new buildings intentional? This would have been a weird way to force people to use public transportation. It might even have been a bit of strain on public transportation — the Dallas Transit System was already losing the fight against car-culture and downtown workers who lived in suburbia.

In the early ’70s, Dallas and Fort Worth were both experiencing a severe lack of downtown parking. In 1970 there had been a major excavation to build underground parking below the Old Red Courthouse — it was probably helpful, but it was just a band-aid on a much bigger problem.

A few of the proposals to deal with these parking woes:

  • Dissuade people from bringing their cars downtown by significantly raising fees for parking lots and parking meters and to cut the time limit for parking (quickly approved by the City Council)
  • Build satellite lots outside the Central Business District where people could park and then bus into town (“Park and Ride” stations began, shakily, in 1973)
  • Imagine the use of “people-movers” in varying degrees of sci-fi futurism

As far as “people-movers,” there were several automated transportation systems on drawing boards around the country at the time, a couple of which were being developed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. There was the electrically powered monorail-like AirTrans — a joint project of Vought Aeronautics of Dallas and Varo Inc. of Garland — and there was the similar but less well-known Sky-Kar of Fort Worth. AirTrans was very successful and was first adopted by DFW Airport, but Sky-Kar seems to have fizzled out after the death of the company’s president in the early ’70s. 

One of Sky-Kar’s salesmen was Paul Groody (he can be seen being interviewed in one of the kars in a WFAA clip from October 1970 here, with additional kar-footage here). Groody (who, in this interview, is a couple of months from full Asimov muttonchops) gained some national notoriety as the funeral director who had been given the task of driving from Fort Worth to Dallas to pick up the body of Lee Harvey Oswald and “prepare” him for burial — because there were no pallbearers, he had to scrounge for volunteers among the reporters covering the interment. Because I may have no other opportunity to post this, below is the cute and compact Sky-Kar Transivator prototype from 1970. …Sky-Kar, we hardly knew ye.

sky-kar_wfaa_SMU_oct-1970WFAA Collection, Jones Collection, SMU

Below, Paul Groody, Sky-Kar rep (1970), and Paul Groody, funeral director for Lee Harvey Oswald’s burial (1963) (he is seen partially obscured, all the way at the back right, wearing glasses).

sky-kar_paul-groody_wfaa_SMU_oct-1970WFAA Collection, Jones Collection, SMU

oswald-funeral_FWST_1963
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Equal time: see the Vought/Varo AirTrans prototype running on its test track in Garland in December 1970 here, along with interviews from company reps here.

airtrans-prototype_garland_wfaa_SMU_dec-1970WFAA Collection, Jones Collection, SMU

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So, anyway. Forget the flying cars. I’m waiting for my monorail. And it’s probably still best to leave your automobile at home if you’re heading downtown.

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Sources & Notes

Top photo, “Earle Cabell Federal Building and Courthouse” (2019) by Wayne Hsieh — found on Flickr, here. (I have cropped it.)

Screenshots from Channel 8 news film posted on YouTube, from the WFAA Collection, G. William Jones Film and Video Collection, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University.

cabell-fed-bldg_flickr_wayne-hsieh_sm

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Copyright © 2022 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.