Working for Henry Dreyfuss  at first seemed glamorous. World famous boss; office on West 58th Street in the Paris Theatre building, near the Plaza Hotel, around the corner from Bergdorf’s; surrounded by classy shops, galleries, and restaurants; Central Park’s horse drawn carriages parked outside; business lunches in the Oak Room; and the new MoMA only blocks away.
I began working there in 1952. But, after seven years (itch?), I began to have misgivings. I had advanced to the project management level and there was probably no reason that I could not have stayed on for a long career in design. In fact, not long after my announced departure, I was invited into a partnership with one of the principals who himself was leaving to set up his own shop. However, what had seemed alluring at first about industrial design—the freedom to create “exciting” new concepts—had become increasingly fraught with disillusion. “Form follows function” it was said, but often the form seemed lacking in support of the function.
I found myself in client meetings with engineers at Minneapolis Honeywell, Crane Co, Mosler Safe, Mergenthaler Linotype, etc. and gradually began to realize that I sat on the wrong side of the table. Too often it seemed to me that the engineers had a better hold on how best an item should work or be received or manufactured than we did, and our arguments as to how it should look seemed increasingly contrived. I remember an internal argument over whether a screw-head should be concealed beneath a more expensive, brushed metal cap and heard myself saying “What’s so bad about the fact of an honest screw?” And so, in 1959, I opted out. Henry gave me a nice watch.
Fortunately I had a line on a new job through a man I had met socially. Mihai Alimanestianu , who with his brother had escaped Ceausescu’s Romania by leaping into the night from a moving train, had invented an automated system for parking cars. He had financial backing and had an agreement with the Otis Elevator Co. to manufacture the lateral transfer machinery. He had ideas for a new version of his current device and took me on as machine designer and draftsman.
He called his operation “Speed-Park.” One of my first assignments was to design his logo and letterhead as well as the advertising brochures. In addition I made several perspective cut-away renderings of the garage to make clear the mechanical principles involved.
The building of the first garage was underway on West 42nd Street. On either side of a two-lane driveway elevators moved up and down in towers which, at the same time, moved longitudinally on rails. On the elevators a comb-like forklift transfer device could pick up cars and deliver them automatically to parking niches, one-deep, on either side of the tower runway. After the motorist had left the car parked in place safety barriers rose and the car was lifted a few inches onto a grid shaped to interweave with the fingers of the fork-lift. The garage operation required only one attendant who oversaw a computer console that printed the receipts, directed the elevator to the closest available stall, and—at the end—calculated the parking fee. Owners could lock their cars.
Mihai’s new device parked cars not one—but two deep on either side of the tower runway. This was more difficult because the forklift arrangement could no longer be simply cantilevered from the elevator platform; it had to roll back and forth sixteen feet on wheels. He had worked out the general mechanical arrangement and so I set to work with manufacturer’s catalogs and my college texts to make the calculations and drawings necessary for the building of a prototype—at Dreyfuss I had become a competent draftsman.
We occupied a small office on the East Side near 42nd Street. The job was interesting. It comprised structural, mechanical and hydraulic components operating in conditions of severely restricted space. Strength and deflection under load, cable and sheave arrangements, “bureau drawer” slides and squaring shaft , hydraulic extension and jacking—all had to be addressed. Office conditions, however, were stressful. Mihai’s secretary yammered incessantly on the phone and played the radio, snapping her chewing gum the while.
Eventually, to my relief, we moved to more elegant digs on East 57th Street in a building owned by Huntington Hartford, the A&P heir who was the venture’s principal backer. I had my own office and got a raise even though I had to pay for a new drafting table myself; Mihai explaining that he would compensate me later when money became less tight.
The construction of the machine prototype was now in progress at the Link-Belt plant in Lansdale, PA. I made many visits there to nurse it along. We had trouble with cycling speed because as the hydraulic oil changed temperature and density. I hadn’t the background in control theory to fix it, but Otis stepped in and added a modification of its elevator floor leveling controls.
The 42nd Street Garage opened late in 1962. It seemed to me that it would be good to have a means of estimating the rate at which cars could be parked and un-parked using the known speeds of the various mechanical components and depending on the degree to which users might cause delays. I found a way of finding average parking rates using the volumes of overlapping prisms and pyramids whose heights were times in seconds and whose bases were dimensionless numbers of levels and bays. It was a way automatically to handle cases where elevator and tower moved simultaneously, where one had to wait for the other, and where the efficiency of the motorist became a factor.
Mr. Pinto at Otis Engineering was very interested in this work. At 42nd St. I had made stopwatch observations of my own closely confirming its results. In retrospect it would have been an ideal application for a computer program; the calculations were tedious and there were unique cases to consider. In this respect we were only a few years too early.
Mihai wanted a promotional film and so I enlisted the services of a photographer friend Peter Pruyn and an actress friend Naomi Thornton who played an attractive motorist. We made a five-minute film. Mihai was instantly dissatisfied with the result and demanded endless and frivolous changes—finally he rejected it and refused to pay the principals, and so we agreed that the footage would be returned unused to Peter.
By early 1963 some long periods of not-much-to-do ensued. I used the time to make the design and construction drawings for my eclipse spectrograph .
It gradually became evident that this enterprise was not going to take off. Also evident—not only to me but to others: Mihai was by nature a micro-manager and somewhat of a charlatan. For example, I packaged up the film for return to Peter and discovered too late that Mihai had secretly stolen it back from the outgoing mail. He never paid Peter or Naomi. Later he did grudgingly pay me for the drafting table, but only after having discovered that my new employer in Boston was to be a consultant on one of his future projects.
And so—time to move on. The garage operated for a year or so more but following a major elevator tower failure—forcing drivers to wait weeks for their cars—it closed and was demolished.
Wm. C. Atkinson, 2013