The Ghost Parking Lot

Established in 1978, this art exhibit called the Ghost Parking Lot is located in the parking lot of a shopping plaza in Hamden, CT. James Wine sank 20 cars into the ground at varying depths then covered them with concrete. The concrete followed the form of the vehicles, allowing the observer to easily identify the various makes and models, through some were harder then others to ID. The convertible was quite interesting as we could easily see the steering wheel emerging from the rest of the concrete.

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The space it occupies was leased from the shopping plaza, and expired in 2003. The land was considered “valuable real estate”, but it sounds like a bogus argument because the parking spaces it takes up are the farthest from the stores (and the lot was half empty too). The Ghost Parking Lot was demolished in September 2003, so I decided to contact the creator, James Wine.

Mr Wines founded Site in 1970, an organization which works combines art & architecture. According to their website, they offer a “wide variety of design services – including buildings, public spaces, landscapes, interiors, graphics, and industrial products. SITE’s capacity to work in so many fields is based on a philosophy that sees all of the arts as a fusion of related ideas.” The owner of the Hamden Shopping Plaza was an art lover and so in 1978 he commissioned Site to build some sort of public art. All decisions as to design and subject matter were left up to Mr Wines and his staff.

Said Mr Wines, “Public art often derives it’s meaning from its location. You go to a parking lot and expect to see cars in the lot, not under it. It’s inverting expectations. You’re seeing something in a place which makes sense but whose presentation does not. Now remove this from the parking lot and place it in a museum and it loses all meaning, all relevance.” The owner leased the last few parking spaces nearest the street to Site for 20 years, and soon construction began. Wines and his crew began collected typical cars of the day for burial under a thin layer of cement. (note I said thin and cement…) As the project began construction, many locals did not “get it” and some even objected. Local high school students began threatening to damage the project, and generally were a nuisance to the point that a security guard had to be hired.

Once the concrete was poured over the cars, the local kids did a 180. It went from something to be vandalized to something cool. “They even volunteered to help is the construction but we politely declined.” The cars chosen included Cadillac’s and VW bugs, even a convertible. He chose these cars to represent what the average person drove, as well as to be instantly recognizable. The cars were often donated, and often were left with personal items inside, which later would become entombed. One car which troubled him belonged to a young man who died in Vietnam. His mother donated the car and even left his dog tags inside. Mr Wines always felt conflicted about this vehicle, leaving something so personal inside. Ultimately it was the mothers decision and he accepted the donation.

The interiors were filled with concrete, poured thru a hole in the roof. Some were filled completely, while others were filled only to the bottom edge of the window. In many cases you could still see steering wheels, dials and gauges, even radio knobs, which was possible because the concrete was a thin layer. Once completed, Wines realized that this would eventually deteriorate. People passing by would chip off chunks of concrete, and he said some even brought those pieces to his office to be autographed (which he did sign)

After 5-6 years though the cars clearly needed touching up, as pieces of metal were exposed. No one contracted him about what to happen next, and he is not sure who was responsible but someone decided to do some “touch up” and simply poured asphalt all over the cars completely covering many of the details. In his eyes the art was now ruined, the details completely lost. “It’s like taking a Rembrandt and removing some of the paint and just anybody repairing it. It’s not the same painting any more.”

Always controversial, it may have been cool to some when constructed, but the ravages of time and “touch ups” led most locals to consider it an eye sore. In the late 90’s the shopping mall was sold, but since the parking spaces were leased by Site they could do nothing about it. Once the lease was up there were really on two options, do a decent restoration or demolish it. Mr Wines said he had no problem with demolishing it because it was never meant to last forever and he felt it was no longer even his, thanks to the bad touch up job done in the mid 80’s.

There was an effort made to preserve it, but Mr Wines said it would probably cost 150-200K and involve completely removing the asphalt, and then relayering it. The local newspaper ran columns on the subject and not a single positive response was received. Perhaps no one could remember the project was new, perhaps the novelty had worn off. It seems it’s only function now was as a landmark for giving directions thru town. With no funding and no interest, the owners had the artwork scrapped on 9/23/03.

The ghost parking lot when first constructed

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Gail G. on February 27, 2016 at 12:53 AM

    Note that when this “ghost parking lot” oddness was first constructed, it was a uniform, mind-numbing matte gray-black. In the very beginning, it was a surreal bunch of car shapes sunk under a thick black paste that had hardened. Essentially, exactly what it was: cars under a thick coating of asphalt, dried in place by a black glue. The initial presentation was not spotty looking or rusty as shown above. Smooth, it was. It only became crumbly after weathering PLUS considerable vandalism occurred.

    The local youth did not appear to be big art appreciators. They seemed to just want to attack it, to dismantle a sad playground ride. And to see whether real cars were actually under there.

    I’ll bet for years a common late-night default for the disaffected youth of the region was going over to pick at the cars in the Ghost Parking Lot.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Gail G. on February 27, 2016 at 12:22 AM

    I remember when it was new…and totally baffling even then. I had a friend who had wanted to donate his crummy Ford Pinto, but for whatever reason, they didn’t want it. Then this artpiece came up out of the parking lot like a swell of black mushrooms. This particular piece of artwork, sadly, was pretty hideous from the outset. I was about 17 when it was created, and an artsy sort myself, hanging out with musician types—in other words, fairly tolerant people who dug new things—but no one that I knew liked the thing or could even figure out why anyone would ever want to do this. Rather than being more than the sum of its parts, somehow it was even less. A brave experiment, I suppose, but honestly, one not worth bothering with. The other, encased kinetic sculptures they had at the Hamden Mart/Plaza were much more interesting, and retained their charm over time; they’re probably long gone now. I am astounded Ghost Parking Lot stayed in place as long as it did…it started looking just terrible due to vandalism pretty early on in its history, and never got any better looking…

    Reply

  3. Great memories of times gone by. I was there a few months ago and wasn’t surprised that it was gone, but was disappointed as well. Thanks for the detailed info!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Jonathan K. Ross on January 2, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    I remember when the cars were put in place. I likes seeing them there. I had hopes that someone would keep it up, but by the sounds of the article here, that no one would do it. It is sad to see them go, but I did enjoy it while it was here.

    Reply

  5. Great article, much better than the one on Gizmodo, I must say. Couple of errors, most particularly,
    “They even volunteered to help is the.” but perhaps that’s what he said?

    Reply

  6. Posted by anonmy7mous on April 8, 2009 at 12:10 PM

    so weird..i was looking for..oh, only 500..nutshell..Looking, found 1 site, found yours. was kid when ghost parking lot was born..1 town over in cheshire..awesome memories of it..i think it served its purpose for those of us who got to grow up with it 🙂

    Reply

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