A Garage Is a Garage Is a Garage. Or Is it?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

One of the most undervalued features of our beloved Rockridge bungalow homes is that outmoded, humble little adjunct out back we call a "garage." Why we still call it a garage is a mystery to me. Most of these structures haven't seen a car in them since the Model T went out of style.

Demoted to storage sheds of sorts, they are often crammed full of old paint buckets, bicycles with flat tires, rusted tools and excess everything that could not fit into the house. In extreme cases, doors sporting peeling paint and broken glass may hang halfway off their hinges. Locks and chains fastened to the front hold it all together until, one day, the junkman arrives to cart it all away - including the shed - to eternal rest in the dump.

Actually, those little sheds deserve a second look. They may have become obsolete, but they have an honorable history and possibilities for the future.

A Long and Venerable History
While many of us consider a garage a natural part of a residence today, garages were not fully vetted in the early 1900s when many of our bungalows were built. At that time, cars were a novelty and a luxury. Few people could afford them. If they did own one, it was likely treated with respect, protected as a horse and buggy might have been in a kind of cute little shed near the home.

I suspect this became a popular addition even if no car was owned right then. After all, it was entirely possible that you would own one, someday. In the meantime, you could use the "garage" to store vegetables, smoke some prosciutto, and make a little vino.

The idea of a serious attached garage or the addition of a "carport" was actually the brainchild of Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s. This he did partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to allow for the utilitarian purpose of adding more rooms later on, not exactly for car storage. But cars caught on in a big way and bigger and better garages for bigger and better and more cars came with them. In Rockridge, it was too late to redraw our small plots to hold that gaping two-car garage. Some people moved through the Tunnel to Lafayette to build ever bigger garages. Consider this a stroke of luck: Rockridge escaped suburbanization. That is not to say that we didn't try to modernize, be "with it."

Many of those little garages were in fact simply torn down to make room for that shiny barbecue or a corrugated aluminum garden shed ordered from Sears. Still, some of the original little garages have survived to take on iconic stature in our time and to add to the charm of our historic neighborhoods.

What's in Your Garage?
That ol' garage is likely to be the most creatively active spot in your entire house. Please don't tear it down. Once gone, replacing it with another structure could be expensive and problematic as building and zoning codes have changed dramatically. Check with your contractor or architect first. Emptied out, your lonely old garage can be converted to become a receptive space where mindful presence and limitless creative growth is possible.

The most famous garage event of our time is certainly that of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who changed the world with their work, not in a fancy lab, but in a suburban garage.

In Rockridge, many once-neglected garages now serve as mini-tech incubators, studios for artists and artisans, offices, recording studios, gyms, writers' lairs, guest rooms, independent businesses, neighborhood meeting places and earthquake emergency centers: Joe Scodella, retired engineer, fiddles with machinery and makes gorgeous fly fishing hooks for his friends: artist Peter Heelan and wife Sabra Daly invite their Irish fiddling friends and artists and neighbors to make poetry and music; Laurie Leiber teaches Pilates; Claire Langley Hawthorne wrote her first mystery novels in her writer's studio on Auburn.

The list goes on. It's great.