Retreats deserving of respect

New book examines garage's role in American society

— To most Americans, the garage is simply a place to park a car or stash a lawn mower. Maybe sit in a chair, have a beer and watch life pass by the driveway.

Now comes "Garage," a coffee-table book that celebrates the history of the humble garage and its role in art and industry, from Apple computers to Walt Disney to Buddy Holly.

"I just felt like it was time for the garage to get its respect," says author Kira Obolensky.

Obolensky maintains that the garage has become the "id" of the house, the refuge where hobbyists go to escape, dream and create. "Where else does the teen-age band go? You don't go to the basement. You go to the garage," she says.

"Garage" (Taunton Press, $32 hardcover) includes more than 200 color photographs of more than 50 garages throughout the country. Among those featured is actor Dennis Hopper's garage, which displays cars on a glass-block floor and a contemporary art collection on corrugated-steel walls.

This, as Obolensky puts it, is Garage Beautiful.

The thinking rooms

Instead of oil-stained floors and cluttered workbenches, the book features garages with cozy offices and play spaces; a garage workshop/studio in Kentucky that contains a collection of model trains and boats; a dual garage-boathouse on a New Hampshire lake; and a 20-car garage in Arizona.

The book provides floor plans and tips on design challenges and solutions, such as adding an office or workshop to a garage, and covers everything from garage sales to garage bands. Obolensky also examines the garage in pop culture. After all, Fonzie lived over the Cunninghams' garage in TV's "Happy Days."

Because of low rent, garages are a favorite retreat for inventors and tinkerers, Obolensky says. She cites garages as the birthplace of such businesses as Ford Motor Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., Medtronic Inc. and Reader's Digest.

Among those featured in her book are:

l The suburban garage where Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs and partner Steve Wozniak built their breakthrough personal computer.

l The shedlike garage where Walt Disney shot a series of primitive cartoons.

l The garage in Lubbock, Tex., where Buddy Holly practiced rock 'n' roll in the 1950s.

Started by the affluent

In the United States, Obolensky says, the history of the garage starts with rich people, who were the first to buy cars. And because cars were expensive, the places that were built to house them were "pretty grand affairs," she says.

In England, garages were called car houses, Obolensky says. "But in America, we thought we needed a French word, because that would be ever so much more elegant," she says.

Because the rich were unsure how long cars would be around, early garages included other features such as squash courts or a clock tower. But by 1918, nearly 500,000 Model T's were on the road and there was "not a garage in sight," Obolensky says.

Garages � just big enough to get the car in � started popping up across the landscape. By the 1940s and '50s, as Americans used their back yards for barbecues and recreation, the garage became ensconced as the spot for the workbench and the party room.

Now, the two-car garage has become old-fashioned and, in some states, has been replaced by massive garages with four or five stalls.

Obolensky collaborated with architect Sarah Susanka in 1998 on "The Not So Big House," a book that advocated a return to smaller homes with more character. And Obolensky is not a fan of big garages that front the street.

"It's a nice place for cars, but it doesn't look like people live there," Obolensky says.

Obolensky says she would love to convert her own garage into an office. Her house in south Minneapolis is an older one that has a garage built for a Model T. As cars got bigger, the previous owners "did a little bump-out," she says.

As for trends, Obolensky sees homeowners looking to garages as extra living space.

"You see a lot of garages becoming hangouts for teen-agers. You see garages becoming cottages for elderly parents," she says.

"I mean, you can't put your mother-in-law in the basement."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.