This brief article is not intended to be an exhaustive history of the garage, which would be a very lengthy work containing many details of little interest to anyone but architects and historians. So, let’s call this the Cliff Notes version of garage history. The following paragraphs contain the highlights of garage history that would be useful at a backyard BBQ.
It’s safe to say that garage design evolution has been most heavily influenced by the automobile. As the automobile grew in prominence, having a garage became more important. Before automobiles the garage (not yet known by that name) was often a modified room in an agricultural building or machine shop used for a variety of tasks. This soon evolved into a variety of attached and detached structures ranging from multiple-story townhouse-type buildings to rooms fully integrated into house plans.
The earliest garages were often makeshift structures modified from an existing building to accommodate the needs of the new automobile. As time passed garages were built exclusively for automobiles and included not only storage space for the vehicle, but complete service facilities and fuel storage. They were also very large because early vehicles did not have reverse gears and could not backup. To accommodate this issue, garages had to be large enough for forward maneuvering, have both front and back doors, or include a turntable. It wasn’t until the 1920’s when public service stations eliminated the need for every garage to be a comprehensive facility. Even then garages remained highly elaborate because the wealthy often employed a chauffeur and would provide housing within the garage. In many cases detached garages were essentially houses for the chauffeur with a garage below or alongside.
The middle class, having no chauffeur, often chose more economical portable garages commonly available through mail order. These were typically small buildings made of sheet metal or prefabricated wooden sections with seams covered by vertical battens. These were very popular with renters who could simply tear it down and take it with them when they moved.
While attached garages are the most common form today, the detached garage was the favored format until the mid 1930’s. Slow but inevitable acceptance that the automobile would always be the primary means of arriving at the home thrust the attached garage forward as the favored style. Many articles were written by famous architects like P.M. Riley arguing that it deserved to be attached to the main house and feature prominently with the front entrance. By the 1940’s it was normative for designers to include a garage in all new construction as a means to increase resale value and provide more space. This advancement was controversial and didn’t become fully accepted until after the Second World War.
The 1950’s saw an even greater acceptance of both the carport and the fully integrated garage. Many architects saw the carport as a multi-purpose area not only for parking, but also as a porch and entrance transition to the house, a place to do outdoor cooking, a shady spot on a hot day, and even as a covered play space for children. Plus, carports were less expensive to construct and provided a popular modern appearance. The carport became so popular, in fact, that a 1955 article in Sunset magazine detailed the conversion of a two-bay attached garage into a carport.
Oddly, there has been very little advancement in garage design in the last 60 years. By the mid 1950’s all forms of domestic parking existing today were fully developed. The interior accommodations have advanced at a furious pace, with everything from garage door openers, to elaborate storage and organizational systems, but the garage structure remains essentially what it was in 1955.
References: THE GARAGE: ITS HISTORY AND PRESERVATION by JONATHAN E. SAGER
Sergeant, John. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: The Case for Organic Architecture. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1976.
“Garage Becomes Car Port.” Sunset. Feb. 1955: 67.
The Car and the City: The Automobile, the Built Environment, and Daily Urban Life. Ed. Martin Wachs and Margeret Crawford. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992.