When Henry Ford introduced his Model T in 1907, garages as we know them hadn’t been invented. What did exist were carriage houses, barns, stables and other outbuildings, often large enough to hold an automobile—sometimes next to livestock—for those wealthy or progressive enough to own one. A 1909 issue of American Builder and Carpenter magazine makes no mention of garages—in either articles or advertisements—even though it contains a 10-page spread featuring the winning designs of a bungalow contest.
A decade later, the American landscape had changed significantly. The swelling middle class had cities bursting at their seams, Ford had perfected the assembly line and the automobile was omnipresent. “Seven million automobiles!” trumpeted an article about garage doors in a 1920 issue of American Builder. “Such a large family suggests a housing proposition of enormous proportions—garages here, there, everywhere.”
THEN AND NOW
So, what did bungalow garages look like? And more importantly, why should you care?
A garage may not be the first item on your restorationlist, but an appropriately detailed building can add a great deal of historic ambiance to your bungalow’s environs, much as a pergola over a terrace or a stand of old-fashioned hollyhocks might. Having completed restoration of their houses, more than a few bungalow owners have cast a restless, nostalgic eye around the rest of the property. “Does anyone know what a bungalow garage should look like?” is a plaintive plea appearing on electronic bulletin boards at old-house websites.
The easiest way to determine the original state of your garage may be to simply look at it critically. Being a utilitarian building, there may not have been many changes if it has continued to perform its job reasonably well. But many garages, like bungalows themselves, have been altered or torn down. Perhaps you have an original, but tiny, one-car garage that just won’t contain both the SUV and the convertible. Or, if you live in a temperate climate, the home builder may not have bothered with a garage at all. If you’re planning on restoring, enlarging or replicating a bungalow garage, there are characteristics they shared that are worth keeping in mind.
LOOK TO THE HOUSE
Many bungalow garages, particularly those that were a part of more upscale properties, looked like smaller, simplified versions of the house they accompanied—themselves minor architectural statements. In the letters to the editor section of 1920s construction magazines, builders would proudly offer photographs of stylish garages they had just constructed from materials left over from the house. In other instances, a substantial garage was actually the first building to go up on a lot, where it served as a compact family home while the main house was erected. There were also combination garage/bungalows—garlows—but that’s another subject altogether.
Garages often had the same roofline as the house, whether front gable, side gable, jerkin-head (clipped gable), hipped or flat. Rafter tails were exposed, and brackets sometimes supported the overhang if it was especially deep. The building’s exterior walls were typically clad in the same material as the house—wood clapboard, stucco, brick, or some combination thereof. Costlier models might even have small, windowed dormers on the roof that were mostly ornamental, but, according to a 1923 publication, “also aid in ventilation, permitting smoke and gases, which are often troublesome in a garage, to escape more easily.”
The roof was sheathed in material matching that of the main house as well—usually wood or asphalt shingles, or sometimes clay tile. The paint scheme also took its cues from the house.
MAIL-ORDER AND KIT GARAGES
Other bungalow garages, perhaps even the majority of them, were much simpler structures. According to Designer Doors, a contemporary company that constructs modern garage doors in historic designs, some builders “saw the garage as an unrelated place to stow the car; the functional garage was often a small, partially prefabricated structure … that could be ordered and constructed quickly and inexpensively.”
It’s easy to see how widespread this practice was by looking at old mail-order house catalogs from companies such as Aladdin or Sears Roebuck. Inevitably, a few pages in the back contain illustrations of basic garages that could be ordered separately if desired.
Perhaps the most basic garage—and probably one of the first—was known as the “Ford Favorite.” This 10-by- 16-foot box featured simple hinged doors, a front-gable roof, some white paint and little else. “In design and construction it is the simplest and most economical that it is possible to make,” explained a booklet of garage plans published by the Southern Pine Association, “and its size is recommended by the Ford Motor Company as being the best and most suitable for owners of their cars.” The booklet contained plans for garages that range from the Ford Favorite to a three-car monster, demonstrating that the American propensity for acquiring automobiles is not necessarily new.
Probably the most distinctive feature of a vintage bungalow garage is its doors. “They are the seasoning to a delectable dish which otherwise might prove a flat morsel,” enthused the long-ago author of the aforementioned garage-door article. The earliest garage doors opened outward on large strap hinges. “There was a time when all doors swung on hinges,” the same article informed readers. “It was the only type available.” As cities grew and more auto traffic filled the streets, city ordinances began to influence construction. “As a result,” explains the writer, “in many localities doors which swing out on a public highway are prohibited.”
The next evolutionary step in garage door design allowed for sideways sliding, rolling or folding doors. (Doors that opened overhead appeared in the late ‘20s, but didn’t gain in popularity until well after the bungalow era.) All these arrangements featured a series of two or more door panels hinged together and hung by small wheel assemblies on an overhead rail. The panels accordion-folded to one or both edges of the portal, or rolled on a curved track to the
inside wall of the garage. The American Builder article contained a blueprint page that illustrated no fewer than 10 different door- opening systems.
Manufacturers touted the ease of operating a door outfitted with their particular brand of hardware. Ads frequently pictured a petite female or a child pushing the doors aside while the man of the house sat waiting behind the auto’s wheel. “Don’t Forget the Women” implored one advertisement. Amazingly, 70 or 80 years later, it’s possible to find such hardware still in use, especially on garages that see only occasional use, such as those at a cabin or in a farmyard.
Garage doors virtually always had windows, which filled the upper third of each panel. They were divided by muntins into individual panes, or lights. Similar to house windows, the muntin pattern might be a simple cross, three evenly divided vertical lights, a three-over-three or four-over-four pattern, or even a diamond arrangement recalling an English cottage.
In addition to windows on the doors, there were usually several other windows, one or two on each wall of the building. Since light bulbs of the time cast a comparatively feeble glow (and many garages weren’t electrified at all), plenty of natural light was important. A 1923 publication called The Home, in describing the attributes of a desirable garage, explains:
“Two windows in each side wall and a window in the rear add to the light and possibility of ventilat ion. permitting its comf ortable and safe use all the year round for making repairs and trying out the engines of the autos.”
PUTTING IT BACK TOGETHER
If you want to restore your garage to its original state or build a new one are likely still plenty of examples nearby to use as a guide. If, however, your neighborhood has remained prosperous throughout the decades or has been gentrified, most of the original garages may have been torn down, as old structures are often the victims of “home improvement.” If so, grab a camera and seek out intact bungalow neighborhoods.
The portion of your old garage most likely to be missing is its main door or doors. A skilled carpenter could construct new ones similar to the originals, and perhaps you could find hardware in usable condition at a salvage yard. But let’s face it—even if you could have the rolling doors back, would you want them? Automatic garage door openers are, after all, one of the great pleasures of modern life.
Fortunately, you can have an old-door look and open it remotely, too. Several companies make motorized, overhead garage doors that, when closed, look startlingly like the old variety. Some are assembled in panels just as the old doors were, then cut into horizontal sections and re-joined with hidden hinges. The result? Doors that appear as if they would swing outward or slide, but instead lift up and away with the touch of a button. Now that’s progress, the old-fashioned way.