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Homes for Cars: A Look at Early Garages

From a "Woman's Weekly" supplementary book, 1922.

Garages are weird. They’re tiny houses for cars that, especially if they were built in the first few decades of the 20th century, look like they were birthed by their parent house. While their primary goal is to provide a safe, dry place for inanimate objects, they also excel at sheltering adorable stray kittens, fostering card games, accommodating folding tables full of food at family parties, and becoming makeshift wine bars during pandemic lockdowns. They also do a great job housing workbenches, bicycles, holiday decorations, Rubbermaid containers of old report cards, and linens your great aunt embroidered that you're forced to hold onto as the “family historian.”


Original garage in the Villa District (credit: Jim Peters)

So, when and how did these homes of cars—the first of their kind—begin taking up space in our backyards?


While we may imagine that people rode around on horses until they suddenly gave up the reins and transitioned to cars, the reality is that most took public transportation, especially up until the 1920s. While some did commute by horse, they were mainly used to pull large things the way trucks or buses are used today. City dwellers would mostly walk or take street cars, trains, or boats.

Public Parking Garages

In 1899, only one in 1.5 million Americans owned a car. Within three years that number would jump to one in 6,500, but it would take more than a decade for the middle class to be able to afford their own automobiles. Henry Ford found a way to standardize and mass produce cars on assembly lines, and the speed and efficiency of these changes brought the cost of a Model T from $850 in 1909 to $260 in 1924, which was less than the cost of an upright piano at the time. In today's dollars, that would be about $4,689. The massive increase in personal car ownership created a need for a new building type: the parking garage.


Unlike horses who would get aggressive and bite-y if hitched to a post for too long, an automobile could lounge about on a curb all day. And they often did, without bolting into traffic or requiring an apple. As cars clogged up narrow streets that weren’t designed for large, sedentary machinery, parking became an issue for the first time in history.

 

Architects Holabird and Roche, known for buildings like the Palmer House, designed the first high-rise parking garage in 1917. Parking at the five-story Hotel LaSalle cost you 75 cents for ten hours or less. It was likely the oldest example of a commercial parking garage in the United States, but was razed in 2005, courtesy of plaster chunks falling from of the ceiling and giant SUVs trying to jam into spaces designed for Model Ts. In the 1920s, parking entrepreneurs Richard G. Lydy and Ben Kissel bought up some old buildings on Franklin Street, Wells Street, and Printers Row. Residents loathed these early garages and complained that they were "defacing the street." Some things never change.



The Single Family Home Garage

Before the automobile, alleys were lined with chest-high, solid board fences and were used as transportation paths for services like ice and coal delivery, and other activities that were messy or not the kinds of things you needed to show off to the neighbors. Then, the automobiles arrived en masse, along with their cloth roofs and delicate machinery. And these expensive and finicky contraptions needed shelter. Servicemen found themselves moving their wagons down the same narrow roads behind homes, but the alleys suddenly felt more like busy thoroughfares. The back alley had a more complicated job now and required lane sharing.


Original garage in Ravenswood Manor (credit: Jim Peters)

Unlike early public parking structures, these detached, private garages could not be carved out of existing buildings. The single-family garage was a new form of architecture. Naturally, we took to experimenting with a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials early on, resulting in a somewhat disorganized look along alleywaysthey were built of wood or brick with pitched roofs or flat roofs.


Original garage on the 1400 block of West Glenlake Avenue (credit: Marjorie Fritz-Birch)

Early garage builders leaned on the horse stable look since we were calling automobiles “horseless carriages” anyway. Those old garages you sometimes happen upon with heavy wooden swing doors and large X-shapes on them were, surprisingly, not meant for horses, at least not in Chicago. Those who owned horses at the time generally kept them in stables, not on their own property.


That old barn model, while charming, wasn’t terribly practical. Sliding barn-like doors and doors that swung on hinges weren’t especially fun to deal with when snow piled up in the winter. The improved design? The overhead door that rolled up and back into the ceiling of the garage, which began to appear in the 1930s. By the 1920s, numerous companies sold garage plans, including Aladdin’s and Sears, already well known for their kit homes, so it was a small leap to jump to kit garages. Newspapers advertised “permanent garages” in a variety of sizes, single or double options, and offered payment plans.


Original garage on the 1400 block of West Granville Avenue (credit: Marjorie Fritz-Birch)

The Hard Parts

If you had a car, you really did need a garage. Today, people will chase down a tornado in a Camry, but features like a cloth top made such endeavors an even worse idea than it is today. In fact, the early cars were such delicate machines that they could be put out of commission with just a little cold weather. If you wanted to run your car during the winter months, it had to be kept in a heated space. Of course, a heated garage had to be close enough to the house to tap into the domestic furnace, or it had to have its own fireproof boiler room and wall-mounted steam pipes or radiators. As one might imagine, these amenities would add up, so some would use cars in the warmer months and switch to a horse and sleigh to move things around in the winter. Garages also had to be roomy enough to have a work bench and lighting system, and ideally a water system like any typical repair shop, since repairs were needed so often.


Garage and Filling Station, Broadway and Devon Avenue, 1906 (Ravenswood Lake View Community Collection), via: www.chipublib.org/blogs/post/gas-station-photos-from-the-archives

Gas was another issue. For early automobile owners, gas was bought by the bucket in repair shops and general stores. The Chicago Public Library Digital Collections have images of early stations, including a 1906 photo that shows an early filling station at Broadway and Devon. The station has no gas pumps or service bays so you had to purchase the gasoline in canisters. Over the next two decades, things evolved considerably and a 1925 postcard of Super-Service Station No. 2, located at 6919 South Stony Island Avenue, has pumps, shelter, and four gas station attendants pictured in white uniforms. From the 1920s to 1960s, major oil companies adopted distinctive logos, slogans, and new services like oil checks and auto repair. Gas stations reflected the corporate image and were designed by some of Chicago’s top architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Bertrand Goldberg.


Super-Service Stations No. 2, 6919 Stony Island Avenue, circa 1925 (Chicago City-Wide Collection: Series 18: Viewbooks), via: www.chipublib.org/blogs/post/gas-station-photos-from-the-archives

Prohibition gave garages another job. Bootleggers like Joe Saltis, supposedly on his way to Florida after his release from prison in 1929, was immediately nabbed when prohibition agents found 18 cases of Canadian ale and 125 slot machines in the garage behind his home at 5658 South Albany Avenue.

 

But more sinister than smuggling spirits was good old carbon monoxide. Car owners, regularly tinkering with their finicky chariots, sometimes shirked the warnings of poisonous gasses released in their private “death chambers.” According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, the first recorded case of home garage poisoning was in 1911. Dr. John Aloysius Hemsteger was cleaning the carbon out of a muffler in his garage at 1035 East 42nd Street when things took a turn. While he managed to drag himself out of his garage and even saw a few patients that day, he eventually slumped to the ground and took a ride in that chariot in the sky. Physicians agreed that he died of “direct poisoning of the heart from carbon gas.” This was the first to be documented, but there were many such cases.


Original garage on the 1400 block of West Glenlake Avenue (credit: Marjorie Fritz-Birch)

There are still tens of thousands of existing original garages, but original garage doors are rapidly disappearing due to deterioration, a loss of functionality, or, in some cases, a lack of imagination. There are still examples in every corner of this city, however, and that’s a great excuse to spend a Sunday morning wandering down alleyways with a thermos and some curiosity. So many original details still exist on older homes, especially in the rear because folks tend to be more concerned with the street-facing parts of their house. Enjoy those back porches! Notice rear dormers! How are the windows at the back of the house different from front windows? How is the roofline on the back of a two-flat different than the front? Are there any coach houses or chimneys coming out of an old garage? Get on out there for some quality meandering before these lesser-appreciated architectural details are gone for good.

 

Have you seen these old garages in your neighborhood? Do you own one yourself? We’d love to see any pictures you have!


For More Reading:

Chicago Garage history – Chicago Tribune

Sears Kit Garages – Sears Homes website

The Model T – Ford website

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