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The Garage

Book Review

by Ryan King

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Historically, the garage has been relegated to a utilitarian afterthought — regardless of its context, whether the center of a business or part of a house.

In fact, in my observation, garages are regularly built with aspirations, but little real understanding for their capabilities, limitations, and practical uses. Take for instance the parking garage of a house. The garage doors are often just large enough to allow a small car to pass through, but aren't easily navigated. The space or spaces that the cars park in are frequently too short and/or narrow to allow easy pedestrian traffic around the entire vehicle — consequently, space is also too limited for the doors to be completely opened to allow easy access to vehicle interiors. In almost every factor, the garage is commonly ineffective and difficult to use.

In the case of residential shops intended for maintenance and light repair — or even many commercial garages, from what I've seen — the space is even less understood and developed for ease and effective use. Much like old houses were constructed with the hallways and stairwells barely wide enough to allow a person to navigate through without brushing the walls with their shoulders — making it difficult to do something as basic as pass another person, much less move furniture or perform maintenance and repairs.

It was my experience with my automotive hobby — struggling to accomplish everything from basic maintenance to rebuilds and mild customizations in a small residential garage, overflowing with household storage — that lead me to realize that practical, effective utility in a garage was an important part of success in their use. Consequently, I spent years pondering the concept before beginning a journey to grasp how to best build a structure to achieve my automotive ambitions. To that end, this is the second book on the subject of automotive architecture I've read to find a clearer understanding of how to achieve those goals.

Starting with the Gas Station in America, I've begun my education with the historical, aesthetic, and architectural design elements of the automotive-focused structure and now continue that research with the Garage: Automobility and Building Innovation in America's Early Auto Age.

Authors and doctoral experts in their respective fields of geography and history, John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle return to the subject of automotive architecture to create an academically rigorous study that delves into the historical beginnings, significance, and design theory of the garage in its many permutations.

Don't let that "academically rigorous study" designation fool you into thinking "pointless and boring." Not only is it a valuable, practical resource, but in all my research, it's also the only book I've found on the subject. And just like their first book, the Gas Station in America, it's short at 263 pages, but still manages to address the subject thoroughly.

For a chapter by chapter review of this excellent book, follow along below.

The Book


The prologue explains what the book is about, namely commercial and residential garages designed and built between 1900 and the 1960s. It also delves into the defining architectural and structural elements that make a garage, a garage. It concludes by detailing what the book specifically is and isn't about, providing a clear scope for the reader and the work, which encompasses exactly what a car enthusiast needs to know: where garages come from, how they've been historically used for the automobile, what they look like, and why and how they've been designed and built from the very beginning, within the context of technological, entrepreneurial, and social changes over time.

Chapter 1: Why the Garage?

In Chapter 1, Jakle and Sculle cover the rise of the automobile garage out of the primordial ooze of the era of the horse, horse-drawn carriage, and bicycle — that is, the marginally industrialized world of the 19th century where trains still reigned supreme.

As the century turned, so did livery stables and other 19th century businesses focused on transportation, from their traditional business pursuits to support the rapidly expanding automobile market. As the automobile made its way into daily American life, so too did it precipitate the fall of the horse and bicycle from their perches as pinnacles for methods of travel.

Chapter 1 outlines that transition in the six major types of businesses that supported the earliest automobiles around the country.

Chapter 2: Garage Layout, 1900-1920s

Chapter 2 takes a close look at garage location and the layout of structures used or built from 1900 to the 1920s. As explained in this chapter, during this time period, there was a significant shift in garage layout from converting spaces already in existence to purpose-built structures designed to efficiently manage the service and/or car buying experience.

This chapter covers the different kinds of garages used and/or built during this time period and categorizes them into five different types. Of the most importance for car enthusiasts are the detailed descriptions of these various garage types and the layout drawings illustrating the configuration and use for each custom designed space.

It also discusses the early process used to configure these carefully managed spaces. A concept called "scientific management," (now known as industrial engineering and/or process management) derived from early automobile manufacturing and applied to the repair industry.

Chapter 3: Garage Layout, 1930-1950s

Garage type, location, and layout are, again, the order of Chapter 3. This time, focusing on the time period between 1930 and 1960. However, in this chapter, they also include the service station, which — by this time — had expanded into automobile service.

Like the previous chapter, Chapter 3 details the design of the gas station and super service station and includes a number of layout drawings for the super service stations and the more modern facilities developed during the 30s, 40s, and 50s. For more on gas stations, be sure to read the Gas Station in America, also by John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle.

Chapter 4: Dealerships: Selling and Servicing Automobiles

Today, the term "garage" generally refers to parking and repair facilities but — as noted in the Prologue — throughout the last 120 years, the term "garage" has had many meanings in America, all of them pertained to the automobile but have included everything from repair facilities, parking facilities, gas stations, home garages and shops, to the automobile dealership as a whole.

Growing up with grandparents and a number of other family members born in the early part of the last century, I can still remember this vernacular being used to apply to every form of car-related building, including dealerships.

As the title implies, this chapter focuses on the dealership variation of the "garage." It begins with sales prior to the advent of the dealership, which encompassed car shows and highly promoted race events used to sell these newfangled cars directly to the buying public from the factories that made them. It continues to progress through the stages of distributorship development until the dealership model was streamlined prior to 1960. It even provides a fascinating look at sales practices and the way car prices outstripped the economic buying power of the public, leading to creative financial shenanigans known as "automobile financing" that we've all become accustomed to.

This is a big chapter, but it has to be — it covers a lot of ground.

Chapter 5: The Domestic Garage

The car didn't live at home with most people in the very beginning. A fact noted throughout the pages of the Garage. However, as explained in Chapter 5, that changed as the automobile gained in popularity and emerged as a practical form of transportation.

Here, the authors detail a historical transformation that closely follows that of the commercial garage — from transforming other buildings to garages, to purpose-built structures to keep these valuable parts of the family protected and close at hand.

Along with a fascinating history lesson, this chapter also includes design concepts and illustrated layouts for home garages useful in understanding garage construction for automotive enthusiasts.

Chapter 6: Commercial Garage Evolution through Specialization and Departmentalization

In Chapter 6, Jakle and Sculle look at a number of factors related to garage progression over time and focus specifically on more than a dozen specializations/departmentalizations common in the industry.

Let me just say that if you're me, or if you have an interest in the automobile as robust as my own, then this chapter is the bee's knees. It covers the kind of development useful for a successful car hobby; the separation of processes and the special needs of those processes in building layout, design, and construction — at least, historically speaking.

Chapter 7: A Landscape Legacy?

Historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

That's the title of the last section and is really the point of Chapter 7 — and Chapter 7 really is the point of the whole book.

This chapter essentially expresses the cultural significance of the garage, leading up to the argument for its preservation in its many forms.

Although not my initial reason for choosing the book, after reading the rest of it, I found myself with a new perspective and I think the point is pretty valid: The repair garage is important and it should be preserved.


In the Epilogue, Jakle and Sculle provide an unexpected bit of value for the automotive enthusiast. A different purpose than trying to understand how to build a good shop for your car hobby. If you have the means, why not restore an old garage to work in, too?

Sure, purchasing a piece of commercial property with an old, dilapidated building on it is beyond most of us to even consider, much less returning that distressed dump into its former glory and even updating its capabilities to allow for modern use. However, if it is within your means, you can do more than save old cars, you can save old buildings, too. Buildings that provide for an even richer look back at the past for every passer bye. Something that provides even greater context for your old Chevy or Ford and a more authentic, time-relevant experience when you turn a wrench or park your beloved ride(s) for the winter.


Even though the information in the Garage: Automobility and Building Innovation in America's Early Auto Age is historical in nature and thus technologically outdated, it does provide a much better inspiration and direction for success than the experiential method of development that most people are forced to use when they lack foreknowledge, namely build whatever they think they can afford — or is cheapest or is intended to achieve as yet unknown or known but poorly understood goals — and ultimately fail to accomplish their objectives.

That said, as you read this book, don't be surprised if you find yourself becoming more and more appreciative of the garage's historical significance. John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle have done a wonderful job painting a rich picture of the garage as a cultural, entrepreneurial, and personal symbol of life and the American experience.

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For more information contact the Tennessee University Press on the web at www.utpress.org, by phone 1.865.974.3321 or by email at utpress@utk.edu.

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