From crammed to pristine clean, garages are extensions of ourselves
From leftovers to life ventures, it's all in the garage.
The Whore Moans perform "Mud in Your Eye"
HERE'S A GOOD conversation starter at a cocktail party. Ask people how they use their garages.
Chances are there will be as many answers as people in the room, and it's just as likely that the most logical response — parking the car there — will be least among them.
Press the remote on someone's garage door and lift the curtain on an alternate world, not so much a porthole to the soul as a halfway house of possibility, a repository of ideas big and small, a lab for pursuits too private for the driveway, too dangerous for the den.
The fact is, the garage has become the place many of us live, dream, play and work.
We may scoff at the cookie-cutter homes of suburbia with their ostentatious three- and four-car garages and wonder why on earth people would buy a house with a huge box as its centerpiece.
But suburb dwellers may get just as much of a rise out of roaming Seattle neighborhoods like Wallingford, where many of the charming bungalows have a garage but everyone's car is parked on the street.
Even the most clownishly tiny garages of inner-city Seattle are outsize in their importance, chiefly because our ambitions have outgrown the dimensions of the rest of the house.
So let he who is without a garage-door opener cast the first stone.
Still, the garage is a complicated piece of real estate, a private space with a public face.
Alice Rios Martinez hits on this weird proposition when she describes running a hair salon, Alice's, out of the garage at her home in Southwest Seattle.
"Cerca (close) but separate," she says of her salon. "The customers have a personal door. They don't come into the house."
It's a funny thing, she says, commuting to work by stepping a few feet from the main house into the garage. She laughs at the notion, but it's quite practical.
She's far from alone.
Billionaire entrepreneurs like Apple's Steve Jobs love building their own legends telling tales of scrappy toils in a garage before striking it rich.
Here, you can fail miserably and no one will see, or give birth to the next big thing, raise the door and change the world.
The power is in your hands.
THE ONLY SIGNS of domestic normalcy in the garage at Cisco Zapata's house in Shoreline are his kids' tricycles, bikes and a Little John Deere wagon.
Otherwise, what catches the eye are the rows of bicycle frames hanging from the ceiling, used for Zapata Cycles, the business he started recently here with brothers Rich and Andy Zapata and Julie Archibald. The brothers build eco-friendly bikes out of vintage frames, giving them a dash of bright color and wicked wheel rims in finishes such as faux wood grain.
Cisco says opening the business in his garage made great financial sense, especially for an untested venture such as theirs.
Just in case, he's kept his job as a research technician for a local biotech company. Rich works at Trader Joe's.
"It's a moonlight venture," Cisco says. They work on the bikes mostly at night and on weekends.
The brothers believe they've tapped into the spirit of the times as people seek relief from the stresses — including traffic and erratic gas prices — of owning a vehicle.
"We're selling bikes about as fast as we can build them," he says.
Of course, the trade-off is he now must find another storage room for the family.
"The tricycles show that the business doesn't own the whole space," Cisco says with a grin. "We fight for the space."
"Seems like my whole life is shoved in this corner over here," he says, pointing to some metal shelves where he keeps alpha-male toys like a chainsaw and tools.
At the back of the garage he has put in a wooden staircase leading to an opening above the main living quarters: "I built stairs so I could move all the stuff that people normally keep in their garage into the attic."
KEN BELL OF West Seattle is a bit of a traditionalist in that his detached garage actually does what it was designed to do — well, sort of.
"I have a car in the garage," he says.
The fact that Bell's 1958 Jaguar Mark I hasn't been taken out for a spin in the 17 years since its brakeswent out is but a quibble.
"It's just a dead car," he clarifies with a chuckle.
Bell walks out back to show what he's talking about. Up goes the garage door, and there sits a rusted-silver, aging beauty that practically whimpers "Fix me" from the darkness.
"That was the original plan," Bell says. "When I retired, I was gonna take it out and fix it up."
So much for that idea.
Now that job is up to his son, Garrett, who plans to buy the Jag and restore it to something resembling its former glory.
First, though, father and son will have to find something to do with the vintage wooden kayak that Bell has propped diagonally on top of the car, making the already cramped garage look like a surrealist art installation.
Kirkland residential architect Dave Thielsen says we started down this road after World War II. The buying power of families headed by newly employed war veterans combined with suburban expansion to make the automobile king.
What that meant for home design was this: Before the war, garages often opened onto alleys behind homes, an urban-development style seen today in older Seattle neighborhoods like Madrona. All the rage were bungalow-style facades with community-fostering porches front-and-center. The garage was almost incidental, hidden from view.
But by the 1950s and '60s, Thielsen says, architects were designing homes with an entirely different way of life, and different cultural priorities, in mind. People were moving away from city centers, and at the same time, cars were becoming middle-class status symbols.
Suddenly popping up were houses that didn't even have a main entrance facing the street. Instead, you entered the home through a door on the side of the house facing the driveway.
"Some of the homes opened directly into a carport," Thielsen says. "It basically was speaking to a car culture."
How things change. There's a movement today to reverse the past 40 years of home design, to end the aesthetic scourge of facades bent out of proportion by hulking garages. Cities like Kirkland, where Thielsen's firm is based, are imposing strict guidelines on the amount of space that can be allotted to garages in new residential construction, or they are requiring "step backs" to discourage developers from designing homes with facades dominated by them.
"It's a statement of 'We don't really like the look of garages on the street,' " Thielsen says. We'll see how that plays out. But in a region where many homes lack basements or extensive attics, the garage will not diminish in overall importance, regardless of where it is.
WHEN IT COMES to garages, there is a charming smaller camp: People who use them for automotive purposes rather than for closet space.
Count Don Deibert a proud member of this group.
"A garage is not intended for storing things," he says with the stark frankness of his native South Dakota.
The retired Boeing mechanical engineer is a purist, which might explain the monastic sparseness of the one-car garage under his Roanoke-neighborhood home in Seattle.
There is, however, one conceit.
Deibert stoops down and pulls up a series of wooden planks to reveal a squared-off cavity big enough for a tall man like himself to stand up or stretch out in. A wooden ladder on one of the concrete walls leads to the bottom. It's the grease pit Deibert uses to do oil changes and other repair work on the family's pickup and sedan.
He boasts that he hasn't been to an auto mechanic in the more than 30 years since he had a contractor build the pit during renovations after the original garage floor began to crack.
He's always worked on cars, but with the pit, he doesn't have to stoop as much or shimmy underneath a vehicle to work on it.
"This is my office," he jokes, noting the only decoration in the room, two framed photos of farm animals. "A mechanic needs to have a pristine work space."
The pit "gives me control of my vehicle," he says. "If something happens, I don't have to make a reservation at a garage. I can take it home and do it myself. I can do it at midnight if I want."
"I'd never have another garage without a grease pit."
But for every Deibert, there are dozens of people who have dreamed up completely non-vehicular uses for their garages.
Patrick Lanfear's 12-year-old son, Riley, and 9-year-old daughter, Hannah, play Little League Baseball and Softball respectively, so two years ago he cobbled together a batting cage in his North Seattle garage. Now the kids can practice their swings any time of year without leaving the house, a good thing in rainy Seattle.
A roll of vinyl netting unspools from a beam attached to the ceiling and is anchored at the bottom with two plastic gas cans.
The house came with a carport when the Lanfears bought it six years ago, but Lanfear says he remodeled the space to create an enclosed garage "first thing" after moving in.
He wasn't just thinking of the children.
"I couldn't live without it," Lanfear says as he pitches plastic balls to the kids. "The garage, it's really the only space I have any influence over in the house!
"The garage is the sacrificial room that women give you — absolutely," Lanfear philosophizes while somehow avoiding getting smacked in the head by the balls his kids are hitting toward the net.
Maybe he's onto something.
Garages often reek not just of old motor oil and musty boxes but of masculine restlessness and ambition. If there is a guy space in the house, surely it's here among the neatly hung tools, extension cords and stacks of Field and Stream. A man's home is, to the delight of womankind, no longer his castle.
But the garage is not a terrible concession.
Here you're free to goof off or to bang out ideas that have been rattling in your head — and if it all comes out a bloody mess, then so what?
WHEN MEMBERS of the Seattle band the Whore Moans cleared away all the junk from the garage of a rental house they share in the Roosevelt District this past spring, they intended to play out this idea in the most literal way.
Nikki O, Ryan Devlin, Jason Kilgore and Johnny Henningson are what's known as a garage band, and they've been performing together for four years, winning accolades for their raucous punk style and righteous jams.
Now the garage band has its own garage.
The Whore Moans, as the name might suggest, specialize in music that comes off as a riotous, exultant mess.
"It kind of defeats the purpose of garage rock if you practice too much," singer and guitarist Devlin says as the guys gear up for rehearsal one afternoon.
There's no way to sugarcoat it. The partly submerged garage is a pitiful sight, perfectly dark, grungy and claustrophobia-inducing. Empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a pack of Marlboros litter the floor.
The band should post a sign on the garage door: Danger . . . Rock 'n' Roll beyond this point.
The men's heads nearly scrape the low-slung ceiling when they step onto a makeshift wooden platform they've installed. They are serious about their music, though. This summer they've been trying to perfect new material for an album they plan to record in winter, plus brush up on older songs ahead of a tour this fall.
Nikki O plugs wads of bath tissue in his ears, and the band launches into the bluesy first chords of a song called "Mud in Your Eye."
Henningson's nearly indecipherable vocals reach a fevered pitch, piercing the humid air with cries from the abyss, or at least the overworked amplifiers.
The chorus rings out in full-throated fury over intense guitar riffs and throbbing drums. The driving bass line pulls at you like an undertow. The guys' heads bang in floppy-haired unison.
The song ends in a rhapsodic blur, and drummer Kilgore looks winded after what appeared to be a joint-straining workout.
"I'm surprised his shirt's still on," Nikki O quips, watching Kilgore catch his breath.
"And that's just taking it light," Devlin adds.
Over the course of an hour, shirts and shoes come off, and the sweat pours.
"What we lack in talent we more than make up for in blood and sweat," Henningson says between songs.
The roughness implied by a group that calls itself a garage band betrays the fact that, while these guys are indeed very loud, they are also very good.
One imagines the neighbors, at least those within earshot, have a different point of view.
But such is the dual state of our garages, at once comfortingly private and curiously public.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.