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Northwest Living
Places of Potential
To park, to dream, to pursue pet projects — we go to the garage to do it all

"Garage: Reinventing the Place We Park," by Kira Obolensky, The Taunton Press, $32. Book cover
It just may be the most overlooked, under-appreciated space in our homes. And yet, most of us spend at least a bit of every day there. We park in it. We play at hobbies. We work at dreams. Some of us even sleep there.

And now, at last, that humble space we call the garage gets its due with a coffee-table tome all its own.

In "Garage: Reinventing the Place We Park," Kira Obolensky peeks behind the rolling doors of that all-purpose place, in neighborhoods from Pleasantville, N.Y., to Paradise, Calif., from the birthplace of Hewlett-Packard to the "party palace" of a neon sign-maker to the gazebo'd rooftop of a Midwest estate.

"I know a lot of people who do interesting things in their garages," says Obolensky. "Garages are a significant part of our home environment. They're like the id of the domestic setting. It's where people go to do things. The typical garage book is a book that looks pretty Puritan. It's got little line drawings. It doesn't really treat the garage with the respect I thought it deserved. It seemed to me it might be a good time to present a garage as a place of potential."

Builder Michael Ballou and his family wanted their garage, left, to nestle into the rolling landscape of this Bainbridge Island site. The Victorian-style structure is built into a 9-foot embankment. The workshop on the second story is at street level in the back, offering easy access for deliveries. The workshop inside the garage, below, is filled with tools from another era. Ballou is fascinated with nonelectrical machinery, and uses a combination of old and new tools in creating his own work.
Michael Ballou, a contractor from Bainbridge Island, knows all about potential — and patience. He spent 10 years building his Victorian house out of pocket, and when he finished, took what was left and built a matching 1 1/2-story garage with fretwork and gingerbreading, dormers, a lighted cupola and a second-level workshop complete with French doors.

Ballou built much of the garage with antique tools, powered not by electricity but by treadle and hand. As he likes to say, "The garage was produced by the tools inside of it." Still, the biggest challenge wasn't the construction but the site.

"Right where the garage needed to be, there was a 9-foot embankment. What we did was we took that embankment and we worked that to our favor. The lower grade goes from the street right into the garage. The upper grade is at the same level as the French doors on the shop. Normally, when you have a story and a half, you have to build a staircase. In this circumstance, each level is served by its own grade."

John Farquhar's garage in Vancouver, B.C., wins the title of "The Tidiest Workshop in the World," though he confesses, "It's only the tidiest workshop in the world when I'm not working in it. When I'm in the middle of a project, it's a darned mess."

Farquhar's garage comes with fir windows, cedar doors and mahogany-stained maple cabinets.

"People said to me, 'What a waste, you'll bash them up.' I thought, even when they get bumped up, they'll still look good."

The finishing touch on Farquhar's garage is a stone lion's head carved by his father, a Scottish stone mason.

Garages do differ from East Coast to West, according to Obolensky.

"You find garages on the West Coast sort of more in service to the big dream," she says. "Certainly, you have the whole computer industry starting out of garages. On the East Coast, garages look very differently. You find more workshops and homes are older, so a lot of the garages tend to look a little older. That might be because people are trying to match them up with historic homes. You see the biggest garages in Texas, Arizona and California."

And the unusual? Well, it seems, they're everywhere. Such as the Seattle garage with rooftop lap pool and hot tub, or the California car collector's garage, which opens to a living room, where a hydraulic lift takes auto collecting to the level of art. And then there's the "Fear Not Garage," the contents of which are a glittering sculptured throne of junk that can now be found in the Smithsonian.

spacer Photo Glulam beams crossed by heavy-duty wood I-joists support a 20,000-pound lap pool and hot tub on this Seattle garage-top deck.
Obolensky's favorite garages, however, are not the bold and beautiful or even the unusual, but that simple space she calls the quintessential garage, where you're likely to find a jumble of things.

"I have a lot of affection for some of the garages. That may be connected to the people in them. The fact is, Americans love their garages. People feel passionately about them. You really get at who a person is when you're lucky enough to be inside their garage."

This tidy little Arts and Crafts-style garage was designed and built to function as a garage and workshop for John Farquhar, who owns a small construction business in Vancouver, B.C.
Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck put up this standard, two-door garage in 1985 and stocked it with a few picnic tables so visitors to their small herb farm in Woodinville could rest and have lunch. The picnic spot quickly evolved into The Herbfarm, a four-star, destination restaurant with year-long waits for reservations. The garage's advantage "was that it was there," the couple say. When it burned down in 1997, the owners reluctantly relocated to larger, more elegant quarters, where they continue to thrive.

A barrel-shaped portable garage, shown in a 1916 edition of Sunset magazine, was built by a man from Spokane who claimed the garage could be dismantled in 15 minutes using only a wrench. Kits for such prefabricated garages were sold in catalogs until the 1940s. Almost always, the garages were built along service alleys, away from houses, out of fears about gasoline and fires.

Lori Tobias is a freelance writer based on the Oregon coast. Her e-mail address is

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