Garages: Form + Function


“Garage” from the French word garer, meaning “to shelter.”

In terms of architectural history, garages will always be younger siblings to the house—after all, the garage is only as old as the automobiles they are built to shelter The very first American garage, it could be argued, was the small coal shed in which Henry Ford built his “Quadricycle” in 1896. After it was built, Ford couldn’t fit the primitive automobile out the coal shed’s door, so he knocked away the brick to enlarge the entrance and…voila! The garage door was born.


The garage caught on in America at just about the same pace at which the Ford Motor Company cranked out Model Ts. By the turn of the century, many a carriage house abruptly found itself housing new-fangled “horseless carriages,” while architects were suddenly being called on to design an entirely new type of structure.

Long before garages became ubiquitous suburban features, it was not unusual for houses to be surrounded by a smattering of outbuildings, including icehouses, outhouses, and coal and wood sheds—not to mention the modern garage’s not-so-distant cousin, the barn.

Since 1971, John Libby of Houses & Barns by John Libby in Freeport has been both dismantling and revitalizing classic barns, and building new ones imbued with a timeless quality. “We like to think that everyone needs a barn,” Libby says with a chuckle. Some of the barns Libby builds and resurrects are used for far more than storing hay. So how can you tell a barn from, say, a garage that looks like a barn? If animals are involved, Libby says, it’s a barn.

The majority of garages Libby builds these days are attached to the custom homes his company not only builds but designs. Many of Libby’s garages assume barn-like dimensions. “There’s just something a bit more inspirational about a barn’s proportions,” he says. Though Libby obviously adores how the rich barn aesthetic can be a “visual anchor” for a property, he admits that in today’s world garages tend to be more utilitarian than elegant, and many homeowners don’t consider the many ways in which a garage can be far more than its function.elements_3.jpg

At Anastos & Nadeau in Yarmouth, designer Joe Waltman knows that the firm’s clients have no problem finding additional uses for the garage. For his part, Waltman is more concerned with executing designs that downplay the garage’s most prominent feature: the garage door. “Oftentimes,” he says, “if you can make the garage a bit bigger in certain places, it makes the doors look smaller.” Adding a second floor certainly helps, Waltman says, noting that building upwards once you’ve already got a foundation in place is “cheap square footage” that can create additional space for an office, a recreational room, or even a guest suite.

The first question that usually arises with any new house project that includes a garage is “Attached or detached?” Waltman says that while a detached garage is often more architecturally pleasing, practicality—not to mention harsh Maine winters—makes many homeowners lean toward attached. “With an attached garage, you really have to be careful not to lose the home’s dimensions,” he warns. Waltman suggests nesting an attached garage as far back into the landscape as possible and surrounding it with a bevy of gardens and greenery.

Though the detached garage was once far more common, since the 1950s they are more often found attached at the hip to homes they serve. Erik Peterson of Peterson Design Group Architecture in Kennebunk says that cultural preference has challenged him to make the “attached appear detached.” One way Peterson accomplishes this illusion is by hiding the garage’s most telling feature: “We really strive to never have the garage doors greet you as you arrive,” he says. elements_2.jpg

Peterson has also noticed that the garages seem to be getting bigger and bigger. “The challenge then,” he says, “becomes how to design a secondary structure that doesn’t overwhelm the primary structure.” Four-car garages, he suggests, can be configured into an “L” shape or courtyard design that does away with the long, unappealing expanse of large doors. Or by utilizing architectural flourishes such as barn-like sliding doors, a four-car garage can be packaged to appear as though it’s a traditional carriage house.

Recently, many garages in Maine have been experiencing an aesthetic return to their previous life as carriage houses—prominent overhangs, a dramatic juxtaposition of rooflines, and, atop it all, a cupola. Peterson, who’s particularly well known for his Shingle Style work, has a simple answer for the renaissance: nostalgia.

“There is just something about the style that strikes a chord with people,” Peterson says. “I think it suggests a simpler lifestyle.” And in Maine, perhaps more than many other places, simplicity is prized.

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