The Domestication of the Garage

J.B. Jackson’s 1976 essay on the American garage displays his rare ability to combine deep erudition with eloquent and plainspoken analysis.

Left behind in the digital era is a rich store of essays on design which have limited cultural presence because they are not online. In our ongoing series Future Archive, we republish significant 20th-century texts, each selected and introduced by a prominent scholar.

J.B. Jackson at his home in La Cienaga, New Mexico, 1988.
J.B. Jackson at his home in La Cienaga, New Mexico, 1988. [Special Collections and Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico]

In an essay published a few years ago in Drawn to Landscape, a festschrift celebrating the life and work of John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Chris Wilson — a longtime colleague of the legendary pioneer of cultural landscape studies, who died in 1996 at the age of 86 — tells the story of a final field trip the two men took, into northern Mexico, in 1988. “Brinck,” as his friends called him, knew the area well and as the pair traveled around central Chihuahua, he made frequent stops to talk to local people as they went about their business in grocery stores and plazas and on work sites. On one of their drives along the outskirts of a developing city, Jackson noticed a new public housing complex being built and asked the driver to pull over so he could get out and speak to the construction workers. Then in his late seventies, Brinck was “dressed in stub-toed motorcycle boots, blue jeans, and a black leather jacket purchased during a stay at the American Academy in Rome,” Wilson writes, and “after exchanging pleasantries and an easy bit of self-deprecating humor, he launched directly into a courteous but firm interrogation”:

Who is paying to have these apartments built? Who will live here? How do they make their living? From this far out, how will they get to work? How many square meters? How many bedrooms? Will there be many grandparents living in? Where will the children play? Where will the women wash their clothes and the men work on their cars? 1

The anecdote is a telling one. In its scene-setting details, it reflects the characteristically unassuming mien of the cultured, cosmopolitan thinker and writer. Born in France into a well-to-do New York City family, Jackson was a product of elite European and American boarding schools, a graduate of (and later professor at) Harvard, and arguably the preeminent figure in landscape studies in the second half of the 20th century. But he disdained the trappings of both wealth and academic celebrity, living in a relatively modest home he designed himself in a small town outside of Santa Fe and driving his pickup truck to the various manual jobs he took later in life — gardener, trash hauler, janitor — not because he needed the money, but because, as he said, he wished “to be of service.” 2

Jackson’s prolific, plainspoken writing was saturated with a belief that community is enacted within a shared emotional, as well as temporal, context.

More importantly, though, it crystalizes his fundamental intellectual bent, his deep-seated conviction that the conditions of the built environment reflect — and, crucially, affect — the nature of relationships between people, the characteristics of community, the structure of society. Across some four decades of research, editing, writing, and teaching, Jackson worked to crack open conventional approaches to urbanism, vernacular architecture, historic preservation, and cultural geography. His interest in the conditions on the ground in a given location, in the ways in which individuals of all kinds interact with the places they inhabit and how those interactions influence cultural practices and values, was always leavened with a deep appreciation of history. And his prolific, plainspoken writing — whether published in books, magazines, or in Landscape, the influential journal he founded in 1951 — was saturated with a belief that community is enacted within a shared emotional, as well as temporal, context. As Jackson wrote at the beginning of “The Domestication of the Garage,” the essay introduced here, “To be interested in the popular culture of contemporary America is to be interested in our popular architecture; the architecture of those buildings in which we live or work or enjoy ourselves. They are not only an important part of our everyday environment, they also reveal in their design and evolution much about our values and how we adjust to the surrounding world.” 3

J.B. Jackson was born in 1909 in Dinard, France, a small town on the Brittany coast of the English Channel. His father William was an American attorney and heir to a real estate fortune; his mother Alice the daughter of a prominent Hudson River Valley family. The two divorced when their son was four, and Jackson’s mother would later become a buyer for the Bonwit Teller department store in New York, often taking her son along on her work trips to Paris. 4 Jackson’s father paid for his son to go to boarding school, including a stint at Le Rosey, the famed Swiss institution attended by a laundry list of dynastic heirs and potentates, including Jackson’s classmate Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the future shah of Iran.

After graduating from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in 1928, Jackson entered the Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin. In the then-new program, select students lived and dined together and shared a common curriculum that focused on a given place during a given century — in Jackson’s freshman year, the class studied Athens in the fifth century BC. Although he would transfer the following year to Harvard, the experience was formative for Jackson; not only for the college’s unorthodox pedagogy, which argued that deep immersion into the social and cultural details of a time and place was the best way to understand both, but also for his discovery of thinkers such as the American architectural critic and sociologist Lewis Mumford and the German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler, both of whom he felt were, albeit in different ways, attempting to fashion large-scale, synthetic analyses of human civilization through detailed investigations of interacting cultural, social, and technological forces.

Jackson graduated from Harvard in 1932 with a degree in history and literature and enrolled in the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he withdrew after his first year and went to Vienna, where he studied commercial drawing for a time before heading off on a two-year motorcycle tour of Europe. He wrote articles for various American magazines on the dangers of the incipient political populism he encountered on his travels, and authored “A Führer Comes to Liechtenstein,” a piece of short fiction for Harper’s whose themes he would later expand into a novel, a satire of burgeoning Mitteleuropean fascism titled Saints in Summertime, that was published to generally positive reviews. He returned to the United States in 1936 and worked briefly in the president’s office at his alma mater, but his restless nature and his ambivalence toward both his affluence and the academic and cultural opportunities it afforded him drew him away from the East Coast and to New Mexico, where he had spent summers as a boy with his uncle in Santa Fe and where he now found work as a cowboy at a ranch in the remote northeastern part of the state.

J.B. Jackson founded Landscape in 1952.
J.B. Jackson founded Landscape in 1951.

After a few years on the range, Jackson enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent stints in Washington, D.C. and North Africa, and was eventually assigned to the European Theater — his time on the continent had made him proficient in languages, and he was posted as a combat intelligence officer; one of his responsibilities was to interrogate captured Nazi soldiers. He was wounded in the invasion of Sicily, went ashore at Normandy on D-Day plus two, and fought with the 9th Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge. Billeted in a Normandy chateau with an expansive library and later in the Hürtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border, he immersed himself in the study of geographical texts and regional cultural guidebooks both to coordinate the plans of his own division and to discern the operations of enemy troops; in the process Jackson began to consolidate his interests in the intersections of history, culture, and landscape.

Landscape would become the foundation of his reputation as one of his generation’s leading thinkers on the built environment and its social dynamics.

Upon his discharge in January 1946, he immediately set off again to take up the life of a rancher in New Mexico, leasing with a partner a 10,000-acre spread east of Albuquerque; it was only after a serious riding accident, one which required surgery and eighteen months of recovery, that he finally gave up his dream of cowboy life. He returned to writing, publishing pieces about Southwestern architecture and native agricultural settlements in the Southwest Review before deciding to found his own magazine. Inspired in part by the appearance of a wide-ranging new French journal, La Revue de Géographie humaine et d’Ethnologie, edited by the geographer Pierre Deffontaines and the archeologist and anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, Jackson debuted Landscape in 1951. It would become the foundation of his reputation as one of his generation’s leading thinkers on the built environment in all its rich variety, and on the social dynamics that produce and are produced by it.

In his introduction to the French edition of The Necessity for Ruins, one of the anthologies that includes “The Domestication of the Garage,” the landscape theorist Sébastien Marot observes that Jackson’s practice was situated at the “crossroads of history, of geography and the social sciences, but also of urbanism, architecture and landscape design, a place of exchange and trafficking of science and ideas.” The multivocal nature of Landscape reflected, from its very beginnings, this diversity of interest and influence. 5 To say that the magazine — originally styled narrowly, it would focus, according to the cover tagline, on the “Human Geography of the Southwest” — began modestly would be an understatement­. The original print run was just 150 copies and it had just 20 paid subscribers. Meanwhile, Jackson himself wrote most if not all of the articles in the first few issues himself, using a variety of pseudonyms. 6 In its second year it would abandon such geographical specificity and begin to expand its intellectual range. During the eighteen years Jackson edited Landscape, the circulation never exceeded 3,000; yet the magazine published authors from a dizzying range of academic and practical backgrounds — cultural geography, anthropology, sociology, architectural history and theory, urbanism, historic preservation, and more — effectively bringing into editorial being the multidisciplinary image Jackson had envisioned for the field. And he set out his ethos from the very first issue:

Wherever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. How can one tire of looking at this variety, or of marveling at the forces within man and nature that brought it about?

The city is an essential part of this shifting and growing design, but only a part of it. Beyond the last street light, out where the familiar asphalt ends, a whole country waits to be discovered: villages, farmsteads and highways, half-hidden valleys of irrigated gardens, and wide landscapes reaching to the horizon. A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it. 7

Jackson wrote literally hundreds of articles, reviews, and editorials for Landscape — on small towns and large cities; on quiet main streets and gaudy exurban strips; on hot rods, historic monuments, land use, tourism — as well as for other publications, both during and after his time as editor, that similarly demonstrate the range and eclecticism of his interests. His direction of the journal and his writerly oeuvre, along with his years of teaching at both Harvard and Berkeley, made him one of the field’s most widely admired figures. But his lack of specific academic training and his allergy to contemporary theory (and especially its jargon) meant that his writing, with its belletristic sensibility and sensualist immersion in the granular details of “low” forms, was not for everyone.

His allergy to theory and its jargon meant that his writing, with its belletristic sensibility and sensualist immersion in ‘low’ forms, was not for everyone.

His antagonism toward modernism, not on stylistic grounds but rather as a result of his conviction that it privileged the artistic desires of the architect over the needs of its users, put him out of step with many commentators of the time. 8 Meanwhile, Jackson’s ambivalent attitudes to issues such as historic and environmental preservation also made him something of an outlier. His celebration of older, organically derived, vernacular architectural forms did not necessarily extend to support for attempts to conserve them. And he was too intellectually committed to the idea that it was inevitable, and indeed preferable, that the landscape should welcome the forces of active evolution — forces that, to his detractors, he was prone to present as value-neutral propositions, and often viewed with an insufficiently critical eye — to give much credence to efforts to isolate and protect natural tracts of land. 9 His interest in particular sorts of places and things was inevitably and finally based in an appreciation of the patterns of use they produced, in the ways they organized and were organized by human activity.

William Blacklock House, Charleston, South Carolina.
William Blacklock House, Charleston, South Carolina, an example of the “romantic” garage. [Library of Congress]

Carriage house and garage, Lanneau-Norwood House, Greenville, South Carolina.
Carriage house and garage, Lanneau-Norwood House, Greenville, South Carolina. [Library of Congress]

Postwar house with attached garage, Bowie, Maryland, ca. 2006.
Postwar house with attached garage, Bowie, Maryland. [Library of Congress]

“The Domestication of the Garage” is, in many ways, vintage Jackson — written some years after he stepped down from the helm of Landscape but still published in its pages, it tracks, in easygoing, historically rich prose, the appearance and development of an often overlooked aspect of the built environment, linking its evolution to the work and leisure habits of the population. His interest in the design of early garages is animated, in no small part, by his interest in the labor of the chauffeur (he namechecks Henry Straker, who performs that role for Jack Tanner, the protagonist of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, a wealthy radical who admires the mechanical prowess of his employee). And as is typical, Jackson sees the evolving design of the garage as a series of tactical responses to the changing conditions of the American domestic sphere, arguing that rather than families’ changing their habits to fit new kinds of increasingly mass-produced housing, builders were in fact responding to changes initiated in everyday life by ordinary people.

In Jackson’s teleological sequence, the “Romantic garage” gives way to the practical one as the need for mobility increases and the growth of the middle class makes automobile ownership a commonplace; eventually the practical garage makes way for the “family garage” as the manner in which people use their homes for leisure and entertainment changes in the postwar years. And, crucially for Jackson, this transformation is accompanied not just by the garage’s increasingly intimate temperamental relationship to the home, but also by its physical one. Once a separate structure, set off from the residence, the garage slowly sidles up to it across the 20th century, eventually not only integrating itself into the facade but also opening up an internal passage between its increasingly multivalent space and the living spaces of the domicile, a new threshold that articulates the increasing exchanges between their forms and functions.

An enduring belief in the possibilities for learning from superficially minor phenomena was central to his approach.

Like all of Jackson’s best writing, “The Domestication of the Garage” underscores his ability to look at what appears to be an apparently settled element of the built environment and extrapolate from it an unexpectedly rich, historically grounded figuring of diverse aspects of society at large. An enduring belief in the possibilities for learning from superficially minor phenomena was central to his approach, one he summed up with characteristic straightforwardness for a filmmaker near the end of his life: “I’m always impressed with the fact that the prayer that we all give [is:] ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ It is not: ‘Give us a supply of bread for ten years.’ It is daily; it is on this small, intimate, neighborhood scale that we should live, or at least that we do live, most of us.” 10


"The Domestication of the Garage," was first published in Landscape.
“The Domestication of the Garage,” was first published in Landscape.

The Domestication of the Garage (1976)

by J.B. Jackson

To be interested in the popular culture of contemporary America is to be interested in our popular architecture; the architecture of those buildings in which we live or work or enjoy ourselves. They are not only an important part of our everyday environment, they also reveal in their design and evolution much about our values and how we adjust to the surrounding world.

The question is (and always has been) which architectural forms are we to choose?

That is why the study of vernacular (as opposed to “polite”) architecture is more and more appreciated as a source of fresh insights into the social history of a period or a people. The question is (and always has been) which architectural forms are we to choose? Until about a century ago, little uncertainty existed; historians and cultural geographers told us that vernacular architecture meant the dwelling and its dependencies, public works such as bridges and mills and fortifications, and even sometimes the church. These were the products of craftsmen, members of a predominantly rural or pre-technological society, using traditional methods and locally available materials and working with practical ends in view. Folk or vernacular architecture was thus largely interpreted in terms of structure and (by extension) in terms of the exploitation of local natural resources.

The home has been radically changed by the elimination of certain spaces and by the addition of new spaces. The garage is a case in point.

But since the 19th century there have been many changes; we have learned to see the dwelling as a much more complicated thing, and the architectural scene has immensely expanded. Innumerable new forms have evolved, not only in our public existence — such as the factory, the shopping center, the gas station, and so on — but in our private lives as well. The home has been radically changed by the elimination of certain spaces and by the addition of new spaces. The garage is a case in point. How is this particular feature — now almost essential to the family dwelling — to be interpreted in traditional vernacular terms? Is it to be thought of as the product of the craftsman? Is it somehow to be related to the economic function of the dwelling? Are we to try to establish regional or ethnic variations? Or must we reject the garage altogether? On the other hand, should we perhaps work toward a new definition of vernacular architecture that would include the garage?

The Romantic Garage

The word is of French origin, of course, and means more or less a storage space. It is related to the English ware as in warehouse, and we could easily have devised an appropriate term such as warage. But our borrowing from the French was an indication of the exotic (not to say, expensive) nature of early automobile culture. Current descriptions of the introduction of the automobile, with their exaggerated emphasis on breakneck races and the contributions of small mechanics, do not give us a true idea of the original status of the automobile in this country. To most of its owners at the turn of the century it was a pleasure vehicle and a toy, costly, exciting, and of extraordinary elegance: gleaming with brass and rich enamel, its form (even then) suggestive of power and speed. For controlling and maintaining this complicated ma­chine it was wise to engage a specialist — who (again) was given a French name, chauffeur, meaning fireman, and who, because of his daring, his mechanical genius, and his style, had a special status. In Man and Superman, Henry Straker, Tanner’s chauffeur, was the object of respect and an uneasy admiration from his employer. Shaw suggests that he represented the male counterpart of the New Woman, someone disdainful of traditional social views and in touch with future realities.

To most of its owners at the turn of the century, the automobile was a pleasure vehicle and a toy, costly, exciting, and of extraordinary elegance.

The housing of this valuable plaything, and of the chauffeur as well, was a matter of importance. In town the problem was solved by the availability of livery stables and improvised storage spaces where rentals, even in the first decade of the century, were likely to be as high as 50 dollars a month. But automobile owners who lived in the suburbs or the country depended on the stable or coach house. For sanitary reasons this was usually isolated at some distance from the dwelling, in the rear of the grounds — an arrangement which seemed suitable for the automobile as well, for who knew what might not happen if the gasoline fumes made contact with the kitchen stove? Part of the stable became what was briefly called the motor house, and the chauffeur had his lodgings in a room overhead.

At an early date the single-purpose garage emerged as an autonomous, more or less self-sufficient, building type, stylishly functional.

Architects were even engaged by the well-to-do to design combination stables, carriage houses, and garages; in 1911 Frank Lloyd Wright produced a monumental example on a suburban Chicago estate. Nevertheless the solution proved impractical. Acids emanating from the stables repeatedly tarnished the brass trim on the cars and even threatened to damage the paint. Keeping the cars clean and polished called for a special washing area, and no doubt the horses and their attendants were likewise inconvenienced. So at an early date the single-purpose garage emerged as an autonomous, more or less self-sufficient, building type, stylishly functional. In 1906 House Beautiful published a spread of some of the more imposing specimens — Colonial, Tudor, Craftsman, as the case might be. Few subsequent designs surpassed them in size and dignity. A second story accommodated the chauffeur; the storage space itself was large, well-lighted, and efficiently planned, often with a turntable (to eliminate having to back out), an overhead hoist, and a pit. This last feature disappeared when cars were designed to give access to the motor from under the hood instead of underneath.

There are suggestions in the brief literature on garage design of the period that architects enjoyed the challenge of producing strictly utilitarian interiors which would serve as settings for the engineered beauty of the automobile and the spit-and-polish work of the chauffeur; there seems to have flourished (not for very long) a kind of Machine Age esthetic of the garage.

But physically as well as psychologically the garage remained isolated from the dwelling: at the end of a long driveway be­hind the house, or hidden by a wall. Only after the chauffeur had cranked the motor into action, tested the sparkplugs and the tension of the leather fan belt, checked the oil and poured in a gallon or two of gasoline did the car, figuratively speaking, join the family. Outside the front door ensued the ritual of pulling on gauntlets, adjusting veils and goggles and lap-robes (while the automobile quivered restlessly), and finally waving goodbye. There was an early tendency — happily long since overcome but natural enough in those adventurous days — to show off while driving. Various periodicals dealing with country or suburban life urged their readers to behave with dignity on the highway. In 1909, House and Garden cautioned:

No toes peeping over the body of the tonneau or feet resting on the dashboard or arms or wraps hanging over the sides, smoking limited to one person, preferably not the driver. Whistles, bells, quacking novelties and sirens seem out of place in town although in the country they may be used to advantage. … Among the purely ornamental novelties of motordom the small gilt figure of an eagle has almost entirely monopolized the place on top of the radiator. … This is a very pretty custom if the figure be small, and quite patriotic where the bill holds a narrow ribbon of the national colors.

There exists a body of attractive if ephemeral writing — mostly novels and brief travel accounts — dealing with the early days of the car and the romance of driving. The Wind in the Willows is perhaps the only title to have survived.

The Practical Garage

In the meantime a much more prosaic automobile culture, and a much more popular one, was emerging among middle-class Americans. Entirely excluded from the wealthy world of imported pleasure cars and know-it-all chauffeurs, the world of automotive sport, hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of car owners learned to value their automobiles as an increasingly important element in their everyday existence, for pleasure of course, but also for the daily domestic routine and for work. The first Americans to see the car in these terms were probably farmers and country doctors; for them it was a vehicle for emergencies. But it was not long before many others whose work called for mobility — traveling salesmen and agents, repair and service and delivery men — used the automobile in their work, made their own repairs, and aspired to nothing more than models which were inexpensive and reliable.

A much more prosaic automobile culture, and a much more popular one, was emerging among middle-class Americans; a very different kind of garage came into existence.

And consequently a very different kind of garage came into existence. The small portable or prefabricated item, scarcely larger than the car itself, was for many working owners the practical answer. In closely built-up neighborhoods in most American cities the service alley, beginning at about the time of World War I, was lined with these boxlike structures. The dimensions of the average American city lot — 25 feet by 100 — precluded the building of any garage next to the dwelling itself; and as a result the home garage for the freestanding dwelling was relegated to the rear of the lot. Two parallel cement pathways provided a lane from garage door to curb. It was an unsightly arrangement, and it had the effect of completing the ruin of the backyard. This small private area had rarely been attractive: surrounded by a high wooden wall, dominated by the revolving clothesline, a convenient place to put the trashcan, the ashes from the furnace, and the doghouse, it had become a source of shame, and the advent of the garage concluded its disgrace.

It is hard to find any evidence that architects or planners recognized the existence of the family automobile or of the problems it created.

Those days, a half century ago, after the car had become popular but before the garage had been assimilated into the dwelling, can perhaps be thought of as a period of transition between the concept of the home as the locus of high-minded educational and hygienic endeavor and the present concept of the home as a place for recreation and fun. Yet it is hard to find any evidence that architects or planners recognized the existence of the family automobile or of the problems it created. It was only in 1916 that city planners began to take the automobile into account even in the discussion of urban transportation. Many well-intentioned designs for moderately priced houses were published during the twenties and not a few of them received awards; but although a number of them included maids’ rooms, scarcely one of them thought of the garage or even of overnight parking space. Radburn, in New Jersey, designed in 1928, gives perhaps the first sign we have of awareness of the garage as an essential adjunct to the dwelling — and even there it was segregated and hidden from view.

What one does find at this time, however, are occasional examples of relatively expensive architect-designed suburban dwellings — especially in California — where the garage is attached to the house. This innovation became noticeable in the thirties. Yet this purpose seems to have been primarily esthetic: to heighten the interest of the architectural composition, to produce striking or picturesque masses or roof lines. And the proof of this is that the garage rarely if ever communicated directly with the house. It remained functionally isolated from the domestic establishment, as if the vehicle it contained were little more than an occasional convenience having no bearing on the way life was lived. In 1939 a columnist in a shelter magazine remarked:

You can’t have failed to notice how in all the new home plans the family garage is “tied in” with the house if the architect can possibly manage it. But the old garages, plunked down on one side of the house, halfway back in the garden, their doors yawning to the street, their walls bare, and their angular lines unsoftened by shrubbery — they are ugly.

The Family Garage

Two decades later, after World War II, the whole garage scene had undergone a radical change. Not only was the garage in the average detached dwelling thoroughly integrated into the street facade of the house — to the point where its wide doors served to balance the picture window so popular in the fifties — it was internally integrated. A conveniently placed door led either into the kitchen or into what is known among home builders as the mud room — a kind of decompression chamber for members of the family returning from work or school. Furthermore, the garage itself had greatly expanded, becoming spacious enough to accommodate not only two cars, but a deep freeze, a washer and dryer, and even a hot­water unit and a hobby work bench — to say nothing of broken lawn furniture, skis, and tangles of garden hose. In short, it had become thoroughly domesticated, an integral part of home life and the routine of work and play. On its wide concrete apron — often occupying a third of the frontage — the family car was washed and polished every Sunday, and on weekday afternoons the young of the family shot basketballs. What the stork’s nest on the chimney of the northern European home traditionally signified, the basketball backstop over the garage door signified for the American home: a child-oriented domesticity.

What the stork’s nest on the chimney of the northern European home signified, the basketball backstop over the garage door signified for the American home: a child-oriented domesticity.

How are we to account for this relatively abrupt transformation ? We can perhaps enumerate some of the external forces — forces not originating within the family itself — which were at work between the Depression and the end of World War II, though it would be impossible to say which of these was the most important in changing the whole form of the middle class American home. For one thing, cars increased in width and length and outgrew the old backyard garage and the narrow driveway leading to it. Then the boom in suburban and tract­ house building produced, in many outlying communities, house ­lots with a wider frontage, and this of course allowed for a garage on the street. Families acquired two cars and even three; the decline in public transportation and the growth of urban and suburban distances meant that two cars were a necessity for many families of moderate income — one for work and one for household errands and transporting the children. A decrease in home delivery services had two very different consequences: the dwelling had to become more self-sufficient (acquiring a washer and dryer and deep freeze) and more trips were called for, more loads had to be brought home — and deposited in the garage.

In all of these changes or adjustments in the spatial organization of the American home the garage has of course played a most important role. And since the garage was designed and provided by the builder, it might be said (and often is said by critics) that the contemporary house is entirely the creation of the housing industry, therefore not vernacular in the accepted meaning of the word.

But this verdict disregards the internal changes — the changes which the occupants themselves have produced or inspired. For it is easy to establish that many shifts in domestic values and objectives took place before the homebuilders altered their designs. Only one of these internal changes can be mentioned here: the advent, sometime in the late thirties, of the concept of the home as a place for recreation and entertainment. Long before mass-produced housing recognized this tendency and began to introduce festive elements, American families were transforming the basement (where the oil burner had replaced the coal furnace) into a rumpus room or game room or activities room. Long before the advent of colorful kitchens with Mediterranean decor, Americans were busily disguising the bleak white antiseptic surface of the scientific kitchen.

There is in fact scarcely a space in the modern American dwelling that owners themselves have not transformed in keeping with this new image. Even the backyard, freed of its clothesline and rubbish and of the obsolete garage, became a recreation area well before homebuilders saw its potential charm. Barbecue pit, plastic wading pool, power lawnmower, all antedate the developers’ concept of Holiday Homesteads. And the garage as a family center half outdoors, part work area, part play area, is also a family invention, not the invention of designers.

The garage as a family center half outdoors, part work area, part play area, is a family invention, not the invention of designers.

The contribution of the homebuilder to the promotion of the leisure-oriented home has certainly been important, but it has chiefly been a matter of sensing shifts in taste and giving them a saleable form. It is only lately, for instance, that the housing industry has seen what the garage has come to signify. The Practical Builder in 1968 proposed the three-car garage. The added massiveness, the magazine suggested, would make for a more impressive house and the three garage doors would imply three cars and a corresponding larger income. Surely these are very out-of-date concepts, long since abandoned by the prospective homeowner! And the magazine added (as if it had made a startling discovery) that the extra space could be put to use for storing pleasure boats, for the pursuit of hobbies, for a play area on rainy days. But in scores of housing developments we had already acted on the suggestions; it is we who design or redesign our homes, the homebuilders merely provide their structure.

Just as the builders were a good decade behind the times in realizing the importance of the garage in the twenties and thirties, they have been behind the times in seeing that the multi­purpose garage has become an integral part of the new leisure-­oriented dwelling. There is nothing blameworthy in this; the housing industry has not claimed to do more than satisfy well-established needs, though it does not always do this very well. But the mass homebuilder has in a sense come up with a good working definition of middle-class architecture: the visible result of a confrontation between the aspirations of the occupying family and economic and social realities. There is no permanent solution to the conflict; there never will be. That is why we will go on evolving new kinds of vernacular architecture; that is why the contemporary American dwelling with its all-purpose garage is an authentic example of what vernacular means.

Editors' Note

“The Domestication of the Garage” was published in Landscape, volume 20, number 2, in 1976. It is republished here with the permission of the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico.

Notes
  1. Chris Wilson, “A Life on the Stranger’s Path,” in Drawn to Landscape: The Pioneering Work of J.B. Jackson, ed. Janet Mendelsohn and Chris Wilson (Staunton, VA: George F. Thompson Publishing, 2015), 28, 30. Wilson is the former J.B. Jackson Chair of Cultural Landscape Studies at the University of New Mexico.
  2. Ibid., 27.
  3. J.B. Jackson, “The Domestication of the Garage,” in The Necessity for Ruins (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 103. Originally published in Landscape, vol. 20, no. 2 (1976).
  4. For these and other details of Jackson’s biography, I am indebted to Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “J.B. Jackson and the Discovery of the American Landscape,” in J.B. Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, ed. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997) and Paul Groth and Chris Wilson, “The Polyphony of Cultural Landscape Study: An Introduction,” in Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, ed. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
  5. Sébastien Marot, “Profession Visiteur,” in J.B. Jackson, De la nécessité des ruines et autres sujets, trans. Sébastien Marot (Paris: Editions De Linteau, 2005), 10. Cited in Caroline Maniaque-Benton, French Encounters with the American Counterculture 1960–1980 (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016), 76.
  6. See J.B. Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, note 25, 374
  7. J.B. Jackson, “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” Landscape, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1951). Quoted in Paul Groth and Chris Wilson, “The Polyphony of Cultural Landscape Study: An Introduction,” in Everyday America, 9. The essay borrows its title from a 1920 poem by Robert Frost.
  8. See Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “J.B. Jackson as a Critic of Modern Architecture,” in Everyday America, 44.
  9. In “‘Sterile’ Restorations Cannot Replace a Sense of the Stream of Time,” a 1976 letter to the editor of Landscape Architecture, Jackson wrote: “The power which an ancient environment possesses to command our attention and respect derives from its having accepted change of function; its beauty comes from its having been part of the world, not from having been isolated and protected, but from having known various fortunes.” Cited in Paul Groth and Chris Wilson, “The Polyphony of Cultural Landscape Study: An Introduction,” in Everyday America, 14.
  10. J.B. Jackson, speaking in Bob Calo’s film J.B. Jackson and the Love of Everyday Places. Cited, in a slightly different form, in Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin, “In the Beginning Was Landscape,” in Drawn to Landscape, 103.
Cite
Jeffrey Kastner, “The Domestication of the Garage,” Places Journal, February 2019. Accessed 24 May 2019. https://doi.org/10.22269/190205

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