From Horseless Carriages to the Tesla – Housing the Automobile
I don’t watch much television. While I have always felt that one version of NCIS, FBI, and Law & Order was sufficient, evidently the brass at all the major networks disagreed. What’s next, NCIS – Phoenix? So, when I do tune in when my eyes are too weary to read and my fingers are no longer willing to perform the correct strokes on the keyboard, I tune in to something that doesn’t require much concentration to follow, something such as American Pickers.
What could be better than barns, garages, basements, and attics crammed full of what most of us would consider landfill material? But a few times during each episode, Mike Wolfe and his sidekick of the day unearth some antique toy or tool that was new when I was a kid, and it brings back pleasant memories. But what almost always amazes me with this program is that almost no one’s garage houses any automobiles, but instead is piled to the rafters with belongings that haven’t been used in many years.
A few days ago, while going through some old photos, I came across a few of the garage at our first house on Sport Hill Road. The house had been built in 1932 and the garage appeared to be from that same decade. It was small – more like tiny – probably no more than ten feet in width and sixteen to eighteen feet in depth. Just big enough to house a Model-A Ford or Studebaker Commander of that era. My mother drove a British made Hillman, and that fit with only enough extra room to hold a lawn mower, my bicycle, and a few rakes and shovels. There was a shallow set of shelves on either side of the single window on the rear wall that held the essentials that every car owner of the day needed to have on hand: a few quarts of motor oil (what oil cars of that era didn’t burn, they leaked), a kit for patching tire tubes, a grease-gun, a replacement set of spark plugs, an assortment of light bulbs that always included a replacement headlight bulb, and the all-important can of starting fluid (ether) that aided in firing up the machine whenever the temperature dipped much below ten degrees.
While garages are commonplace today, in the 1950’s – fifty years after automobiles began to appear in numbers on the American scene – garages in rural towns such as Easton and Redding were scarcer than one might think. In the one mile stretch of northern Sport Hill Road where our house was located, there were only a dozen homes. Only five of those houses had garages and only one held more than one automobile. Two car families were rare. Of those twelve households, only one other besides ours owned two automobiles prior to 1958. And it wasn’t about money. We had a television producer, an aircraft engineer, an advertising executive, a dentist, a publisher, a major insurance company heiress, and a successful artist living in that neighborhood. Two cars were just not the norm, in fact, at least five of the adult women in our little neighborhood didn’t even have a driver’s license.
Many of the elegant Queen Anne and Victorian houses built between 1870 and 1910 had carriage houses on the property. Their purpose was just as the name would suggest – to house the owner’s carriages. The wealthy occupants of many of those homes had several carriages – open and closed, as well as varying sizes that fit the needs of long and short hauls. While most required a single horse, some of the larger enclosed models needed two to pull the heavier load. Many of those carriage houses, especially the ones in more urbanized settings, had two or three horse stalls that either sat to the sides or were located beneath the structure if it was built on the side of a hill. Some had a tack room for harnesses and saddles. Here in New England, many if not most people also had a horse drawn sleigh that made travel easier during the months of winter.
While we see many of those elegant carriage houses preserved today and currently being used to house automobiles, that was seldom the case when the automobile began encroaching on the territory once ruled exclusively by horses. Since the automobile was relatively new and not quite suited to year-round use on most of New England’s roads, most early owners retained their horse drawn modes of transportation well into the nineteen-teens or beyond. Since automobiles were rather loud, emitted obnoxious fumes, and were prone to backfire during cold startups, their presence in the same space as the family’s horse(s) was quite disturbing to the animals.
Barns were sometimes used to house the early automobiles of the farmers who had the means to purchase them. This often proved to be a poor choice as well. My great grandfather parked his new Maxwell touring car in his barn. That worked out fine for about a month until Grandpa Isaac set the adjustment of the spark advance to the wrong position before he walked around to the front of the machine to crank the engine. As the engine began to spin to life, it back-fired rather severely, sending a flame out of the exhaust pipe and igniting the dried straw on the floor behind the car. Before poor Ike realized what had happened, the flames spread and the entire structure along with his prized new automobile was lost.
Garages built exclusively to house automobiles soon became the norm amongst the wealthy. Some even contained living spaces above to accommodate a chauffeur, a position that was much more common during the first few years of the twentieth century than most people today might realize. Simply put, early automobiles needed constant maintenance and early chauffeurs didn’t just drive their employers around the countryside, they spent a good deal of their day keeping those early machines running.
The Blue Ribbon Garage on Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport was one of the earliest area structures built and advertised as offering fireproof automobile storage. It could accommodate a whopping 500 automobiles on three floors as early as 1908. While the Fairfield Avenue side was built completely of steel, concrete, and brick, the older Cannon Street side was constructed mostly of wood, so the company’s claim of fireproof storage was only partially true. Access to the garage was from Cannon Street through a huge set of hydraulically operated doors that swung inside with such force that they could toss a man about twenty feet to one side should he not pay attention to the ringing bells that warned that they were about to open. A total of three interior freight elevators could easily move automobiles from one floor to the next. The second story on the Fairfield Avenue side had two large rooms built specially to accommodate the chauffeurs of vehicles traveling between NYC and points north. One room was for sleeping and the other served as a lounge for the men. The company maintained a complete repair shop on the first level to keep traveling customers’ cars running smoothly. There was even a gasoline pump located inside the building on the first level to supply fuel from an underground storage tank.
While only the wealthiest maintained more than a single automobile, advertisements for the sale and construction of early residential garages for urban dwellers often showed double doors and enough space to store two automobiles. This wasn’t a premonition of things to come, but rather a hook used to reel in new customers by those who built garages. They were promoting the extra bay as an income producer. Build a garage to house your own car and rent out the other bay to a neighbor to store his. Not a bad idea, but exactly how much could one charge when the average house rental in 1915 was only about $25@ month?
Residential, single car garages began to pop up in urban areas first. If you owned an automobile, garaging it was more of a necessity than a convenience. Early automobiles were mostly open-air machines. Some had tops that could be raised, but absolutely none of the early touring cars had windows. Side curtains with clear panels of isinglass that allowed the occupants to see outwards were optional. They were designed to keep out the nastiest of the weather, but not car thieves. Not only couldn’t the doors of those first machines be secured, but those earliest automobiles didn’t even have locking ignitions. Cars of that era were started through a complex set of maneuvers that only certain people really understood how to complete, but anyone with that knowledge looking to steal an automobile could easily do so if it was left unattended in the open. It wasn’t until 1910 that the first key was used to lock the ignition. Starting any car required a driver to hand crank the engine until electric starters debuted in the 1912 Cadillac. However, it would take several more years before most automobiles were equipped with that feature.
The first dedicated residential automobile garage I could verify in either Easton or Redding belonged to Jesse B. Cornwall. It was constructed in 1905 or early 1906 at his summer residence, Oak Knoll, on Sanfordtown Road. Cornwall regularly commuted between Redding and his piano hardware factory in Bridgeport. The garage was capable of holding two automobiles – Jesse’s cars of choice being Bridgeport built Locomobiles. The garage was separate from his carriage house where the wagons and sleighs were stored along with his horses.
As elaborate an estate as Samuel Clemens’ 1908 Stormfield was, it hadn’t been designed to accommodate automobiles. Clemens preferred horse-drawn carriages and travel by train, so he never owned an automobile. The large carriage house at Stormfield held only horse drawn modes of transportation while Clemens lived there. The only motorized transportation seen on Clemens’ estate belonged to a few of his many guests.
Commodore Walter Luttgen’s Villa Linta estate, constructed just a few years later on Sunset Hill, had a garage capable of holding six cars. One of his autos was a Detroit Electric that was used primarily to traverse his 450-acre estate. With no electric lines yet strung in Redding, the Commodore’s auto was charged using a wind driven generator.
George Leyland Hunter purchased the Lobster Pot on Mark Twain Lane several years after Clemens’ passing and he built a large garage on top of the hill that was capable of holding several automobiles as well as providing accommodations for the chauffeur on the lower level. Above was a large studio/library and a guest bedroom that overlooked the Saugatuck Valley to the east.
Early residential garages had a variety of door setups that could open wide enough to accommodate one or more automobiles. But before rolling overhead doors were introduced, most doors opened outwards, a problem in New England where snow could pile up in front of the doors making them all but impossible to pull open prior to shoveling. One of the more interesting doors that solved that problem was a multi-panel folding unit called the “Slidetite.” It could cover an opening as wide as 30-feet, and the folded doors remained inside the building. By the early 1930’s the electric motors became available to open garage doors from the driver’s seat of your car.
The first garages built exclusively to house automobiles in Easton were likely constructed in the early 1920’s. All but a handful of Easton’s original homes had been built by farmers. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that a few wealthy Bridgeport businessmen began purchasing homes in the southern part of town to use as summer residences. It is likely that one of those summer residents constructed the very first garage in Easton, but without building records we can never know for certain. The oldest photo of a residential structure built specifically to house an automobile, dates to 1926, when Harry Escott built his house on Marsh Road. The 1934 Connecticut Arial Survey shows several structures that appear to be garages dotted across the landscape.
One of the first attached two-car garages in town was built by Peter Sedlar on Sport Hill Road in 1941. Sedlar had been born in Hajtovka, Slovakia in 1895 and after moving to Easton he worked for General Electric. When he built his house, his pride and joy was that two-car garage. So much so, that according to his grand-daughter, photos that he sent back to his relatives in Europe prominently displayed that part of the structure.
After WWII, Easton properties south of Flat Rock Road began to be subdivided and dozens of new homes were soon built. Most included a garage. Some were attached. Others were built underneath, as many of the lots were sloped enough to allow access to the lower level where cars could be stored out of sight and at a far lower construction cost than an attached garage would run.
New homes today often have garage space for three, four, or even more vehicles. While the evolution may seem to be complete, it appears that the next generation of garage space will require a more elaborate electric grid to supply enough wattage to run multiple at-home charging stations as electric vehicles supplant the current crop of fossil fuel users. The evolution of the garage will likely continue as long as we have modes of personal transportation that need safe and secure storage – after that it can always be used to house all the junk we simply couldn’t bring ourselves to part with while our grandkids wait for the next generation of Mike Wolfe’s to arrive.