I live in a neighborhood where all but a few of the houses were built between 1900 and 1930. The neighborhood is a delightful, settled kind of place with wide sidewalks, lots of shade and a generally likeable population. I might even say that the place is Wobegonic, with plenty of strong-minded women, good-looking men, and above-average children.
Back when the turn-of-the-century developers starting building houses here, a new house sold for about $900 and a new car cost about the same. Today, the original neighborhood houses are still in pretty good shape, and are holding their value nicely.
That’s because they’re what real estate folk call “unique properties.” The old houses can’t be replicated. There just aren’t enough skilled carpenters, plasterers and such, and there’s not much centuries-old red pine or figured chestnut to be found these days.
The newish neighborhood cars, though, aren’t faring so well. They’re suffering from sunburned paint, etching from bird droppings and general bloat. These days, streets that used to be clear most of the day are lined with oversized would-be war wagons. Best I can tell, it’s the same in old neighborhoods all over town.
Ninety-one years after the first Model T rolled off the assembly line, we now have cars that are seven feet tall and seven feet wide. You can’t park ‘em in the lot at Green Hills Mall without folding in the mirrors. Drop a power converter, a dorm fridge and a hotplate into one of these cars, and it could be somebody’s house.
Friends and neighbors, listen to me: This town needs some new, bigger and better garages — detached garages that look like they belong on the same lot as the house. And we need to fix up the old garages that we’ve got.
Drive through any old neighborhood in Nashville, and you’ll see what used to be perfectly good turn-of-the-century garages leaning like a Kentucky tobacco barn. You’ll see the concrete-block garages of the 1940s, with stair-step cracks wide enough to swallow a pack of playing cards. When we’re not building new garages, we ought to be repairing the ones we’ve got.
All that said, I’m not a big fan of garages, at least the ones that are currently attached to run-of-the-mill spec houses, pointed toward the street and flashing the ugly, evil grin of the cheap aluminum garage door. Of course, if you’ve already committed to the suburbs — and having an attached garage — you’re stuck with that garage until you move away.
Attached garages make me a little nervous. The worrisome mix of carbon monoxide emissions from the family vehicles — along with water-heater pilot flames and gasoline fumes — has given me more than one bad dream. And when I think about the botched fireproofing that some tradesfolk attempt to put between a garage and a house, the bad dream gets worse.
For years, I’ve held the opinion that attached garages — along with stockade fences and backyard decks — are a big part of what’s wrong with this country. Neighbors just don’t see each other enough these days. Folks pull out of their garages in the morning and pull into them in the evening. The only time some neighbors lock eyeballs is when the mowing man (or mowing woman) pops out of the garage on Saturday morning, straddling the garden tractor.
Now, back to Nashville’s need for more and better detached garages. Consider this: A detached garage is a dandy place for a little recording studio. No noise from the kitchen appliances, the telephone or the scrappy kids. A nice garage, with swinging or sliding wood doors — not the wretched flimsy aluminum doors — could be quite an asset at resale time.
I’m considering a new outbuilding for my own back yard. Right now, I’ve got a 20-foot by 20-foot shed that dates back to around 1914. Termites have feasted on it, but it just won’t fall down. My backyard would be a much better place with a nice one-car garage, reserved for whichever Jowers car would benefit most from being sheltered.
If you’re in the mood to build yourself a nice garage, you might want to check out http://todaysplans.com/ where architect Donald J. Berg has posted some free, downloadable plans for simple garages and outbuildings.
But before you start sawing and hammering, be sure to check with the Metro Historic Zoning Commission. They can educate you on new construction, alterations, additions, repair and demolition. And you can get some pretty good free advice.
Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org