Last fall I was in the market to buy my first home. I had one nonnegotiable criterion: it had to have a garage. Early in the search, I sent a promising listing to my mother, who lives in California. She noted that the garage looked small and unlikely to fit my truck. “That’s OK,” I said. “The truck isn’t going in there.”
“What do you need a garage for then?” she asked, confused.
“Nobody in Colorado parks their car in the garage,” I explained. “We all park on the street.”
“But what do you put in the garage?” she pressed.
I shrugged. “Bikes, gear, stuff like that.”
Later, on a ride, I recounted the exchange to my friend Melanie, who, along with her husband, owns a house with a highly enviable garage (two-car, attached) packed to the eaves with bikes and camping equipment. “My mother thinks we’re very strange,” I told her as we pedaled along. “Have you ever parked your car in your garage?”
“Of course not,” she laughed. “What a waste of a garage!”
It didn’t take long to learn that in a housing market already low on inventory, my prerequisite ruled out a lot of homes. Within a couple weeks, both my mom and my realtor were asking: Was I sure I needed a garage? Could a bedroom be converted to house the bikes, or could I perhaps make do with a shed?
But it wasn’t just about storage. I didn’t know how to explain this until one night when I went to my friend Dan’s house. We had beers in his cavernous, extra-wide two-car garage, where each of his various passions held its own little fiefdom: in one corner hung a neat row of bikes, alongside a workstand with one rig still clamped in, frozen mid-fix. Adjacent to the bikes was a shelf displaying his bourbon collection—Dan hosts a podcast about whiskey, which he also records in his garage—and on the other side sat a record player and a stack of vinyl. A child-size climbing wall for his daughter, Lucy, dominated another section of the room; a half-dissected 1980 Honda CB 650 motorcycle stood in yet another, its rib cage exposed, a grease pan beneath it.
Now this was a garage. It was inspiring. There was order, with the little demarcated zones and the uniformly sized Tupperware containers holding tools. But there was a satisfying mess to it, too, with all the half-finished projects and parts laying around. So many objects were in transition, most of them greasy or dirty or oddly shaped and otherwise unsuited to the clean, well kempt confines of the house. Dan’s stationary bike trainer lived here as well; in this utilitarian space, he worked on projects and he worked on himself.
My friend Kristin has a garage like this, too. When she was still married, the garage was her husband’s domain, where he wrenched on their bikes. Even if Kristin had wanted to try working on something herself, he kept it such a mess that she could never find a tool. After they divorced, she reclaimed the space. She bought nice tools, assembled a full workshop, and over the next several years taught herself to fix and maintain her bikes, which kept her hands busy and her mind quiet on all those sleepless nights after the kids had been put to bed.
If Kristin didn’t have a garage, I thought, I doubt she would have learned to bleed her own brakes. If Dan didn’t have a garage, he definitely wouldn’t own that motorcycle, nor would he still be tinkering on it two years later and counting. These are endeavors one would be unlikely to attempt without a space to screw things up or spill caustic liquids or explode an engine or two without ruining your carpet. The garage is a literal and figurative mudroom, a staging area for life. It affords space for the messy experimentation that happens when you’re trying and failing, fixing what’s broken, creating what doesn’t yet exist—and growing into new versions of yourself.
Which, of course, is not at all what a garage was designed to do. Garages came into existence alongside the invention of the gas-powered automobile in the 1890s. These early vehicles were initially stored in carriage houses or simple sheds. In 1908, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the first American home with an attached garage, the historic Robie House in Chicago. According to the 2018 book Garage, by Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela, Wright “wanted to diminish the distance between house and car…. Not only would this mean that the machine would formally be part of the family, but functionally it would further ease mobility.” By the 1940s, it became a norm for the garage to be integrated into a home’s design.
As cars became more weatherized and people began parking them on the street, the garage evolved into a space that could be repurposed for almost anything. Erlanger and Ortega Govela explain that, for some homeowners, the garage then became a creative space, spawning bands like No Doubt and Nirvana, and incubating companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Mattel.
One reason the garage may be so conducive to innovation is simply the matter of physical space. By the 1960s, most families could afford more than one car, and new homes were built with garages that were bigger than any other room in the house. “In this space of a vacuum or emptiness, that’s where creativity can happen,” says Erlanger, who is an artist. “I think that would be a major prerequisite to creativity, just having the actual area within which to project new use, new function, new potential, new ways of being, new identities. I like to think of it as a blank canvas.”
All that potential inspires some people to go all out. Cat Bode and Greg Locker, of Lafayette, Colorado, converted their two-car garage into a climbing haven. There are three walls: a MoonBoard that can be programmed with over 1,000 different bouldering problems, a 60-degree spray wall that can be set up with routes of their imagining, and a 30-degree wall that’s good for warming up and attracting the neighborhood kids. When Bode and Locker were house hunting last year, like me, they viewed the garage as nonnegotiable—but it also had to be big enough to house a mini climbing gym. At viewings “we would breeze through the house and try to get to the garage,” Bode says with a laugh. “Or I would walk through the house with our agent, and Greg would be in the garage with a tape measure, one of the electronic ones you can shoot up to get the dimensions to the ceiling.” Even after they moved in, Bode told me, “we had rooms without furniture for a long while, because we just wanted to build the garage.”
The garage is a literal and figurative mudroom, a staging area for life. It affords space for the messy experimentation that happens when you’re trying and failing, fixing what’s broken—and growing into new versions of yourself.
Still, let’s not undersell the value of the garage as the biggest storage closet ever. In fact, the reason we love the garage so much is probably also tied to the things we keep in it. While researching their book, Erlanger and Ortega Govela were surprised at how much emotion people attached to this part of the house. “We call the garage the id of the home,” says Erlanger. “It becomes this repository for dreams, memories, childhood memorabilia. It’s a space that gets filled with all the refuse—the stuff you feel an emotional tie to but isn’t ready to go in the garbage, you’re not ready to say goodbye.”
Erlanger got excited when I pointed out that many outdoorspeople primarily use the garage as a place to store gear—kayaks, surfboards, bikes, and skis. “There’s this adventure, this sense of potentiality that the garage proposes,” she mused. “So it makes lots of sense that one would want to use it to store all the tools that facilitate exploration, because it’s a site of psychological or creative exploration but also a space to prepare for the literal summit.”
No wonder, then, that we’re so attached to this liminal part of the house. It’s both the mausoleum for our memories and the launchpad for our adventures. “It’s where I stage house stuff I’m working on, where I get the truck ready for camping, where I do my woodworking,” Dan told me. “Everything starts here.”
Setups like Bode’s are impressive, but my favorite garages are the ones you can just hang out in. I often go over to Kristin’s for what we call “garage nights,” when we purportedly work on our bikes together. In reality, garage nights are mostly an opportunity for us to drink cheap boxed wine and talk about life. Sometimes the bikes never even make it off the rack. The night my fiancé and I broke up and I gave him back his ring, I went to Kristin’s afterward and we sat across from one another on the floor of her garage and she watched me cry big, heaving sobs. So a garage is not just a place to put things back together; it’s also a place to fall apart.
But most nights we laugh our asses off and have some of the deepest conversations I’ve had with anyone. Dan theorizes that it’s easier to talk in a garage, because there’s so much interesting stuff to look at instead of simply sitting across a table looking at each other. Maybe it works in the same way that it’s easier to open up to someone when you’re shoulder to shoulder on a bike ride, or in the car on a long road trip. There are so many conversation starters, too: Oh, you play drums? I played drums. Or: Whose trophy is this? Maybe there’s also something about the fact that you’re out of eavesdropping range—from spouses and curious kids in the house, from nosy neighbors over the fence.
I did eventually find a house with a garage in my price range. When my realtor and I went to see the property for the first time, the garage surprised us. The door was only a single car’s width, but as it rolled open, it unveiled a two-car garage—the extra square footage had initially been obscured by a fence. The discovery felt like the best kind of windfall.
“Wow,” my realtor said when we walked in. “This is big enough that you could even park your truck in here and still fit all the bikes.”
“You’re right,” I said, as I marveled at the amount of empty, airy space around us, which smelled like dust and gasoline and possibility. But I was just being polite. I knew I’d never park my car here. It’d be a waste of a perfectly good garage.