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Upgrades make these garages the envy of the neighborhood

The sign in John Schneider's garage says "Schneider's Biker Bar — Bikes, Beers and Babes." Bikes and beers, yes, said the Shorewood electrician about his five-car castle.

"But no babes unless my wife or daughter come in, which they rarely do," he said.

"Chateau Harding" is how Michael Harding describes his garage, which was designed by Highland Park-based architect Richard Becker to echo the architecture of his 1929 Highland Park house. Outside, the garage and adjoining courtyard are made of reclaimed brick, including one salvaged from the former Comiskey Park. Inside, the garage is finished down to its moldings, home-worthy lighting fixtures and an epoxy-coated floor.

"For the first six months I wouldn't let anyone come in here with their shoes on," Harding admitted.

One of the newest rooms of the house, the garage has come a long way in a short time, from the early 1900s converted stable to the detached shed designed to hold a car or two to today's garage mahal. Merriam-Webster dictionary says the word "garage" (from the French word "garer," meaning "to shelter") did not surface until 1902. Post-World War II suburbanization created the need for the second family car, which expanded the average garage.

The three-car garage, which was not recorded by the Census Bureau until 1992, peaked in 2005, when it accounted for 20 percent of garages. Meanwhile, the one-car garage became the minority, and the two-car became the majority.

Like the "No Girls Allowed" treehouses of old, Schneider's garage is by intention a man cave where he and friends "hang out, play poker, fix stuff and drink beer," he said.

Their mascot is Schneider's dog, Brandy, who drops in when she smells pizza. "She's a girl, but she's allowed because she's a German shepherd; she's tough," he said.

In addition to his wife's car, his two trucks, a motorcycle and riding lawn mower, the garage houses a poker table, tool storage cabinets, a 14-foot-long countertop, refrigerator, pizza oven and testosterone-laden furnishings ranging from a "Harley chair" made from a motorcycle seat to neon beer signs and NASCAR posters.

"Basically, all the stuff my wife doesn't allow in the house," Schneider said.

The result is he spends most of his free time in his garage. Ditto for Schneider's weekends at his riverfront house in Wilmington, where his garage has doors at both ends so it doubles as a boathouse.

"If I'm not in bed or in my La-Z-Boy, you know I'm in the garage," he said.

Harding, a retiree, uses his garage to store his gardening tools and his G-scale (garden) model trains.

"They're in the garage because the alpha dog, my wife, says they're not going in the yard," he said.

An exterior spiral staircase leads from Harding's first-floor garage space to his wife's office upstairs. Their dog, Sweetness, finds the landing an ideal perch to survey her territory.

Harding's garage is heated, air-conditioned and insulated with sound-resistant spray-foam insulation. A refrigerator, said Harding, holds "Coca-Colas for me and some Italian beer for my contractors who still stop by to admire it." His neighbors tell him they now suffer from "garage envy," he said.

Between his cowboy posters and his baseball memorabilia, he said, "going to the garage makes me feel 10 again."

Chicagoan Len Altimari's garage may not be as elaborate as Harding's, but it is efficient.

"I could never find my hammer, so I kept buying new ones," Altimari said. "When I had nine, I thought it was time to get organized."

His do-it-yourself garage organization included the installation of pegboard, a bike hoist that sends his bike to the ceiling and accessories he bought online from crawfordorganization.com. He bought heavy-duty shelving for the Christmas and Halloween decorations that are so plentiful that neighbors call him "Mr. Holiday." He added a sound system so he and his buddies can hear their beloved Cubs.

"It's great to have lots of baskets for all the stuff that wound up in the garage, and tool organizers and bins for screws," Altimari said. "My goal was to get everything off the floor. You don't have to be rich to be organized. I spent about $1,800 for epoxy flooring and about $360 on the rest."

The austere garage was good enough to be the birthplace of Mattel, Google, Disney and many a rock 'n' roll band. But not for garage guys, who see the unadorned garage as dumb as a bridal-shower game. Thus, the spawning of garage products that make the place more grand than gritty.

High on garage fans' lists are epoxy products that give the concrete garage floor a sleek appearance and make it easier to clean. White Rabbit Inc.'s floor coating is a three-step process applied by contractors. It makes the floor impervious to road salts and oils and is elastic so it will not crack. Rust-Oleum sells do-it-yourself kits called Epoxy Shield at home centers for about $100 per 400 square feet of coverage.

Other flooring options are the New Age 18-by-18-inch floor tiles that connect to form a garage "rug" and its VersaRoll mat that comes in a 10-foot width and is cut to fit your garage. Both can be hosed down.

Organizing products range from cabinetry that matches that in the house to do-it-yourself systems from home centers. Or a professional organizer like White Rabbit will organize your garage for you. It uses Slatwall, which is an upgrade from pegboard and accommodates heavy tools and sporting equipment. Its ceiling storage units, which are stationary or crank-up, get seasonal items out of the way. Their wall cabinets are hefty enough to hold bulk purchases from warehouse stores.

In addition to the refrigerator, other kitchen appliances are making their way into garage kitchenettes. The iWavecube, for example, is a microwave oven that measures only 1 cubic foot, so it takes little space on a garage workbench.

Even the garage door opener has evolved. The LiftMaster for example, has a built-in battery backup so the opener will not quit when a storm knocks out your electrical power. The same manufacturer offers a side-mounted door opener called the LiftMaster Jackshaft Opener to free up ceiling space. The company sells do-it-yourself versions under its Chamberlain label through home centers.

The National Association of Home Builders features the latest in garage amenities in its annual show home. The 2012 garage, under construction in Winter Park, Fla., will include three bays, an electric car charging station, walls of built-in cabinets, a glass-and-steel door, an epoxy floor and a ceiling high enough for a car lift. On its roof will be photovoltaic cells to generate electricity for the garage and house.

"It will be heated, cooled and decorated like an interior room," said Brad Grosberg, principal of Phil Kean Designs Inc. in Winter Park. "We know people use garages for more than parking cars."

"The garage is the new frontier of home improvement," said Bill West, who said he wrote "Your Garagenous Zone: Innovative Ideas for the Garage" because the "garage needs humor." "Instead of looking at the garage as an attached Dumpster, where you just throw stuff you don't need, it's become a space people really use. As budgets allow, I predict, we'll see more in the garage like lighting, artwork, collections. It's time to rethink this most abused and unrealized room in the house."

As the garage grew through the late 1900s and into the 2000s, though, it became the stone in the architect's shoe. Thus the term "garage-nosed subdivisions" for the seas of McMansions that may have architectural details but have barren, white garage doors.

"Architecturally, the garage is often overlooked," said San Francisco-based architectural historian Jonathan Lammers. "Making the garage a side-load garage helps (and means the neighbors don't have to see your stuff when the doors are open), but that's not possible on every lot. If the garage doors have to face forward, buying garage doors with some pizazz makes a huge difference. But the best solution, I think, is going back to the pre-McMansion streetscapes that have detached garages in the back that you enter from alleys."

Another solution is the split-bay garage. Deerfield-based Meritus Homes, for example, at its Creekside at Inverness Ridge development in Inverness features three-car garages with one bay facing the street. The third bay often becomes "dad's space," said President Brian Brunhofer, with a workbench, sports car or motorcycle.

Does the transformation of the garage into a "manctuary" mean guys have won the gender war? Or (men, quit reading here) could it be a conspiracy by women to make men think they have won? Consider this: Which would Alice Kramden of "The Honeymooners" have chosen if she had the choice: a kitchen full of beer-drinking, card-playing, wisecracking men or a garage to put them in?

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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