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In suburbia, some garages are outgrowing homes


Chicago -- Don Kemper's garage is a metaphor for suburban life.

It stands as a repository for the lawn mower, lawn chairs, snow blower, recycling bins, hardware, workbench, golf clubs, cat litter, firewood, toboggan, skis, motor scooter and rollerblades.

It also houses the sailboat no one sails, the bike no one rides, and the trunk full of toys for daughters who are nearly grown.

And, like nearly every garage on Camelot Lane, it's home to three cars.

The Kemper garage testifies to a phenomenon that is uniquely American: the ever-expanding garage.

In the '50s, when the garage first became a typical feature of a new home in middle-income America, it was a humble one-car structure or just a carport. Two decades later, most new homes came with two-car garages.

But over the last few years, three-car garages have become commonplace on the landscape of middle-income suburbia.

The phenomenon testifies to a simple truth learned by home builder Rino Bertacchi over the course of two decades in the business: "The garage is never big enough," he said. "That's what it's all about."

People building homes, even those in the more "modest" $200,000 range, request three-car garages. For anyone selling a home at $400,000 and above, they're becoming a standard. At that level, home builder Orren Pickell said, "it's the kiss of death not to have one."

And by the way, the very term garage is just too pedestrian for some of the more lavish automobile accommodations. For those, Mr. Pickell said, the preferred term is "motor room."

California builders led the way in garage mania, adding to garages in lieu of digging basements, said Gopal Ahluwalia, research director at the National Association of Home Builders.

Generally, as the standard new home expanded over the last decade, so did its garage. Bathrooms became spa-like. Family rooms started looking like small movie theaters, housing televisions that were almost as big as the silver screen. Master bedrooms began taking on the appearance of the finest suites at the Ritz. Sprawling decks sprouted in back yards. So, too, is "big" the key word with the garage.

"There will be more space in the garage than in the house one day," Mr. Ahluwalia joked.

And, as families' incomes grow, their extravagances are inhibited neither by money nor space.

"You'll never see a better garage," Mr. Bertacchi said with flourish as he showed the "motor room" of his $1.4 million model home. The garage is a four-car affair with heat, partially bricked floors, and 12-foot ceilings to accommodate mobile homes and boats.

This is not the ultimate, however. Some car palaces have brick floors, cathedral ceilings and chandeliers.

Beyond even that is the domain of the mega-garage. Mr. Bertacchi's home, for instance, has an attached three-car garage and a separate "parking barn" that can hold 10 cars.

In middle-class America, most three-car garages don't hold three cars, Mr. Ahluwalia said. Generally, they hold two cars and such a degree of odds and ends that it's no wonder George Carlin's comedy bit on "stuff proliferation" became a classic.

Virtually all garage growth happens in suburbia. In many old suburbs, people are limited more by their lots than by their budgets.

For city dwellers, life at times seems defined by the pursuit of a parallel-parking spot.

But suburban residents, who often are prohibited by local ordinance from street parking, instead spend time playing musical chairs with cars in the driveway. That's because, of course, there is no room to put a car in the garage.

"It was originally for a car," Mary Ravenna said of the third spot they added to the garage of their home a couple of years ago. Now, she said, the third car is gone, but the space is filled with the stuff that won't fit in the back-yard shed.

"It's very convenient for us," she said.

Ingeborg Himmelstein's home has two cars, but she expanded her two-car garage to four-car width. "If guests come, I could accommodate their cars," she said. "A car outside looks sloppy."

Elizabeth and Robert Taylor have two cars to put in the three-car garage of their new home. Still, they'll easily fill up the third space with their two children's toys, a refrigerator, and life's other outdoor gadgetries. "It's nice not to trip over things," she said.

Their neighbors, Gwen and Richard Wilkes, on the other hand, are trying to make do with their three-car garage. Their household consists of two people and four cars.

"My husband is into old cars," Gwen Wilkes said. "Needless to say, I wish we had a four-car garage."

Stored in the garage along with the cars and gadgets are the personality traits of middle America.

"The three-car garage is necessary in a way it wasn't before," said Bernard Beck, a Northwestern University associate professor of sociology. "Many ordinary families have three cars, not because of affluence of the family but because a car is a necessary tool for survival in the suburbs. It's to the point where, if you can afford it, everybody needs their own car."

The '50s ideal of Dad taking the train downtown to work, Mom using the car to tend to family matters and the kids taking the bus to school has vanished. Now Dad may need to drive from one suburb to another, and the same may be true for Mom. Kids -- with a full schedule of school, activities and possibly a job all beyond walking distance -- need cars, or chauffeurs, themselves.

Beyond that, Mr. Beck said, the garage is an indication of suburbia's fear of crime. People put possessions in the garage they once felt free to leave on porches, yards and driveways, such as bikes, skateboards and lawn chairs. The idea is: Enclose it all.

"It's dangerous out there," Mr. Beck said. "The ways we live reflect that."

If Mr. Kemper's garage reflects the way he lives, he must be a model of organization. Gadgets rest on racks, hooks and shelves that leave plenty of room for the family's three cars. Still, Mr. Kemper jokes about its clutter.

"Why are we keeping all this?" he sometimes asks himself.

"A garage is emblematic of people's personalities," Mr. Kemper said. "I think it says our lifestyle is a little too fast to stay organized."

The garage was an object of fascination for Mr. Kemper's father, a Baltimore man who never had one. "You know, one thing I always wanted was a garage," Mr. Kemper recalled his father saying.

During his visits, the father would ask for permission to park in his son's garage. With a certain reverence, he would ease the car into a space, Mr. Kemper recalled. Then he would hold fast to the habit he established over a lifetime of parking on the streets of Baltimore: He locked the door.

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