A brief history of the garage door

Car entrances move from side yard to centerpiece

By Inman News Feed
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Car entrances move from side yard to centerpiece

Arrol Gellner
Inman News™

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series.

What's the biggest, baddest door in your house? Nope -- not the front door. In keeping with America's automotive obsession, it's much more likely to be the garage door. And though architects and builders like to pay lip service to the importance of the front door, in practice, it's often the garage door that's more conspicuous.

This wasn't always the case. Before World War II, the front door was the undisputed focal point of any house, while the garage was pointedly hidden away at a back corner of the property. In the booming postwar economy of the 1950s, though, Americans finally attained Herbert Hoover's pre-Depression promise of "two cars in every garage" -- and then some. Our houses haven't been the same since.

Thanks to the countless Americans who still equate the number of cars they own with their value as human beings, multi-car garages have become status symbols. No wonder garages are the most prominent feature in so many modern tract homes.

As my many prior critiques of our auto-centric society might suggest, I don't like the notion that doorways for cars are more important than doorways for people. Still, I'm a pragmatist, and since in-your-face garages remain a reality for the present, we may as well try to make them look decent.

Let's start with a look at the most common types of garage doors.

The very earliest was, naturally enough, derived from the simple paired swinging doors used on Victorian-era carriage houses (technically known as biparting doors). Many old houses predating the Depression still use these doors, and other than needing a good bit of clearance in which to swing, they serve perfectly well. Many of these old-timers are quite charming, featuring recessed panels, decorative battens, or windows.

Nevertheless, I see many homeowners ripping out perfectly good biparting doors because they think they can't be fitted with a garage door opener. Well, they can -- so if that's why you want to get rid of yours, please don't.

With the elaborate period revival styles of the 1920s, garage doors got so heavy and ornate that side-mounted hinges were no longer up to carrying their weight. This brought about a widespread switch to bypassing doors, which are suspended from a heavy overhead track and slide past each other.

This arrangement, which was derived from barn door hardware, could accommodate doors weighing up to 400 pounds, and had the added plus of not requiring clearance for the door to swing into. Over the years, of course, neglect and lack of maintenance can make bypassing doors hard to operate, but this problem can often be remedied just by cleaning and lubricating the track.

Cheaper, one-piece overhead doors superseded bypassing doors after World War II, and they're typically found on all styles of postwar houses in both single and double widths. Because most such doors were hastily site-built to complement the style of the house, they're not as durable as modern factory-built doors.

What's more, their spring-counterbalanced hinges can be very balky when coupled with a garage door opener, not to mention downright dangerous if improperly adjusted.

Next time, we'll look at the modern default standard for garage doors, and some tips on choosing the right design.

Read Arrol Gellner's blog at arrolgellner.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter: @ArrolGellner.

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