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Why Are There Garages on Bay Area Homes Built Before Cars Existed?

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Six colorful victorian homes in the foreground. On the street level, each has a garage. The San Francisco city skyline is in the background.
San Francisco's Painted Ladies were built in the 1890s, long before cars were the norm in American households. The main entrance is on the second story. Their ground floors have since been converted into garages. (Getty Images/LimeWave)

Read the transcript of the podcast episode here.

San Francisco has a lot of Victorian houses. But … why do they have garages, if they were built back before cars were popular?

“Did people used to put horses and buggies in these garages? Would somebody, you know, roll their buggies in?” asks Bay Curious listener Jessica Calefati.

Adam Eads has a similar question. He’s been trying to figure out why the ground floor of his house, built in 1910, is just a big open room with a dirt floor. “What would people have been doing with all this space?” he wonders. “Because it couldn’t have been easy to just build your house 12 feet off the ground without a good reason to do so.”

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The answer, as it turns out, is not just about architecture. It’s a window into another technology, another social structure … another time.

Keeping cool and clean

In the late 1800s when these houses were being built, the Port of San Francisco was teeming. Ships were bringing in all kinds of goods: lumber, coal, boots … also blocks of ice the size of microwave ovens. This was before houses had refrigerators.

“And so the ice is coming down from the northwest, typically Tahoe and even further north,” said Pamela Larson with San Francisco Heritage. “You load it on your wagon, pack it full of sawdust and hay to keep it from melting. And you’re delivering it around the neighborhood.”

Of course, you needed a place to keep this ice. Someplace cool, like a basement. “Milk is being delivered daily, right?” said Larson. “You want to keep your butter, your meat.”

So cold storage — and storage in general, like for the piles of coal that was burned at the time — was one reason for the ground floors.

But also, with streets full of horses and wagons clattering about — making tons of noise and tons of horse manure — people wanted to build their living areas up above the muck and the stench. Thus, the second story entrance.

Another use for the ground floor was partying! Some houses had an entertainment room, or even a ballroom, in the basement — next to the ice, and away from the living quarters.

Behind that, Larson explained, would have been a laundry room, with big sinks and rug beaters and washboards. And in wealthier households, a laundry man would have lived in the basement, normally a Chinese man. This was the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Racism was a federal policy, and with few employment opportunities, Chinese men often turned to physically demanding laundry work.

A laundry room in a 1880s Victorian house. It includes three wash basins, a wringer and a washboard.
Laundry was a large, painstaking chore before the advent of the washing machine. (Katherine Monahan/KQED)

So the ground floors were originally used for the technology of the times and, in the middle- and upper-class households, for the workers who used that technology. But then came a new technology.

Ground floors get a new purpose

By the 1920s, cars were getting really popular in the Bay Area. Coal heat was turning into gas heat, and iceboxes into refrigerators. New houses were built with garages for those cars. And the old Victorians?

“These are all just wood-framed houses, right?” said Larson. “They’re not hooked to anything. They’re just sitting on a foundation.”

People lifted up Victorians using pulleys and levers, and built garages underneath. And then just set the houses back down on top.

Or, if the ground floor was tall enough, they just cut a driveway down to it and installed a garage door leading to the old storage space. And that’s why you see such steeply slanted driveways sometimes around the Bay Area.

Who knows, maybe these spaces will take on yet another use in the future, when the next technology comes along.

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