Sunday, February 26, 2012

Evolution of Stables to Garages

This delightful albumin silver print by Eugène Atget currently in the NY Museum of Modern Art, dated June 1922, came to my attention while perusing Teri Tynes’ blog Walking Off the Big Apple, a strolling guide to New York. For me, the beauty of this photograph lies in how effortlessly it captures the natural evolution of alley adaptive reuse 90 years ago in France. The building behind the car and motorcycles is clearly a former stable that has been commandeered as a repair shop. The diversity of machinery suggests that this is a commercial venture rather than many conveyances belonging to one individual. A wealthy person would not live here and would never work on their own vehicles. That was left to mechanics and chauffeurs – often the same person in the 1920’s. The lack of signage suggests that this operation may not be entirely sanctioned. The various repair projects are being done outside because there is no electricity and no light inside. There is an unpretentious casualness about the scene where there does not appear to be a fear of theft with tools and machines seemingly left unattended. The garage door is clearly makeshift and a poor barrier to trespassers.

1917 Accident in DC (from Shorpy's Collection)

Early in the last century, roads were rough and gas powered machinery was fragile. This was  “a perfect storm” for mechanics. For example, tires were lucky to last 5,000 miles with normal wear.  Wheel spokes were wooden and designed for carriages rather than cars. The alloy of engines and frames was often of poor and inconsistent quality. With the explosion of car manufacturers in Europe and the US, parts were not readily interchangeable and mechanics had to customize and improvise. It’s easy to see why blacksmiths who were accustomed to repairing springs, frames and wheel rims in carriages were logical tradesmen to fit into a transition to a new transportation era. It’s also easy to see why stables became converted to auto repair garages. D.C. had scores of them! They were already in a perfect location in the center of blocks, they already had a customer base (former horse and carriage trade), they already had most of the tools, the alley was accustomed to noise and smells, and they already had the building, so – why not? And they did. Most are gone but many signs still linger as reminders of a fragment of alley life in the last mid-century of DC.

People in the neighborhood could not afford the high prices of dealership repair shops along 14th Street and elsewhere in the city. They drove cheap worn out cars that required much work for which they could barely manage to pay. Sometimes a barter deal was worked out. In some instances the cars were “hot” with a questionable provenance, so being able to have them repaired (and repainted!) quickly with no questions asked was a service much in demand in some alleys.

In this photograph from the Shorpy collection, Ms. Grace Wagner is pictured here on February 9th 1927, under a car, learning auto repair at Central High School in Washington D.C. Other classmates pictured with her are Grace Hurd, Evelyn Harrison and Corinna DiJiulian.

Ms. Wagner graduated in from high school in 1930 and went on to Wilson Teachers College and ultimately earned a master's degree in education from George Washington University. She taught for many years in the DC Public School system and eventually died of pneumonia in 2002.
Perhaps one day, DC alleys may find themselves turning back to servicing electric cars. This business would meet local needs, be relatively quiet and carry a low carbon footprint. The stables and other buildings in alleys have lived many past lives and with intelligent alley planning and preservation there is no reason that they and other small alley buildings will not experience many future new lives. 

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