Tuesday, June 14, 2016

An out-standing contribution

The story of our detached garage

By Geoffrey Dean

A couple of weeks ago we had a rep from the city’s home improvement program come by to give his opinions as to what needed improving about our home. My secret hopes of getting some logistical and financial help in tearing down and replacing our current garage were dashed by his overt enthusiasm when he saw it, a decaying wooden structure set about ten feet from the back of our house.
    “Isn’t this wonderful!” he exclaimed, launching into a litany of praise for folks like ourselves who are willing to take on the challenges of owning older homes. I later understood that the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, while passing over our stuccoed-over 1905 (or 1899, depending on the source) Victorian Eclectic house as a site of historical interest, had declared this garage of ours as contributing to the historical character of our northwest Salt Lake City neighborhood.
    So there seemed to be no question that the garage must stay standing as long as it can, whether we can stand it or not. I have since placed myself in a self-designed – and initiated – rehabilitation program, with the goal of rearranging my attitude about our garage. My main rehab activities have been to get the sliding barn-type door to actually slide and, with the help of a shop vac rented from Home Depot, to clean out as much dust and debris as possible within a 24-hour period. In the process of accomplishing these tasks earlier this week, I uncovered some interesting quasi-datable artifacts that have added to my sense of connection to our garage and its past.

The first item is a wooden crate that continues to serve as a shelving unit in the southwest corner of the garage. This crate once held bottles of Lanson Champagne from the Vintage Year 1928. According to the Lanson website, this venerable French champagne label didn’t have another Vintage Year until 1955, so this particular crate could conceivably have ended up in our garage at any point between 1928 and 1955 (or even later).
    Coincidentally, 1928 is the year by which, it is said (in a city report on this part of town), all houses in our area had garages. The process of subdividing larger lots and divesting them of rural outbuildings like chicken coops had started around the turn of the 20th century, and garages were added starting in the 1910s. In this same period, until about 1915, the “Dinkey” streetcar was running from the Fair Park entrance at North Temple and 1000 W (then 900 W) to the corner of 500 N and 1300 W (which, if this is the old street numbering, means 1400 W – our corner). So someone living at our address, 501 N 1400 W, may have felt a greater need for their own motorized transport after 1915. Our garage could be over 100 years old.
    I mentioned subdividing larger lots, and outbuilding divestiture. Our house was definitely built by the same builder and at about the same time as the next two houses along 1400 W, and all are squeezed into lots as narrow as the ones allotted to later homes built in this area. The result was an early, three-house “subdivision.” A 1902 Salt Lake Tribune article that I came across online mentions that the Victorian cottages of this time all had indoor toilets, not as “add-ons,” but as an integral part of the original design. This is borne out by the placement of our bathroom within the original red-rock foundation of our house.

But back to the garage – another clue to “dating” our dear old car shed is the marked deterioration of the bottom of the wooden frame, which is built directly on top of a concrete slab. Water seeps under the 2x4s every time it rains, and the corner planks especially are damaged or even rotted away completely. Water stains can be seen on the planks at higher levels throughout the garage, suggesting some connection to the fact that before City Creek was rerouted underground, it passed through this area above ground on its way from the city center to the Jordan River, and regularly flooded the region. Christa and I sometimes say “Shitty Creek” for fun when referring to present-day City Creek mall on South Temple, but after reading about the typhoid epidemic of 1893, I think we’ve been closer to the truth than we realized.
    Like the rest of our garage’s interior, the inside of the sliding door was not repainted when our house was flipped before we bought it last year. Unless you are not a fan of lead-based paint, this is a good thing, because the following penciled notation can be clearly seen: “Repainted Sept. 12 1952. Painted June 1954.”

How something can be repainted before it is painted is a mystery to me, but let’s focus on the years.
    Another penciled notation, on the wall to the west of the door, records the following: “Car length Ford 16'2".”

Here no year or model is given, which is particularly unhelpful in the case of Fords, because all full-size Ford models (coupes, sedans, station wagons) of the 1940s and 1950s were 16'4" or 16'5" in overall length. For comparison, the first Thunderbirds (a 1950s novelty) were only 14'6". (See this automobile catalog.) More interesting would be how wide this Ford was, because we can barely squeeze our Kia Soul in without ripping off the side mirrors. Our garage is approximately two cars wide, but there is a door only for about half of the garage’s width, so it is essentially a one-car garage with storage and work-space in the western half. I have never really been on the lookout for other examples of this garage style, but have to admit I have never noticed another one. The vast majority of garages in this area face the street, not the alleys, which were “vacated” early on according to the city report.

Another find was a 1966 penny. It looked much older when I picked it up, so it was especially disappointing to discover that it is a mere 50 years old.

    Nineteen eighty-two is the year of a Utah motorcycle license plate hanging on one of the horizontal beams. Other indicators of biker activity in the garage include an impressive stash of spark plugs in two cubbyholes behind the wooden worktable that faces the western window (a later addition) and various hooks that probably held wheels, chains, and other bike parts.

    The worktable has absorbed a lot of oil in its time, and on it was a binder labeled “Sundowners Motorcycle Club.” This club was “brought down by federal authorities in 2000,” according to a 2004 Deseret News piece on biker gangs. The 2000 Deseret News article on the federal case quotes the federal prosecutor as saying that the “The Salt Lake Chapter of the Sundowners Club was an organization that was completely permeated by drug distribution activities,” and further suggests that Sundowners used their clubhouse on S 800 W “as a distribution point for meth or at least as a meeting place for those interested in purchasing meth.” The above would seem to increase the likelihood that our own basement was once used as a meth lab.
    We really don’t know much about previous dwellers at our address, except that one – the biker? – was called Bennett and another was known for working in the garden in her bikini. I forget whether “Bikini Lady” is our nickname for her or that of neighbors who had actually seen her.

And finally, Lanson Champagne aside, a European Connection. In the rafters of our garage is a very large (maybe 4' tall by 6' wide) chalkboard wall menu for an establishment called the European Connection Café, which at one point had locations throughout Utah, before closing most of them around the year 2000 (is there a link to the demise of the Sundowners?).

In 2003, a new location opened in Sugarhouse, but it seems to have gone out of business as well. The only location mentioned in an un-updated web listing from 2011 was at Gateway Mall. This is close to our house, but after connecting to a surprised T-Mobile rep when we tried the number, we are certain enough that it too is history, which we will avoid the heat exposure necessary to investigate on location.
    My rehabilitation program includes both improving the garage as it stands and talking it up whenever an opportunity presents itself.

Copyright © 2016 by Geoffrey Dean


  1. Very interesting. I know rehabbing an old home can be expensive but in the end well worth it.

  2. It was a delight to read this. A thought I enjoyed having was that it's the sort of piece found frequently in The New Yorker magazine. I really appreciate having people on the staff who can write like this!