It’s that place in your home that’s always dirty. Maybe it has funky windows and no insulation. Or it leaks. But hey, it’s four walls, a roof and a floor – and so it has a lot more potential than just hosting your car.
We’re talking about your garage, and if you’ve been thinking you could make a lot more out of that extra square footage, you’re not alone. Some of us love a non-frosty car in winter, extra security and garden storage. But for three sets of Tacoma homeowners, it was worth it to move out the car and move in their passion: art, music or fitness.
Here’s how they did it.
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THE LETTERPRESS STUDIO
Jessica Spring has been a full-time letterpress artist – creating books, cards, posters and the like by hand with vintage type on hand-crank presses – for years. Fifteen of those had been spent renting tiny studios or squeezing into apartments. When she and her family moved to Tacoma 10 years ago, they bought their North End Craftsman house precisely because it had a huge Dutch-style garage to house all the tables, tools and equipment.
But things were far from perfect.
“Every time it rained, it flooded in here,” said Spring. “We got to know the intricacies of living on a hill. Creatures would get inside – rats, even a cat.”
With just one window it was also dark, and you couldn’t stand upright in most of the loft. There was very little work space and even less for storage. And the antique printing equipment was “really unhappy” with the leaking and the cold, Spring said.
So in 2007 they embarked on a remodel – and discovered things were even worse.
“The walls were just shingle, and the whole thing was hanging from the frame and leaning against the neighbor’s house,” Spring remembers.
Even without Spring needing a better work space, the garage needed fixing. With architect Jill Sousa and Phase II construction, Spring had it gutted on the ground floor, since leaving the upper intact meant they could stay with the existing setbacks and keep crucial square footage (the garage backs up against both the alley and the neighbors’ property, as do many homes of that era). The structure was jacked up and strengthened, with new siding and roof.
But it was the inside that Spring could really make over to suit her daily work. The staircase was moved and the first-floor ceiling lowered to make the loft useable. The curve of the steps was built to accommodate Spring’s three double-height vintage type cabinets. Running hot water was put in, so she could wash her hands between messy print jobs without running back into the house. Windows were added, especially in the roller door – now double-wide so her five heavy antique presses (some four by four feet, and made of iron or steel) and 14 cabinets could be driven straight in with a forklift.
Best of all, says Spring, the new concrete floor was installed with underfloor heating – a move she appreciates every day, and which is “really cost-effective.”
The whole process took around six months, partly because of the time-consuming job of moving all the letterpress equipment and type drawers. If Spring had to do it again, she says she’d do a bit more experimentation in things like concrete staining to see what worked best.
But the result is stunning. From an entry way that includes a faux-Craftsman shed to add garden storage, an Italian-style terrace (with car parking space) and rock walls curving around the gnarled apple tree they’d insisted on saving, the garage-studio opens up into a butter-yellow interior filled with enough light to grow a potted lemon tree. Wires and metal shelves display Spring’s delicately-printed work; presses and cabinets filled with thousands of tiny lead type bits stand in orderly fashion. Tools hug the walls, and work tables offer space enough for a dozen people. Upstairs the carpeted loft houses modern office equipment and paperwork, with a half-wall to let in more light.
“I’m really, really glad I did it,” Spring said. “I can have a 10-person class in here, where there was no way I could in the old space. It really makes a difference in what work I can do.”
And Spring’s garage makeover has plenty of resale possibility, even for non-artists.
“I think there’s a lot of people who could be super-happy working at home (in here),” she said.
Skyann Morgan was working as a personal trainer at All-Star Gym a year and a half ago when she realized two things – she needed more family time, and her clients (mostly women) needed more privacy.
“My son kept giving me all these reasons why I should homeschool him,” said Morgan, who is a certified fitness, yoga and Yogilates instructor. “And I would be training at All-Star and have to move clients to a different part of the room, away from certain other people. There’s a lot of underlying stuff in your heart and mind when it comes to fitness. People get self-conscious.”
Morgan realized she had the solution right next to her house. The single-level 1950s South Tacoma home had a working attached garage that Morgan didn’t need, with plenty of parking space on the rest of the property and street. So with her mom’s help, she re-outfitted it as a personal gym.
She cleaned out junk and boxes and shored up some cracked rafters. She repainted in “energy colors” of purple and bottle-green, covered up most windows and walls with lavender curtains, hung decorations of prayer flags, lotus symbols and inspirational words. She moved her washer and dryer out of the adjoining bathroom so her clients could use it, and even built an outside community garden with planter boxes and room for boot-camp tire workouts.
“The hardest thing was painting the ceiling,” she said.
Now, Morgan has 20 clients from teen to adult who come to train in her garage gym. An exercise bike, treadmill and elliptical trainer sit beside weight machines sourced from friends and sales; exercise balls and Pilates rings sit on the rafters, jump ropes hang from beams and shelves are filled with bar bells. Jigsaw-piece foam mats give cushioning on the concrete floor.
Her son also uses the space to practice martial arts.
It’s not perfect – the floor area is too small for yoga classes, and Morgan’s thinking of moving those into a commercial gym. There are cracks in the ceiling that she’d like to fix when she gets the budget, and she wouldn’t mind a new floor.
And while clients appreciate the lack of insulation when they get a sweat up, Morgan has to teach winter classes in a coat and furry boots.
Despite this, Morgan says creating her do-it-yourself home gym was the best thing she’s done.
“It took time to get used to, coming from All-Star which has everything,” she said. “But here we don’t have to hide.”
Morgan points up to a framed photo of a glamorous Marilyn Monroe benchpressing barbells, – donated by her mom – which sums up her style of female-affirming fitness training.
“It’s a symbol,” she said. “Whatever size we are, we have to work out.”
THE MUSIC PLAYROOM
Worlds often collide for professional musicians. You look after your kids while you teach, you squeeze in practice time while dinner’s cooking, your friends hang out and jam. So for husband-and-wife musicians John Falskow and Cindy Renander, the chance to buy a house with its own potential music studio/kids’ playroom was too good to pass up.
But it needed a bit of TLC.
“When we bought this in 2005 someone had converted the attached garage to a hair salon,” said Renander, a clarinetist with local orchestras and chamber groups who teaches privately.
“A couple of people pulled up wanting a haircut,” added Falskow, a trumpeter, teacher and chair of music at Tacoma Community College.
The couple had moved back to the area from the east coast, buying the split-level 1970s house in University Place as a foreclosure bargain mainly because of that garage. They ripped out the water spigots intended for styling stations, put in ceiling tiles and bright work lights, and covered up the “kind of funky” store-front windows with shelving.
But the rest worked well. The garage adjoined the house but had a separate entrance for private music students, and was far enough away that sleeping kids and noisy musicians could co-exist. A partition naturally divided their teaching area from a home-office area where their three kids could also entertain themselves with art or toys. There was plenty of space for more shelving – something musicians desperately need as music and books pile up – and the couple decorated the whole thing in cheery primary colors, with royal blue and yellow walls, yellow cupboards and bright red sofas and rugs. A piano supports another rack of music, instruments and stands hang out in all corners, and there’s plenty of room for friends to rehearse.
Not that Renander and Falskow are finished yet. There’s some molding and painting still to be done, and the heater just broke, making the lack of insulation a big issue. The flat ceiling leaks, there’s some hair dye stains on the floor and at some point they’d like to do something better with the fake siding covering the outside of the storefront windows.
But it’s totally been worth it.
“We can have a piano and music, rehearse a quintet and keep it all separate from our living space,” Falskow said.
Do they miss somewhere to park the car, other than the gravel just outside?
Not at all, say the couple.
“I’ve never had a garage, so it doesn’t matter,” Renander said cheerfully.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org/arts