Early auto artifacts speckle the cityscape in lower Jamaica Plain. Cave-like built-in garages remain in over a dozen homes in the Woodbourne section.
They were the first in the Boston area, maybe in New England. These narrow and short rooms nestle under the compact houses. When they were included in the houses in the 1920s, they were perfect for the reigning Model-T Fords. Yet quickly as Americans emerged out of the Great Depression, their passion for the long, wide muscle cars meant most of these garages became storage and junk rooms.
On a JP Historical Society tour of the section, we saw the original — 22 and 24 Eldridge Road, and subsequently walked just to see and consider these quaint relics. It’s our neighborhood, but mini-garage surveys had not been our thing.
More tours: The JPHS continues its tours in the pleasant months. There are several more of various JP areas this year, including one another of Woodbourne on September 29th. Check the society’s site. These are free and led by two or more members.
The society dates the original built-in garages: (Martin) Herbert is the first developer in the Boston Dwelling House Company property to plan his homes for the automobile age with built-in garages. The earliest documented houses in the district designed with built-in garages are numbers 22 and 26 Eldridge Road. Number 26 was designed by Max Kalman and completed on September 29, 1928. It is a two-family house set on a high robust foundation of red granite and brick. Many houses in Woodbourne had garages built at or shortly after construction of the main house in the second phase after 1922, but it was done almost as an afterthought and none has any detail to match the house. Only in Herbert’s small subdivision were the house and the garage planned and built as a unit. Numbers 9, 11, 12 and 15 each have garages below the first floor, as does number 50 Northbourne. All take advantage of the slope of the land by having the garage below the grade of the street.
An interesting change in use occurred in 1938, when John S. Goodway took a garage built in 1930 by Alexander Mc Donald at number one Meyer Street, directly below number 17 Goodway, and hired Albin Brodin to convert it into a three room house. The new house was completed on December 31, 1938.
A bit of irony with these garages is that the Woodbourne section was not about automobiles. Just below the Forest Hills station and end of the trolley line, it was a trolley commuters’ suburb. You didn’t need 0ne of those newly affordable cars to live there.
While this section was specifically to enable middle-class home ownership, the Boston Dwelling House Company used more than affordable price to attract residents. The small houses were carefully landscaped to give a rural flavor. Some touches reflected the increasing class differentiations of the emerging middle class, such as a block-long apartment building (now a retirement home) on Hyde Park Avenue to shield the houses from the clatter of the passing carriages. Let the workers take the noise while the managers slept in quiet!
The garages were another effort to enhance the houses. Amusingly, this illustrated more mundane nature of this development, in contrast to early adopters of automobiles. Before the inexpensive Model-T, automobiles such as Oldsmobiles and European models were toys of the very wealthy. These fragile vehicles had garages, often sharing elaborate carriage stables and later having separate luxurious buildings added to estates for them, a far cry from Woodbourne’s caves.
For example, in a wealthy Buffalo, New York, area, “As automobiles become part of the American scene, Parkside residents began to build garages. Many featured turntables that were used to conveniently turn the car around after arriving home so that the drivers did not have to back out in the morning.” Today, we think a remote starter is a big deal!
With the popularity of compact cars, some people do squeeze their cars into these built-ins. However, many who use them do this only in the winter. It’s a tight squeeze and a lot of care to keep from scraping the sides or knocking a mirror.
Maybe one day when a more enlightened Boston mayor leads to make bicycling easier and safer these cave owners will sell their cars and park two or more bikes in these units. Meanwhile, the early history of automobiles in Boston remains in the granite or cinderblock garages of Woodbourne.