Garage & Outbuilding Styles for Old Houses

A well-designed garage does more than stable automobiles. It may by its placement create a private courtyard. It can block noise or a neighbor, or add balance if it’s part of the house. Today’s garages are also storage units and potting sheds; they may accommodate a home office or guest suite. Because a garage is new construction requiring everything from permits to utilities, it’s worth taking time to design one that works now and for the future—say, when electric-vehicle charging stations are a common requirement.
stone garage vintage car
Peculiarities of site may suggest a material, as when a fieldstone wall morphs into a garage. A pronounced slope can allow the garage to tuck under the house or into a berm.  This picturesque old garage appears as a garden structure between the street and the 1925 French Norman-style house. Photo: William Wright

The garage, designed specifically for an automobile, was at first a utilitarian building separate from the house. By the 1920s garages were increasingly tied to the house by a loggia, pergola, or breezeway. A low wall between house and garage formed a courtyard (or, at least, a laundry yard).  The “walled compound” look was particularly popular for English and French Revival houses. Garages for 20th-century Colonial Revival houses, like those designed by Royal Barry Wills, emulated the connected buildings of New England farmhouses. After fear of fire subsided, garages were attached, although many codes continued to require fire walls. On Dutch Colonials, a garage as one wing balanced a porch-on-slab, sleeping porch, or sunporch on the other side. Soon garages were tucked under the house or hidden in irregular massing, as in Tudor homes. But not until the postwar split-level era did double doors boldly appear on the primary façade.

Faced with an old house in Edgartown’s Village Historic District on Martha’s Vineyard (Mass.), architect Patrick Ahearn was limited by surrounding houses and ocean. He developed a visual language for the remodeled Federal house. The existing addition’s setback (apparent in the Before picture) diminishes the impact of the box, now converted to a garage, and shingle siding further separates its identity from the clapboarded house. A nice amenity, the roof deck with a new balustrade helps with proportion and ties into the vocabulary. Photo: Greg Premru

Fancy garages are not new; they were built all along for the wealthy, often with a mechanic’s shop and chauffeur’s quarters. In the 1920s and certainly the ’30s, suburban owners could choose from garage designs that matched the house: Mediterranean, gambrel, English cottage. Craftsman-influenced styles were easy to adapt to garages. “Spanish” garages had tiled roofs. Garages have always had windows for ventilation and light, often mimicking those of the house.

Adequate lighting and planned storage units make this garage space efficient and usable. Home to a practical SUV as well as a beloved antique roadster, the space even includes auto-themed curtains at the windows. Photo: Rich Michell

If you have an old garage that’s usable, even if doesn’t match the house, consider paint color and trellising to make it attractive. Garage doors often are painted to match the trim color of the house—or even left white from the factory! Painting an ugly or too-big door the house’s body color instead will disguise it. If the doors are attractive, do paint them in the trim color, perhaps with panels reversed to body color or a shade of the trim color.

 This view of the garage and summer-house, designed by David Heide Design Studio to complement the 1922 Prairie School house in St. Paul, shows how the three buildings form a private courtyard protected from the street. Photo: Rich Michell

If the garage is to be all-new, the first decision is whether it will be a separate building, semi-attached, or part of the house. If fitting in matters to you, walk or bicycle around town, peering down alleys and side streets. Note materials, old garages’ relation to their lots and houses, roof types, door configurations, and details. Garages that mimicked the style of the house were not as common as utilitarian structures, but they are the ones that have tended to survive the decades.

An architect may see how to integrate car parking in a modest rear extension or underneath—in space excavated from the basement or patio. A designer understands that the garage should be subservient to the main house. The last resort is a large garage attached in front, but good design can rescue even that scenario with right proportions and roof, a setback, or divided bays.

old house garage
A hyphen connects the house to a discreet garage that uses the sloped site and keeps doors off the primary facade. The barn-style doors are by Garaga. Photo: Durston Saylor

Doors are the most important key to compatibility. Most modern garage doors, no matter how traditional the style, have horizontal breaks to allow them to retract overhead. It almost always looks better to separate each car bay, rather than use a door two cars wide. Consider specifying raised panels for a Colonial Revival; long, narrow panels for Craftsman or English Revival architecture. Many period garages had cross-bracing, similar to barn doors. Tongue-and-groove beadboard or matchboard was popular for door panels, too, used vertically or on the diagonal. Don’t overdo it: a simple hipped-roof garage doesn’t need arched, multi-light, highly varnished mahogany doors.

In the design phase, plan for utilities and the interior—and any future use, such as a workshop or guestroom. Choose a durable floor finish that can be cleaned. Be sure your electrical service can someday handle that charging station.

old house garage
A new outbuilding designed by Patrick Ahearn revives the carriage house; it was built to protect a trio of collectible automobiles and also serves as outdoor entertainment space. Photo: Bob O’Connor photography


If the automobile garage itself has little precedent as a fully detailed, multi-function space, that’s not true of outbuildings in general. Surviving barns, offering lots of room and  storage capacity, were remade by several generations to become vacation homes, car barns with workshops, home  offices, and so on.

Victorian-era houses may have had a carriage house later converted to garage space. “Converted barn” and “carriage house” are  common scenarios used by designers for adding a garage to a 19th-century house. Bungalows often had a garage from the beginning; catalogs and plan books from as early as 1909 include garages that mimic the style of the new homes they accompany. Sometimes a rather plain, hip- or gable-roofed garage is most suitable.

The most obvious way to design a compatible garage is to echo the style, era, and materials of the house. Roofline and pitch are  critical aspects of design. A garage by Nott & Associates is essentially a box with a gabled roof. Decorative rafter cuts, door details, and colors are in keeping with the Pasadena bungalow neighborhood. 

Old House Garage Door Design Options

sliding garage doors
SLIDING (1910–1929)
A sliding door with diagonally laid matchboard panels looks and works like a barn door.

swinging garage doors
SWINGING (1910–1940)
The real thing, cross braced. Overhead door manufacturers emulate this look without the
inherent problems.

folding garage doors
FOLDING (1915–1929)
Bifold or accordion doors date to the Teens and Twenties. Doors slid on tracks; now they disappear overhead.

FOLDING (1915–1929)
Bifold or accordion doors date to the Teens and Twenties. Doors slid on tracks; now they disappear overhead.

wicket door garage door
WITH WICKET DOOR (1915–1929)
That person-sized door hinged into the garage door was typically called a wicket. It’s still a good idea.

tilting garage door
TILTING (1935–1949)
A mid-century variant of the overhead door; today, rolling overhead doors can be made to look like these paneled ones.

sectional overhead garage door
The only really practical option for constant use, the sectional overhead or “roll-up” door is standard.


Garage doors

Specialists in period-appropriate garage doors may offer coordinating peripherals such as windows &  glazing, hardware, driveway gates.

Amarr Garage Doors (NC):
Wood, wood composite, steel

Carriage House Door Co. (CA):
Wood, steel

Clingerman (PA): 
Choice of wood species; AZEK/Versatex; Extira

Cambek Designer Doors (WI):
Wood; wicket door option; specialty claddings

Clopay Building Products (OH):
Wood, steel, aluminum

Craft Doors USA (NC):
Custom-order overhead roll-up & swing-out wood garage doors

Evergreen Carriage Doors (WA):
Wood doors

Everite (PA):
Wood doors

Fimbel Garage Doors (NH):
Wide variety of architectural styles in different materials and price points: carriage house, raised panel, Contemporary, custom

Garaga Inc. (Quebec):
Steel, steel with wood composite, aluminum

GADCO (General American Door Co.) (IL):
Steel, wood doors

Holmes Garage Door Co. (WA):
Steel, aluminum, wood composite, wood

IDC: Industrial Door Company (MN):
Wood, wood composite, steel

Lux Garage Doors (CA)
Wood, glass, steel etc. in traditional, Craftsman, Spanish & Modern styles; accessories & openers

Northwest Door (WA):
Wood, steel, aluminum

Overhead Door Co. (through distributors)
Hundred-year-old mfr. of garage doors (wood, steel, insulated, fiberglass, vinyl) and automatic openers; doors for temp. and wind-load extremes. Traditional to Modern plus sleek aluminum and glass doors

Raynor (IL):
Wood, steel doors

Real Carriage Door Co. (WA):
Wood—with swinging, sliding, folding options

Sunwood Doors (CA):
Wood doors

Timberlane (PA):
Custom garage doors—wood, insulated steel—in historical & traditional styles; also hardware

Vintage Millwork & Restoration (PA):
Custom wood carriage-house & garage doors, designed for tracks, manual, or electric operation

Outbuilding kits with plans

Country Carpenters:
Pre-engineered, pre-cut post-and-beam building kits for garages, carriage houses, sheds, and backyard barns. Options include lean-tos, dormers, and window and door configurations

Prebuilt garages

The Barn Yard:
Pre-built timber-frame barns, garages, pavilions & sheds

Hometown Structures:
Wide range of prebuilt garages, attached and detached, one- and two-level, options for roofing, siding, doors & windows

New England Outdoor:
Custom and prefab garages in classic styles, several sizes 

Specialty sidings

Classic Rock Face Block:
Historical concrete block suitable for period new construction & restoration

W. F. Norman:
For use as metal siding, galvanized steel panels stamped to resemble brick, rock face, shingles, or stone

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