Harding garage

Inside the second-floor office of Michael and Robin Harding's garage is their dog, Sweetness. The Hardings built the garage to match the architecture of their 1929 house. (Stacey Wescott/ Chicago Tribune photo / June 12, 2011)

The sign in John Schneider's garage says "Schneider's Biker Bar — Bikes, Beers and Babes." Bikes and beers, yes, said the Shorewood electrician about his five-car castle.

"But no babes unless my wife or daughter come in, which they rarely do," he said.

"Chateau Harding" is how Michael Harding describes his garage, which was designed by Highland Park-based architect Richard Becker to echo the architecture of his 1929 Highland Park house. Outside, the garage and adjoining courtyard are made of reclaimed brick, including one salvaged from the former Comiskey Park. Inside, the garage is finished down to its moldings, home-worthy lighting fixtures and an epoxy-coated floor.

"For the first six months I wouldn't let anyone come in here with their shoes on," Harding admitted.

One of the newest rooms of the house, the garage has come a long way in a short time, from the early 1900s converted stable to the detached shed designed to hold a car or two to today's garage mahal. Merriam-Webster dictionary says the word "garage" (from the French word "garer," meaning "to shelter") did not surface until 1902. Post-World War II suburbanization created the need for the second family car, which expanded the average garage.

The three-car garage, which was not recorded by the Census Bureau until 1992, peaked in 2005, when it accounted for 20 percent of garages. Meanwhile, the one-car garage became the minority, and the two-car became the majority.

Like the "No Girls Allowed" treehouses of old, Schneider's garage is by intention a man cave where he and friends "hang out, play poker, fix stuff and drink beer," he said.

Their mascot is Schneider's dog, Brandy, who drops in when she smells pizza. "She's a girl, but she's allowed because she's a German shepherd; she's tough," he said.

In addition to his wife's car, his two trucks, a motorcycle and riding lawn mower, the garage houses a poker table, tool storage cabinets, a 14-foot-long countertop, refrigerator, pizza oven and testosterone-laden furnishings ranging from a "Harley chair" made from a motorcycle seat to neon beer signs and NASCAR posters.

"Basically, all the stuff my wife doesn't allow in the house," Schneider said.

The result is he spends most of his free time in his garage. Ditto for Schneider's weekends at his riverfront house in Wilmington, where his garage has doors at both ends so it doubles as a boathouse.

"If I'm not in bed or in my La-Z-Boy, you know I'm in the garage," he said.

Harding, a retiree, uses his garage to store his gardening tools and his G-scale (garden) model trains.

"They're in the garage because the alpha dog, my wife, says they're not going in the yard," he said.

An exterior spiral staircase leads from Harding's first-floor garage space to his wife's office upstairs. Their dog, Sweetness, finds the landing an ideal perch to survey her territory.

Harding's garage is heated, air-conditioned and insulated with sound-resistant spray-foam insulation. A refrigerator, said Harding, holds "Coca-Colas for me and some Italian beer for my contractors who still stop by to admire it." His neighbors tell him they now suffer from "garage envy," he said.

Between his cowboy posters and his baseball memorabilia, he said, "going to the garage makes me feel 10 again."

Chicagoan Len Altimari's garage may not be as elaborate as Harding's, but it is efficient.

"I could never find my hammer, so I kept buying new ones," Altimari said. "When I had nine, I thought it was time to get organized."