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The Backstory on Backhouses

One of the many wonderful things about our neighborhoods is the seemingly limitless possibility for surprises.  Though small in scale and geography, the Village, East Village, and NoHo may have more unexpected and often unknown nooks and crannies than any other area of New York City.  And sometimes those surprises are hidden from the public, and are only revealed, ofttimes fleetingly, under unusual circumstances.

Backhouses are a terrific example.  There are literally scores of these structures throughout our neighborhoods, but almost none are visible from the street, and therefore most are virtually unknown to anyone other than their residents and immediate neighbors.

But the recent demolition of a building on East 12th Street has given passersby an opportunity for a rare glimpse at an unusual set of backhouses, and Off the Grid an opportunity to shed a little light on this delightful and surprising class of buildings.

Hidden from view for a century and a half, recently revealed on East 12th Street

First, definitions: backhouses are residential structures which are separate from and located behind other buildings (usually, but not always, residential buildings) which face the street.  In other words, backhouses are in back of or behind other buildings, and therefore don’t have entrances off the street.  Often times one has to go through the front building, then through a rear courtyard, to get to the backhouse; other times there is a narrow passageway or even a tunnel alongside or through the front building which leads to the backhouse behind.

The side and rear of this backhouse behind 10 Bedford Street were visible to the public from Downing Street because of an adjacent lot which was vacant for decades. When the lot was built on in 2009, this rare site was again hidden from view.

So how did these structures come about?  The classic and seemingly most loved example is the carriage house located behind an elegant early rowhouse.  In these cases, a single family house was built, typically in the early 19th century, with a stable for the family’s horses located behind, accessible through either a side passageway or a tunnel or “horsewalk” through the house.  As horses began to disappear from regular use in the city and fewer families kept them behind their houses, these stables were often converted to residences, sometimes called carriage houses.  Because of the unconventional nature of these spaces, and because the structures sometimes had raw open space or large openings from their prior incarnations, they often attracted artists for whom these types of living and working conditions were ideal.  In other cases, they may have attracted artists simply because such space was cheap and acceptable to them, whereas it may not have been for the general public.

131 Charles Street, between Washington and Greenwich Streets; the former horsewalk entered from the door on the left side of the building leads to a former stable/backhouse in which the photographer Diane Arbus resided from 1959 to 1967.

Some backhouses, however, had less romantic origins and lives.  Oftentimes backhouses were built behind tenements or “tenementized” rowhouses (houses which were split up and converted to multi-family dwellings) as a way of simply squeezing more living units into the tiny amount of available land.  Thus sometimes these backhouses had windows with little light or air, as they were often mere feet from the walls or windows of the front house or tenement or neighboring buildings.  Typically these were built as neighborhoods such as the Village or East Village became awash with immigrants, who payed low rents but were squeezed by the dozens into tiny spaces with sometimes unimaginably challenging living conditions. Unlike the ‘classic’ example cited above, these backhouses typically had several units, even though the buildings themselves were tiny, and could be built up as tall as the front structure, sometimes four or five stories in height.

Rear tenement/backhouse at 180 Sixth Avenue. Built in 1878, its front tenement was demolished in the 1920's for the Sixth Avenue extension, making it the exceedingly rare backhouse to face the street without a front building. In spite of this historic significance and though located in GVSHP's proposed South Village Historic District (www.gvshp.org/sv) , it was demolished in 2008 due to lack of action by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the proposed historic district (go to www.gvshp.org/svltr to help save the rest of the South Village).

And while some of these tenement backhouses began as stables (sometimes with additional stories added on) like their more romantic cousins, sometimes they had less genteel origins, starting life as sheds, utility structures, and in some cases even outhouses.  As housing laws and rising expectations for living standards reduced the occurrence of outhouses for residences in New York City, these structures were often built upon or added to and converted to small backhouse housing units.

Typical late 19h century (dumbell) tenements; very high lot coverage, with little open space and no room for backhouses.

The newly- (and temporarily-) revealed backhouses at 425 and 429 East 12th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, present a variation on these backhouse scenarios, one which we believe may be somewhat rare.  The four-story front-buildings at 425 and 429 were both built in 1852, and appear to be very early, purpose-built tenements (i.e. they were built as tenements, not structures built as single-family homes which were converted to multi-family housing ).  While experts believe that the earliest purpose-built tenements appeared in New York City in the 1820’s or 30’s, these were rare, and by far the majority of tenements were not constructed until after the Civil War, when immigration to New York City increased exponentially.  Somewhat unusually, based upon our research on the history of every building in the East Village, it appears that the four-story backhouses behind these tenements were built at the same time as the front structures, as opposed to the other scenarios previously described which appear to be more typical.

425 East 12th Street (l.) with the backhouse behind 429 East 12th Street (r.).
The newly-revealed backhouse behind 425 East 12th Street (m.), with 429 East 12th Street (r.).

Exactly why both these lots (and seemingly several of its neighbors) were built with separate front and rear residential structures, as opposed to the seemingly more efficient arrangement of a single, larger footprint structure as was common with later tenements, is unclear.  One theory might be that early tenements seemed to basically mimic the form of single family houses on the exterior, covering only about 50% of the lot and rarely rising more than four stories.  Perhaps the conventional expectation that these still-relatively rare (and generally looked down upon) structures would at least look like a house pushed builders to use this two-building form, mimicking a house with a rear structure that was either added later or grew from a pre-existing non-residential structure, rather than the single, larger footprint tenements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This 1853 tax map shows both the four story front and rear structures for 425 and 429 East 12th Street (at this time known as 379 and 383 East 12th Street); since neither appeared in 1850 maps, both front and rear structures were built at the same time. Image courtesy New York Public Library.

The demolition of 427 East 12th Street provides one of the rare opportunities for the public to get a glimpse of these curious and surprising structures.  Another rare opportunity for the public:  earlier this year, GVSHP had a particularly charming backhouse apartment on West 11th Street on our Annual Benefit House Tour (save the date: next year’s tour is May 6, 2012!).

Backhouse on West 11th Street; one of the most popular attractions on GVSHP's 2011 Benefit House Tour.

20 responses to “The Backstory on Backhouses

  1. I lived in a backhouse at 230 West 16th for several years. It is a creaky 4 story building with crooked steps and crazy brickwork hiding in the shadow of a much better appointed building in front, I’m guessing it was built for Irish immigrants, I have to tell you there is something dark and sad about this building, The census shows mostly Irish names with occupations like “oysterman”.

  2. I’ve always thought of these houses as “half-houses” — My grandmother was born in one on Stanton Street & the back house had an address that literally used 1/2 as part of the address (I think it was 165 1/2 but its been a while since I looked at the records). Terrific article — wish we had more pictures & stories about these houses.

  3. I lived in a backhouse “cottage” ON W12th between Greenwich and Washington, surrounded by its own garden. A true ‘hansel and gretel’ stone cottage with a roof meant to mimic a thatched cottage. It was one of the most wonderful places to ever live and even life-long West Villagers were shocked when I showed it to them. Sadly, I took a look at it a few months back and whomever lives there is not taking care of the gardens, but it has so much potential.

    1. A little late but I know that little back house on West 12th st. I lived in the front building and my bedroom window looked out on courtyard with the house in it. I used to crawl out my window and play there

  4. I lived in one of E. 12th St.’s backhouses in the early 90’s. I never knew they were called that!
    It was a perfectly nice apartment – the only problem was my neighbor on the 6th floor. She was a very stylish lady, who liked to dress like Nina Hagen, in fluorescent accessories. She liked big hats, and tying colorful scarves and strings around her legs.
    Unfortunately, to get to the backhouse, you had to unlock a heavy black door that faced onto the street, and go through a passageway to the courtyard. The door had a tendency to loudly slam shut – even if you tried to shut it quietly, it would still make noise, and echo in the passageway.
    My colorful neighbor would then run out onto her 6th floor fire escape, and would throw things at me – like large glass jars, heavy ceramic flower pots, etc, as I ran across the courtyard and hurried to unlock the front door of the tenement before something fatally hit me.
    Amazingly, I don’t think she actually ever injured anyone. Bad aim.
    One day I came home and the courtyard was swarming with police and ambulances. Uniformed personnel were there to take her away. She was out on her fire escape yelling and cursing. The police entered her apartment and stuck their heads out onto the fire escape, telling her she had to come with them.
    She jumped off the fire escape.
    And caught the bottom rung of the fifth floor fire escape. She was swinging from the fifth floor by just her hands. She managed to climb up onto the fire escape (athletic lady!) and then sat there, looking completely shaken, until the person who lived in that apartment let the police through to collect her.
    She was back a month or two later… (According to people who’d lived there longer than I, she had family that paid her rent, and she was pretty regularly hospitalized…) but I soon moved…

  5. Also, when I was looking for a new place to live, I was shown the most adorable backhouse EVER! I believe it was on Ave. C or D, West side of the street, around E. 3rd… not exact…
    It obviously was not originally built as a living space, it was a tiny brick building with just two rooms, one above the other. I instantly fell in love with it… but I spoke to the current tenants, who were leaving, and they told me the reason they were moving was that it was completely not insulated, and was costing them around $800/month to heat, in the winter…

  6. umm… I’m being nitpicky on myself, but since the article is about the architecture: to correct my earlier statement, the ambulances were not in the courtyard. They were out on the street; the EMTs were in the courtyard. There was no way to drive a vehicle back there.

  7. Wow – nice, very thorough post, although much more research is possible. My son lived in an 1877 tenement 2/floor at 221 East 35th with a simultaneous backhouse, which was built up to the rear lot line, but with windows on the common yard between front and back structures. The result was the same SF of dwelling, but with three exposures (two at the rear, one at the street) instead of two. Thus better lighting for the interior rooms, at small additional costs in construction (two extra facade walls.) Note that structure is a two per floor, not the lower-echelon four per floor -in some cases the simultaneous backhouse might reflect a higher status occupancy.

    But, I am still looking for an explanation of the oval window seen on the Arbus house and many others. Not the exterior – it’s just extra wall space, why not have a window. It is how it worked on the interior.

    Christopher Gray

  8. I lived in a very well-maintained one on West 8th St between 6th Ave and Macdougal (a few doors down from Electric Lady Studios). The courtyard between the main building and the backhouse was gorgeous — I actually used to curse the chirping birds that woke me up every morning like some evil Snow White — until a fire at the West 4th St subway station caused it to be overrun by rats. (One big takeaway: it’s crazy how well they climb trees!) It’s been five years, so hopefully the management company finally got it under control.

  9. I’ve lived in the pictured West 11th Street house since Adam was a boy. And in a way I agree with Tyler about his experience in the ‘oyster man’s’ house on 16th street. There is ‘something’ about these old houses. They are not neutral places for they exude the past, both happy and sad. Ghosts? Yes, we had a lady who was around for years. A lady who wore a long dress with ‘leg o’mutton’ sleeves and walked through the kitchen/bedroom wall. Smells? Yes, sometimes flowers, sometimes something awful. Cramped? You bet. Yet, there is no where else in Manhattan where I’d want to live. I joke with newcomers to the Courtyard, as residents call the garden, that I’ll most likely be brought out through the horse tunnel in ‘a bag’. Truly, I can’t imagine a better place to die.

  10. I used to live at 116 Waverly Place, and our rear windows faced the yards between Waverly Place and Washington Place. There’s a lovely little backhouse there, with a stovepipe chimney. I used to look longingly at it and wish I lived there because it’s so private, with no street address, and presumably the entrance was through a locked, gated passage to Washington Street. Or else a resident of one of the townhouses also owned the backhouse and entered through the townhouse yard. My only qualm was whoever lived in the backhouse left an extremely rusted, squeaky gate unlocked in high winds, which made a terrible racket. Of course I had no way of leaving a note since the backhouse had no street address!

    I recall meeting someone who wrote an entire book on the backhouses of NYC, but I’ve forgotten her name and can no longer find the book. It is a fascinating, secret world (as are the yards between two blocks, and the rooftop gardens on skyscrapers in lower Manhattan).

  11. My family lived in a backhouse on West 27th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenue in the ’50’s. You entered through a door on 27th St that led you down a long dark passageway into a garden. We had a dogwood tree and a picnic table in our front yard. The house was very old but beautiful. The kitchen was on the ground level (my brother and I shared bunkbeds in the kitchen.) The parlor floor was grand and there was a large picture window looking out on the garden. My parents’ bedroom was upstairs. I remember lots of grownup parties at that house. I also remember the neighbors’ loud arguments and how they echoed into our yard.
    The house was demolished by the city’s development authority in 1959, to build the ILGWU housing and we were relocated to 111th St and Amsterdam Avenue in an apartment overlooking the garden of St John the Divine.

  12. Behind what used to be the Cricle Rep Theater on 7th Ave South near Sheridan Square is a building that I have often wondered about….is it a former backhouse?

  13. I used to live in the “backhouse” (although I didn’t know that term!) at 425 E. 12th St. The man who came to install my carpeting said “this is the worst apartment I’ve ever seen in New York.” 11 feet wide, 30 feet long, with a seven foot ceiling. The closet had a locking hook on the *inside”; I deduced that’s where one could go to change one’s clothes in the Victorian era… who knows how many people squeezed into a room like that back in the day.

  14. I wish I could remember the address, but I friend of mine maybe in our senior year of college (Parsons), lived in one in the late teens or early 20s right off of 6th…I walked though the street building to a courtyard to her building which had a lot of light and was big (I wanted to take over the lease from her I remember)…

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