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Tearooms of the Village

tea porch
The tearoom of 18 Commerce Street in the Greenwich Village Historic District. Photo by GVSHP, 2008 house tour.

Though a rare surviving architectural element today, the tearoom (also known as a back porch or tea porch) was an original feature of Greek Revival rowhouses throughout New York City in the 1840s and 1850s. Constructed of wood, tearooms were located at the rear of brick houses and faced the gardens.

If you’re familiar with the architecture of Greenwich Village, you’ll know that many Greek Revival rowhouses grace our neighborhood. Even so, an authentic tearoom can be hard to find (and not every rowhouse was built with one). It probably doesn’t help that these are almost impossible to see from the street since they face the interior of residential blocks, and therefore are usually only visible to those who can see them from their rear windows.

However, thanks to the quirks of the Village street grid, one beautiful example is visible to passersby. Standing on 7th Avenue South between Morton and Commerce Streets, you can glance at the wood tearoom of 18 Commerce Street. This is actually a late Federal style house built in 1830, around the time the Greek Revival style was coming into fashion (the tearoom may have been a later historic addition). The house was featured on GVSHP’s 2008 Village House Tour Benefit, an annual event that takes place on the first Sunday in May. The photo above shows tourgoers exploring the tea porch and backyard, which faces 7th Avenue South and is typically hidden behind a gate and brick wall.

Tearooms were located off the back parlor room on what is commonly referred to as the parlor floor (or the raised first floor that is accessed by a stoop at the front of the house). As is the case at 18 Commerce Street, they could also be double height.

In his book Bricks and Brownstone, author Charles Lockwood describes these tearooms:

On the first floor, French doors led from the splendid back parlor to the open porch, or a windowed porch known as the “tearoom.” Because of the several windows overlooking the back yard, the tearoom did not appreciably diminish the light or ventilation in the back parlor. When these porches reached the second floor, they were open porches separated from adjacent porches by a brick wall. Many galleries or tearooms did not survive or, at best, sag and lean, because builders did not always build them upon as firm a foundation as the house proper. -p. 72

If you have this book on hand (a must for any rowhouse lover!), page 68 provides a photo of a row of tearooms on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights. A floor plan showing where a tea room would have been located in relation to the rest of the parlor floor is also available.

1854 Perris Map.

A recent Certificate of Appropriateness (C of A) application for 317 West 11th Street in the Greenwich Village Historic District proposes that the existing rear extension be replaced with a new design. At the community board meeting, the architect connected to the C of A application, filed with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said he did not believe the existing extension was historic. The above 1854 Perris map shows the property, which at the time was known as 109 Hammond Street, as having a rear extension (perhaps a tearoom). Its two neighbors to the left also had what appear to be rear tearooms.

You can take a look at the application on our Landmarks Applications Webpage to see for yourself. Does it look like a historic tearoom to you?

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