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The Backstory on Backhouses

This post was originally published in 2011.

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.

One response to “The Backstory on Backhouses

  1. I lived in a back house at 232 West 16th Street. It was dark, the stairs tilted to the right and part of the wall was broken pieces of brick just set into the mortar. The front got sunlight at high noon on the summer solisist like Stonehenge except without the cross ventilation.

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