Looking back on back houses

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Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, New York. 'Court' style houses filling a small side street area.

I was fortunate enough to make a research trip to New York recently, with my colleague Poppy Learman. This was supported by the Art Fund's Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant, and the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Galkoff's and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project.

We visited numerous heritage sites, archives and museums. One of the highlights for me was meeting staff at Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and discussed their work on New York’s back houses. The irregular street layout at the south tip of Manhattan, developed from the Dutch settlement street pattern, creates areas where courts and alleys developed, with some similarities to Liverpool court housing. A walking tour with Sarah Apmann enabled us to see examples of the Greenwich Village back housing.

Elsewhere in New York 'back houses' developed within the blocks of the grid plan, where property had been built on the street-frontage, creating doughnut plan-form building. To make best use of space, central areas were filled by 'back-house'. On a later walk along the ‘High Line’ and a visit to the South Street Seaport area, I saw examples of back houses and courtyards, built within the grid system of buildings which filled-in areas behind street front properties. Court housing developed in Liverpool from the 18th century onwards, and became especially common in the 19th century. Map evidence for New York shows this infilling of spaces spreading across the city through the 19th century.

Building with 'back houses' behind, seen from the High Line between 28th and 29th Street, New York

The process of the development of the New York back houses has been documented, and it’s interesting to think of them as international parallels to English court housing. Court housing was a form of low quality, high density housing which filled spaces behind street-front properties with houses facing on to courtyards. Court housing was built in many northern English cities, but was especially prevalent in Liverpool, where it's estimated that around half the working class population lived in courts by the mid 19th century.

Court houses in Liverpool were built back-to-back, which isn't the case in New York. And Liverpool's courts had an entrance alley from the street, while some of New York's back houses could only be accessed through street front buildings. But the same pressures on land during a period of soaring population growth resulted in the same use of rear spaces for housing. My next line of research is whether there was any direct transfer of ideas about housing between these two port cities, or if a similar solution was arrived-upon separately in the two places.