Make Mine a Double

Recently I have found myself considering an unusual and interesting housing type, one which must exist in other places but has a special character and presence here in Rochester. Here is an example:


This is a double house, or duplex house. It looks like a large single-family home, but it is actually two units. We find them throughout our own city neighborhood, and they exist in many other places in our city as well.  Here are a few more:


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In addition, here in Rochester we have these:



This is a special kind of row housing. Not townhouses – not as dense – and also often configured to appear as larger single-family houses. Almost never more than four to six in a single row, and almost always found in neighborhoods that are principally detached single family houses. The larger rows too have something of the appearance of a substantial single-family residence, but then have a host of secondary features – porches, dormers, gables, bays – to identify each unit. And most of them are on corners, allowing different addresses, entries on two streets, and enhancing the reading of the buildings as houses rather than apartments.

I have spent some time looking around in other cities, trying to find a similar expression; early 20th century origins; duplex or double houses or slightly larger rows; mostly wooden, though some limited use of brick or stone; massing and detailing akin to single family types. It is this last – the strong resemblance and architectural relationship between single family homes (often on the next-door lot) and these double houses that make them so unmistakably Rochesterian.

So what, I have found myself wondering, is going on here? Or what was going on here? I believe that these wonderful buildings – like all buildings, for better or worse – are telling us stories about our city, what life was like here before us, what we thought we were doing, who we thought we were. The stories that are an essential ingredient of these buildings are an essential ingredient of our city, and in the end, an essential ingredient in understanding our present, and our future. Onward.

Between 1910 and 1930, the population of our city doubled. None of these buildings appear in the plat maps of 1900, but by the mapping of 1935, they are all here. At least in our neighborhood, and in nearby neighborhoods. In that same time period automobility was emerging but had not yet taken control of our urban life, as it soon would.

ABC 1910

Our neighborhood, 1910.

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Our neighborhood in 1935.

No, in 1930, many of us still rode the streetcars as our principal means of transport. And in our neighborhood, the double and row houses I have featured are all within a block or two of the streetcar line, which ran east and west on Park Avenue. I have found some instances elsewhere in the city where these structures are less close to the streetcar lines, but very rarely more than ¼ mile. A short walk, even in a snowstorm.

Rochester Streetcar map - 1920s

Rochester streetcars, in the late 1920s.

Maybe this kind of building arose because of a rapid increase in population, with solid but not abundant salaries for skilled workers in a variety of trades and professions, creating a market for a place to live that was similar to the already plentiful single-family homes throughout the city, but was a bit more affordable. Maybe neighbors wanted new construction to accommodate smaller living units but still feel right in single-family communities. Maybe one of the city’s developers hit on this new building type, built a few, sold them like hotcakes, and a movement began. And perhaps it was a combination of all these factors that gave birth to the uniquely Rochester duplex and row house.

I am now struggling to discover whether occupants were owners or renters. In those times, I think fee-simple ownership is most likely, but I have yet to verify this. If they were rentals, the rent would have been in the range of $20 to $25 or so a month, perhaps slightly less earlier, and slightly more later. If they were purchased, I think they would have cost somewhere in the $4,000 to $5,000 range per unit.

We live in a swarm of city stories. These stories are wheeling everywhere around us. Understanding them, translating and decoding them, always unlocks the rich narratives that are ours, and shows us what to do next.

Let’s see. I need a small, affordable house. I have a parking lot. Hmmm.

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17 thoughts on “Make Mine a Double

  1. What do the censuses show regarding ownership or rental? In Chicago they show the difference….Speaking of duplexes that look like SFR, Indianapolis’ Northside has a lot of them along former streetcar lines and corner lots a block away from lines—which reinforces your theory of Rochester.

  2. GJ, how do I look at the census records? I find that most places I can locate for census records of this period are about genealogy, and want to charge me exorbitant fees.

    I will look at Indianapolis – thanks for the thought!

  3. Interesting read!

    Here in Buffalo the most common kind of house is the double, even in upscale neighborhoods like the Elmwood Village. I believe it helped keep Buffalo’s urban core relatively intact during suburban flight because even though — in the minds of many at the time — the suburbs were bright and shiny and the city was decrepit and dingy, the economic attractiveness of owning a double and having much of the mortgage payment covered by rental of the second unit was irresistible.

    When I lived in Rochester I often attended lectures presented by the design center. One of the speakers talked about those large, multi-unit structures that are designed as if they were a single, large, sprawling house. He said that as far as he knew they are unique to Rochester.

  4. While most of these houses are now rentals, some of them are individually owned dwelling units. Occasionally you will see one for sale.

  5. I own one of these doubles and I did some research on it. Mine was built circa 1900. It was built by a family where an older couple lived on one side and their son and his family lived on the other. The older man was a carpenter and his son worked for the railroad.

  6. I’ve been reading about “missing middle housing”, a term coined by Dan Parolek and partner at Opticos Design.

    From wikipedia:
    “Missing Middle Housing consists of multi-unit housing types such as duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, and mansion apartments that are not bigger than a large house, that are integrated throughout most walkable pre-1940s neighborhoods, often integrated into blocks with primarily single-family homes, and that provide diverse housing choices and generate enough density to support transit and locally-serving commercial amenities.”

    You and your readers have already mentioned the many benefits. I would only add that, while they have been largely zoned out of existence, there is renewed interest among the transit-oriented development crowd, as I’m sure you’ve heard.

    Here in El Camino (NE Roc) our commercial corridor was originally built out as apartments over stores. Nowadays, commercial zoning pretty much allows developers to do anything they want, which is typically suburban-style retail. Meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhoods are now pretty exclusively R1, where everybody gets a driveway, needed or not, and most are rentals out of necessity. I see a real opportunity for re-activating corridors like N. Clinton by establishing a buffer zone between the two as a transition between commercial and residential zoning that would encourage construction of these “lost” housing types. It just seems like a scenario where everybody wins.

  7. I’m late to commenting here (I think I did on FB), but now, 6 months later, I can honestly say that this isn’t working out as planned. May not ever work out as planned, and is less popular as a new building than maybe it should be…

  8. I’m going to speculate that while two-family buildings (the ubiquitous “Bostons” of that era) were often owner-occupied, most of the four- and six-family buildings were investment properties with absentee landlords. Taking 25 Darwin St. as an example, it was built with four apartments in 1916 by H.P. Domine, who owned a building supply company that still exists. An ad from that year describes one of the apartments as “strictly first class” with a parlor, large dining and living room, pantry, kitchen, 2 bedrooms, bath, plus a maid’s quarters on the 3rd floor with its own bath; rent was $55 a month. A check of the 1920 and 1930 federal censuses confirmed that all of the occupants were renters, though several had servants (rent was $75/month by 1930). As expected, many of the renters appear to have been widows, empty-nesters and young newlyweds; average tenancy was short, usually just a few years. By the 1950s, the 2 maid’s quarters had been converted to 1-bedroom apartments. I wasn’t able to find out the original cost but a similar building on Park Ave. went for $13,000 in 1916. As mentioned, the street car made these sorts of residences viable, but we shouldn’t forget the importance of central heating (coal furnaces in this era), municipal sewers and water — all of which date from the late 19th century.

  9. Kelly, thanks for joining the conversation. Great research on 25 Darwin! This is a building type that is a bit different than the earlier “double-house” type I have been writing about here but does represent another kind of building quite common to our city. And interesting that it had an upper apartment with maid’s quarters in the rafters. Especially interesting since WWI saw the waning of live-in help: because of the economy, of the emergence of “labor-saving” appliances and other forces, live-in help rapidly decreased in the late teens. I would expect that the maids quarters got converted perhaps even before WWII, but certainly in the housing scramble after the war they would have been made into units.

    Now I am going to have to go snooping around a bit more – you have piqued my curiosity about this housing form.

  10. I reread your original article and I agree, 25 Darwin St. is more of a conventional 4-family apartment house and isn’t unique to Rochester — Sears even sold a kit version called “The Atlanta”. And as I mentioned, the most common type of duplex in that era was the Boston flat, of which there are dozens (maybe hundreds) in the Park/Monroe Ave. area. They typically had two entrances (often sharing a porch) with two floors, one for each family — 179/181 Rosedale St. is an excellent example. In Boston, the design eventually evolved into the very common 3-decker flat, but I’ve never seen one of these in Rochester!

    The pictures from your article are examples (if my research is correct) of semi-detached houses. It was a popular style in late-Victorian England, and was exported to countries like Canada and Australia, but never really caught on in the US. I found an advertisement for the last house you showed (corner of Beverly and Park) in the 1909 D&C — it was built by W.H. Campbell and was marketed as a “semi-detached house” to an upscale clientele. It looks like the occupants were renters, but I’ll confirm this by checking the census records. I’ll also check some of the two-family houses you showed to see if they were more likely to be owner occupied.

    I’m not sure if we’ll ever know why this style caught on in Rochester and not other American cities — but I do know that, even though city-wide zoning wasn’t adopted here until the 1920s, individual streets had their own covenants limiting the type of structures that could be built. Harvard St., for example, once prohibited apartment buildings with store fronts on the first floor. I also noticed that these semi-detached addresses were usually listed in the “Houses for Rent” rather than the “Apartments for Rent’ section of the want ads, which, for a certain type of middle class person, was an important distinction.

    P.S. As you know, the NPS officially declared the Park Ave area as a historic district in 2020. I’m going to ask the Landmark Society if the nomination survey done by the Clinton Brown Company is available to the public — these surveys sometimes contain an excellent overview of different architectural styles as well as the history of individual buildings.

  11. Last first: if you contact Caitlin Maives at the Landmark Society, I am sure she can forward a copy of the nomination survey and other documents for our new Landmark District. All of it is public material, so it should be available.

    Next, yes semi-detached is correct, but here – unlike other places I have seen but perhaps not uniquely – the form was not just two units, but sometime three or four or more. I have thought that because Rochester was a “City of Homes,” these buildings flourished when rowhouses or townhouses of another character never appeared. Even the four or five unit types look like big houses, not ‘housing.’ I agree with you about the distinction articulated in the ‘houses for rent’ section: houses, not apartments.

    Now I am on to the Atlanta, to see where it appears elsewhere, and to take a look at its variations here.

  12. Well, I’ve really gone down the “rabbit hole” on this one! I’m struck by the sheer ubiquity of this sort of house (semi-detached, 3+ families, usually on a corner lot), not just in the Park/Monroe neighborhood, but throughout the city. Examples include the corners of Stout & Garson, Harris & Clifford, and Parsells & Chamberlain. The next interesting thing I learned is that almost all of the houses I researched were built between 1909 and 1916. This may have something to do with the fact that the city passed an ordinance in 1917 specifying that lots for multi-family buildings had to be at least 60 feet wide; prior to this, builders were squeezing them into lots as narrow as 40 feet.

    As I mentioned previously, we may never know why this style of housing caught on here and not elsewhere. However, I did notice that many of them were designed by just two architects: Charles M. Hirschfelder & C. Storrs Barrows. Barrows had a long and distinguished career — he’s responsible for many fine Tudor homes in Brighton as well as the post-war Fernwood and Ramona Park apartments — he evidently worked briefly for Hirschfelder before starting his own practice in 1911. Examples of Barrows’ semi-detached houses are 1175 Park Ave, the corner of Park & Girard, and (I’m pretty sure) the Thistle Apartments at the corner of Maplewood Ave. & Seneca Parkway. An example of Hirschfelder’s work is 105-113 Pinnacle Rd. near Cobbs Hill.

    I found only one instance where an owner lived in one of these houses, and that was for just the first year: W.H. Campbell at 931 Park Ave. (corner of Beverly). He also built the 4-family apartment building next door and sold both shortly thereafter. Rents were $55 a month in 1913; by 1930 it was $65, only to plummet to $45 in 1940 after the Great Depression. By the way, this was the only location for which I could find a contemporary ad with a picture of the houses.

    Regarding building prices — Campbell took out a mortgage of $15,000 to build the Park & Beverly houses, while the Hirschfelder design on Pinnacle Rd. was listed for $35,000 in 1913. We don’t know of course how much money the builders put down intitially, but it gives us a ballpark estimate of costs. These were semi-detached houses and not apartments, and square footage tended to be larger than the latter.

    And speaking of “semi-detached” — the term was used infrequently back then; the more common description was something like “four-family frame house.”

  13. Kelly, I do know a bit about Mr. Barrows – we lived in a Barrows house for some time, and it was quite extraordinary. I think your Barrows information is correct.

    I think the shift in the 1917 ordinance – to 60′ wide lots – would have shut this kind of construction down. In our neighborhood, where there are many of these buildings, most of the lots are 50′. But I cannot find any 60′ in width. Nor do I find many 60′ lots west of Culver in the Park Avenue neighborhood. The extra 10 feet would have killed this.

    And a shame – what a unique and lovely building type. Thanks for all the good work – your research is simply terrific.

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