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:
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.
Our neighborhood, 1910.
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 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.