19th C. American Townhouses

The following is information about townhouses in several eastern American cities. Most of it dwells on the houses of 1830, with a bit about the changes wrought in floorplans later in the century. Strictly speaking, 1830 is not Victorian, as Victoria was just a princess at the time. I've tried to stay away, for the most part, on the subject of Victorian exteriors on this site, but I found this segment of a book interesting, as I hadn't found anything like it before.

New York
Exterior of an 1830’s style house, still standing in 1890’s. on the N. side of Washington square.

The New York city houses of 1830 tended toward high stoops. To those unfamiliar with the term stoop, it’s the term for the stone steps leading from the pavement to the front door. A small landing would be found at the top. The stair of 1830 would be built with 8 to 13 risers.
The front was of plain brick, often with white marble lintels and stoops . Others were of Connecticut brown stone.
The design of exteriors and even interiors was simple. The use of extensive plaster or stucco decoration of 30 years before, applied to cornices and ceilings in the Classical style, etc., had disappeared. These elaborate decorations were replaced by one or two handsome details. In many of the houses the doors on the parlor story, and sometimes on the bedroom story, were of mahogany or rosewood veneer. The woodwork around them was of white pine, simply painted white, unornamented.

In both larger and smaller homes, the front basement room served as the dining room.
These town houses were similar to those found in London at the time with one difference. In New York, instead of entering the house on the dining room floor and then going upstairs to the drawing room, you entered on the drawing room floor and went down to the dining room.
The kitchen would be found in the back half of the basement, with closets and pantries dividing it from the dining room. Sometimes there would be a pass-through in the wall between kitchen and dining room, in other houses there would be a door.
In later years, the back yards were dug down so that they were 6 or 8 inches below the kitchen floor, but in 1830 they remained at their original level. Instead, a sunken area was dug out, with stone retaining walls to hold back the earth, and steps leading down into it so that one could enter the kitchen by a back door.

The second floor held a large front bedroom with two windows and an adjoining smaller room. The rear of the house had a similar arrangement . The space between the larger bedrooms would hold closets, called “pantries” in those days.
When city water was introduced, the small back hall-bedroom, as it was called, was often used as a bathroom. The supply of piped in water was generally limited to this bathroom and a kitchen sink.
There were, as yet, no dumb waiters in use, since dining was expected to be done in the basement level next to the kitchen.
A cellar would be found below the basement level. It was generally paved with cobblestones. It would be set up with some shelves and perhaps some “hanging shelves”, which were light wooden platforms, hung by strips of wood nailed to the beams overhead.
Things were stored in the cellars, as there were few attics. This was because there had begun a trend toward building with what were commonly known as flat roofs. They actually weren’t quite flat. they had a very slight incline to drain away rainwater and they were at the time, usually covered in metal sheathing. Access to the roof was by means of a movable ladder.

A house like this, if it had 2 stories of bedrooms above the parlors was called a “two-story house with finished attic”. The parlor story counted as one, the second bedroom story was still called an attic, even if the ceilings were nine or more feet high and there was no slope. Some houses however, did have a slop on the back side roof, making an upper floor bedroom with one 5 or 6 foot high wall on the back and a sloped ceiling.

Baltimore and Richmond

From the plan you can see that the lot was wider, since lot prices were cheaper than in New York.

The front part had one room and the staircase hall , and was usually three stories high with a ground floor 2 or 3 steps above ground level, the drawing room floor and 1 or 2 bedrooms on the 3rd. Floor.
The back section would have bedrooms on the second floor. The back stairs in the kitchen lead to these bedrooms and a sort of attic. Sometimes there were 2 stories of bedrooms above the kitchen wing.
These houses had no water except for a pump at the end of the back yard. Later, when a city water supply was available, the pump was replaced by a hydrant.

The ground floor plan of a Richmond house shows a modified, more expensive version of the above Baltimore house.

Both the Baltimore and Richmond plans show a more spacious and conveniently planned house than the New York model. New Yorkers were stuck with limited space, and therefore smaller, more expensive lots.


Here’s a plan for a typical Boston town house . Boston had a severe land shortage before they started filling in the Back Bay.

The arrangement of the entrance flight of stairs within the front wall of the house is a Boston feature. The first story was raised 5 or 6 steps above the sidewalk. The front room was almost always used as a dining room, with the back room being the kitchen.
Beneath this floor was a cellar, raised up halfway out of the ground.
The cellar story held the “archway”, which was a way into the kitchen. A delivery boy could ring the bell, and when the door was opened, go down the steep flight of stairs. He’d then go down a corridor, partitioned off of the rest of the cellar, and mount a second flight of steps into the back yard, just opposite the kitchen door.
This was Boston version of the Baltimore or Philadelphia alley. The alley was placed under the house instead of beside it. Some Boston houses kept the street level alley, but built upper stories of the house over it.

This shows the drawing room floor plan of the same house
The room back of the staircase was often arranged as a china closet, which may have meant that the Boston family often dined in the back parlor. There was no dumb waiter, but the author of the source book was inclined to think that since Boston tended to take after London ways, that a maid would probably bring the dishes up and down to and from the kitchen, as they did in London at that time. He espoused the view that “ a New York maid or man would consider quite out of the question“.
This 1830 Boston house would have had no plumbing or water supply except in the kitchen, and no furnace. When city water appeared in Boston, a bathroom would have quite possibly have been fitted into the ground floor extension or upstairs on a bedroom floor.
The cost of this sort of house was about the same as a New York house of the same size, but Boston lots were usually not as deep. Since Boston back yards were much smaller, the laundry was dried on the roof of the one story extension on specially built frames and racks.

This is a view of an old style Boston town house, much like the shown plans, only reversed. The steps leading up to the front door were often of wood because they were partially protected from the effects of the weather. In the very expensive homes, the steps would more likely be stone.

In the three previous houses the dining room was generally on the floor below the drawing room, but in Philadelphia the living rooms were all placed on the same floor, and this floor was usually at or close to street level.

The Philadelphia town house had access to a back alley that ran the length of the block. Each back yard had a gate into this alleyway through which deliverymen could reach the kitchen.

The front, therefore would have only one door, with no more than 5 marble steps leading to it. The front end of the hall tended to be only as wide as necessary, allowing for a large parlor. The hallway would widen towards the back to allow for the stairs to the upper floor, making the back parlor somewhat narrower. This back parlor was often used as the dining room. Often there would be a pair of facing closets between the front and back room, forming a sort of short passage. Two sets of doors were also sometimes used.
More expensive homes had a larger back building, and the dining room would often be placed there. These larger examples could also have a service or butler’s pantry between the dining and kitchen spaces.
The back building was usually only one story high, so the staircase hall was usually well lit from the windows on the landings.
Philadelphians also had more building room than New Yorkers and Bostonians with more spacious rooms and more natural light.

Rear View of Houses at Eighth and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia.

The house on the left is the corner house on the block. The entrance has been placed on the side street shown here. The long brick wall running along the street encloses a somewhat larger than normal back yard and the back building is larger than most, apparently constructed in 3 sections.
Group of Houses at Third and Locust Streets, Philadelphia; built about 1810.
These houses are from an earlier period.

Double houses
Wealthier families in cities could afford double houses, or houses with rooms on both sides of the entrance hall. Their lots tended to run from thirty-seven to fifty feet in width.
Apparently not nearly as many examples of those were built in New York, compared to cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Even crowded Boston had more of them than New York.
C. Astor Bristed, author of The Upper Ten Thousand: Sketches of American Society, put his typical wealthy New Yorker into a house 3 rooms deep and 27 feet wide. He explained that the house stood on a corner lot, and so had windows in the second of the three bedrooms. The author of the source for this article notes that;"anyone who knew New York about 1845, will remember how unusual was the house with four or five windows in one story of its front. Still, such houses were known."
This example of a New York double house stood on Washington Place and in the 1890’s was no longer a private dwelling.

Here is an example of a Boston double house. The lot was about 40 feet wide. A New York double house would be similarly set up, but without the rounded bow window. The windows were described as “swell fronts” and are mainly a Boston feature, though there were a few built in New York.

You can compare the Boston and other houses to the drawing room floor of an old London house.

This shows the first floor, while the entrance to the house would be on the ground floor, together with the dining room. This particular example shows a very long extension because it was used as an art gallery. Normally the extension would only be about 15 feet long.

The Next Step
The next step in the evolution of the new York town house was basically the same plan as the first one shown at the top of this page, with the addition of a vestibule and a back room.
This room was called the "third room," the "tea-room," and often the " extension." This room originally was a one story addition, though later on it became a part of the original conception of the house.

New York, 1860, ground floor
This sketch shows the abandonment of the wall between the two parlors. In place of the wall, we see columns dividing the space. One reason for this was the fact that the central room no longer had windows, so that by removing the wall, it was now part of the windowed front room. At first there was an arch or transom in this divider, but eventually that disappeared leaving one long room, with one centered fireplace.
The back room eventually came to be used as a dining room, and cupboards and a dumb-waiter would be installed in the enclosed back end of the hall.

This photo is from a later period, but happens to illustrate the 2 parlors becoming one with the use of dividing columns. The fireplace in the inner room seems to be unused. The area has no windows. To gain more light, and give the feel of a more open space, the homeowner has installed a set of French doors on the back wall. One opens to the “back room” which has been set up for dining. It’s unclear if the stationary section is clear glass or mirrored.
In older houses, where there were 2 parlors and a back room, the house would be about 57 feet long, but once the two parlors started being replaced with one longer room in newer houses, the longer room tended to shrink to a length of 34 feet or less. The additional 15 feet or so of back room brought the total length to about 50 feet.
At the same time that these changes were being made on the first floor, the upper floors were also extended to the full length of the house, making 3 bedrooms on each floor.
The use of this floor plan predominated in New York for about 30 years
The second floor of an 1860 New York townhouse

The small center rooms were easily equipped with sinks for washing. The passageway connecting the bedrooms was lined with cupboards. The two small rooms could be used either as bedrooms, a sewing or sitting room, or, as shown here, a bathroom.

If the house was deeper, the space between the front and back bedrooms was increased. Often the bathroom would be placed in the middle of the house between the closets. In this case a light shaft was installed for light and ventilation.

Finally, a townhouse plan from 1893


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