Sunday, October 7, 2012

Multi-Family Houses: Toward a History

Multi-Family Houses: Toward a History
by Samuel D. Gruber

Today on the East Side, and especially in the University neighborhood, a large number of houses and even a great majority on many streets are either multi-family dwellings or are rented to groups of students or other non-related individuals.  

This was not always the case.  When first developed, most of the East Side was planned as an area of single family homes.  Even the wood-frame houses for what we would call the working class, were free standing and had a patch of lawn and yard for space, air, greenery and a garden.  Not all houses had garages, and some did not have driveways, but there were relatively few cars and good public transportation, so parking was not a serious problem.  

 Syracuse, NY 729 Allen Street. Typical double-decker flats, ca. 1910-20. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Syracuse, NY.  543-545 Clarendon Street. Typical double-decker flats, ca. 1910-20. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011

I've been trying to figure out the history of houses in Syracuse's Westcott neighborhood, but good histories of multi-family dwellings in Syracuse, or nationwide, still need to be researched and written.  Architectural history and historic preservation originated with well-educated, well-off elites, and the history of house builders and owners has always been more important than the history of renters who were more likely to be poor, transient and often immigrants to boot. In preparing my recent Westcott neighborhood tours it has been hard to get good information on the history of multi-family dwellings (and also later apartment buildings), and I continually finding new examples that force a rethinking of the building type and its evolution, at least here in Syracuse. 

For the most part - or so I've thought - purpose-built multi-family house-type dwellings, built as flats or apartments, began to appear in the second decade of the 20th century on selected blocks.  Sometimes these are called trolley-houses, since residents depended on street cars for transport to work.  Today, these houses still provide comfortable living in spacious airy apartments, like those on the 200 block of Fellows Avenue and the 700 block of Allen Street.  The buildings of "flats" are easily recognizable.  They mostly have two doorways, and almost always have a double level of a generous front porch, and the placement  of windows, indicating the spaces within, are nearly identical on bottom and top floors. These apartments are markedly different from those made by cutting up a per-existing single-family residence, even when that house was overly large, and perhaps with multiple entrances for owners, servants and deliveries.

Syracuse, NY.  520-526 Columbus Ave. House-style apartments building, ca. 1895-1905. Photo: Samuel D Gruber 2012

Syracuse, NY.  315-17 Greenwood Pl. House-style apartments building, ca. Samuel D Gruber 2012

There are, however, other types. Two examples in the Westcott neighborhood have especially drawn my attention.  Each of these structures appears to have been built in the 1890s; based on location, style, construction details, and materials.  These are double-wide houses, similar in appearance to the single-family houses built nearby, and each house was built with two apartments for each half.  One of these buildings is on Columbus Avenue and the other is located nearby on Greenwood Place.  These appear to be early experiments with multiple-family dwellings, built to the scale of single-family houses in the neighborhood.  

This type, however, would be superseded by a more integrated and rectangular apartment block-type, usually of 4-8 apartments.  These new buildings which began to appear on corner lots around 1910 were distinctly different in appearance than many of the single family houses nearby.  Examples can be seen on Westcott Street corners at Avondale, Clarendon, Victoria and elsewhere.

 Syracuse, NY. 145 Avondale (@ Westcott). Taber & Baxter, archs., 1910. There was originally a double-decker porch facing Westcott Street. Photo: Samuel D Gruber 2012.

Syracuse, NY. 722 Westcott Street. ca. 1910-1915?  photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2007.

Subsequently, the double-decker flat type of structure, which might cost more to build per unit, but could rise on a single lot, and also allowed more light and air into each apartment, became most popular.  Many of these double-deckers may have been built for owner-occupancy of at least one-unit, or to facilitate multi-generational families, as is the case today.  More research needs to be done.

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