The Little House That Could: The Federal Row House in New York

These five homes, located on Van Dam Street, are rare examples of Federal row house with the dormers still intact.

These five homes, located on Van Dam Street, are rare examples of Federal row house with the dormers still intact.

Article originally published in summer 2008. Photos: Christine Halkiopolous.

I have to disclose that I am particularly fond of the Federal Row House, because I happen to own one. It’s very small but with historic architecture, size doesn’t count.

Most people associate the Federal style with early America, the Colonial Period, and the birth of our Nation. It’s a very easy style to attain because it’s essentially a rectangular box, typically two or three-and-a-half stories high, that can vary in size greatly thus accommodating everyone from the humblest homeowner to the mayor. It’s interesting to note that the current mayor of New York lives in an attached townhouse. He choose to remain in his house, post-election, even though traditionally, New York mayors have lived in the detached Gracie Mansion. Of course, Bloomberg’s mansion is a far cry from the humble Federal dwelling and most row houses in general, but still, it’s a house, in a row.

Returning to the 18th Century…
Thanks to design books of the period, such as Asher Benjamin’s American Builders Companion (1797), architects could make Federal Row Houses as elaborate or simple as the homeowner wished (The Federal Era Row House of Lower Manhattan, author Susan De Vries). Besides being decoratively flexible, they could be made of wood or brick, the later being a requirement in crowded cities to avoid devastating fires. This adaptability helped the Federal style’s popularity rise to become the prominent architectural fashion of the age. In New York, the original architecture was based on Dutch influences. If you remember our article on Amsterdam, Dutch architecture lends itself nicely to urban development. However, it wasn’t long before the Federal style, adapted from the Georgian style that was popular in England at the time, started to take prominence.

Some of the details that make these Federal homes include the even placement of the windows, pronounced lentils and square door surrounds.

Some of the details that make these Federal homes include the even placement of the windows, pronounced lentils and square door surrounds.

Like most old world cities, Manhattan was developed organically based on the needs of the population. The city radiated from central points with streets laid in winding fashion. As the city grew, problems arising from over-crowding, like cholera outbreaks and block-consuming fires, motivated people to move northward to more open spaces. It’s hard to believe the West Village was considered pasture and farmland, the country, but in the late 18th Century, that’s exactly what it was. Two factors influenced the choice of the row house for dwellings in these new neighborhoods. One, the migration of a lot of people in a short time resulted in a flurry of speculative development which relies on quick building techniques. Two, land in this new urban oasis was divided into 25′ by 100′ plots, arranged in a grid like fashion and there is no more efficient way to develop houses in that sort of space. Since Federal was the style du Jour and adaptable to a variety of homeowners’ tastes and budgets, naturally all these new row houses adopted the look.

New York is sometimes called the capital of the world. It’s a big modern city that’s always moving forward. Unfortunately, due to this ever-pressing need to be bigger and better, quite a bit of Federal architecture has been demolished. Many modest row houses were re-purposed and turned into tenament buildings. Many more row houses were knocked down to make room for large apartment buildings that could accommodate an ever-growing population. However, some very special Federal row houses remain, hidden in corners or stubbornly surviving mid-block. In protected, historic neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, you can even see examples from the early 1800s. Considering the New York of today has such a wide variety of architecture, it’s amazing to think that, at one point, it was blocks and blocks of uniform Federal Row Houses.

Fortunately, architects used the Federal style for row houses for over long period of time. Earliest examples occur in attached urban dwellings as early as the 1720s and people were still building in the style, albeit sporadically, after 1850. So there are over 100 years of attached houses to be seen. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation published a report to submit several row homes for historic designation. This report has been a great source for this article and has informed us about a few wonderful examples still in existence.

Some homes are lucky survivors, nestled between newer buildings. This example even retains its horse walk.

Some homes are lucky survivors, nestled between newer buildings. This example even retains its horse walk.

The first row featured is located on Van Dam Street, photos one and two. This group wasn’t part of the report but our intrepid photographer snapped up the photos anyway. They are beautifully restored examples of Federal Row Houses from the early 1800s. It’s easy to explain what makes these Federal because they retain a lot of original detail. First, the windows are all uniformly sized and placed. Windows typically got smaller as you went up a floor but they are all the same size within a floor. The six over six-pane windows are typical of mid-19th Century. The door surrounds, with columns, top pediment with window and narrow side windows are an indicator of early Federal style. The homes have a full second floor and an attic half floor with dormered windows which spanned the entire period. Above and below each window is a lintel, a masonry border. Modest Federal homes have a simple lintel, maybe turned bricks or wood. However more elaborate homes will have splayed lintels with keystones, brownstone lintels, show in these homes. Some even have marble, illustrating the Federal style’s adaptability. Like most Federal row homes in New York, the Van Dam Street homes are constructed out of brick. A common type of brick laying for Federal Row Homes is called Flemish Bond, which alternates between laying the bricks with the long side or short end facing out. You can just make out this style of bond in the second photo.

7 Leroy Street, photo three, is quite the survivor and is neighbored by bigger and more modern buildings. It represents a typical Federal house, two-and-a-half stories with a dormer roof. This house not only survives and is in beautiful condition but it also retains a back property, accessible from the lower wooden door at the left of the main door, via a tunnel. Rows built in the early to mid-1800s were built like doughnuts with no alley or street access to the backyards. The homeowners used to live in this rear dwelling while they rented out the front house (“Streetscapes/13 Federal Row Houses Recommended as Landmarks; Glimpses Into the 19th Century,” The New York Times, by Christopher Gray, March 21, 2004). Although having another house or small stable behind your house was fairly common during the period, you wouldn’t park your horse on the street, not many row houses have this today.

The typical row house of the period worked on a basic plan. Row houses were two rooms deep, which allowed for every room to have windows and proper ventilation. Behind the house would be a garden and an additional structure. The first floor had public rooms, usually two parlors that could be either separated with doors or opened for more space. The family’s bedrooms and private areas were on the second floor and the third floor, or attic, was for the household help. The parlors would be more elaborately decorated since that is where people entertained. The rest of the house was usually more modest. The first floor was raised above street level to allow for the basement to have small windows. Putting the kitchen and dining room in the basement kept kitchen smoke and smells from permeating the entire house. The backyard garden was accessible from the kitchen, very useful in a time before the supermarket.

Fashionable 1820s homes on Greenwich Street.

Fashionable 1820s homes on Greenwich Street.

486 and 488 Greenwich street, photos four, five, and six, were built in 1820 and are probably some of the oldest remaining Federal Row Houses in the city. Again, these follow the two-and-a-half story pattern, although they don’t have the raised first floor. These have been altered for commercial use and it isn’t sure what the original entrances might have looked like. (The Federal Era Row House of Lower Manhattan, pg 8) The near doorway in photo five is a reasonable assumption as it looks very typical for the period and is, most likely, in alignment with an inside staircase at the side of the house. One owner has utilized a recycled entrance that fits appropriately with the house as well.

The last three photos are of a block in Greenwich Village, not far from Washington Square. These homes are mostly intact, despite the mixed use. In one, is the restaurant La Lanterna, a favorite of mine. Not only do all three homes have their original door surrounds, but the iron work and pineapple finials in front of La Lanterna are also original.

These are really just a small sample. I’ve seen a few Federal row homes in the South Street Seaport area as well as in Brooklyn Heights. It’s good to know that people are actively trying to save these homes and a unique part of American architectural history.

NYFederalRowHouse05

NYFederalRowHouse06

These retain most of their original details. The house on the right appears to have it's original eight over twelve windows as well.

These retain most of their original details. The house on the right appears to have it’s original eight over twelve windows as well.

The pineapple was a symbol of welcome in the 18th and 19th Centuries. This finial is original to the iron work.

The pineapple was a symbol of welcome in the 18th and 19th Centuries. This finial is original to the iron work.

Additional Resources

The Federal Era Row House of Lower Manhattan, by Susan De Vries, The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

“Streetscapes/13 Federal Row Houses Recommended as Landmarks; Glimpses Into the 19th Century,” The New York Times

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