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Looking back on back houses

6 April 2018 by Liz

Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, New York. ‘Court’ style houses filling a small side street area.

I was fortunate enough to make a research trip to New York recently, with my colleague Poppy Learman. This was supported by the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant, and the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project.

We visited numerous heritage sites, archives and museums. One of the highlights for me was meeting staff at Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and discussed their work on New York’s back houses. The irregular street layout at the south tip of Manhattan, developed from the Dutch settlement street pattern, creates areas where courts and alleys developed, with some similarities to Liverpool court housing. A walking tour with Sarah Apmann enabled us to see examples of the Greenwich Village back housing.

Elsewhere in New York ‘back houses’ developed within the blocks of the grid plan, where property had been built on the street-frontage, creating doughnut plan-form building. To make best use of space, central areas were filled by ‘back-house’. On a later walk along the ‘High Line’ and a visit to the South Street Seaport area, I saw examples of back houses and courtyards, built within the grid system of buildings which filled-in areas behind street front properties.

Court housing developed in Liverpool from the 18th century onwards, and became especially common in the 19th century. Map evidence for New York shows this infilling of spaces spreading across the city through the 19th century.

Building with ‘back houses’ behind, seen from the High Line between 28th and 29th Street, New York

The process of the development of the New York back houses has been documented, and it’s interesting to think of them as international parallels to English court housing. Court housing was a form of low quality, high density housing which filled spaces behind street-front properties with houses facing on to courtyards. Court housing was built in many northern English cities, but was especially prevalent in Liverpool, where it’s estimated that around half the working class population lived in courts by the mid 19th century. Court houses in Liverpool were built back-to-back, which isn’t the case in New York. And Liverpool’s courts had an entrance alley from the street, while some of New York’s back houses could only be accessed through street front buildings. But the same pressures on land during a period of soaring population growth resulted in the same use of rear spaces for housing. My next line of research is whether there was any direct transfer of ideas about housing between these two port cities, or if a similar solution was arrived-upon separately in the two places.

  1. Steve Williams says:

    Sadly the last remaining Court Housing in Liverpool, would appear to be not fulfilling the need of preservation in this city, shame really as preserving it, would be great for the city and museum. Hopefully the whole site on Pembroke Place can be saved.

    • Liz says:

      Through the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) and the Museum of Liverpool are exploring the history of the court housing on Pembroke Place, alongside stories of the rest of the street. This is being undertaken with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is starting to reveal information about who lived in these courts, and their lifestyles – enabling us to further understand the historical and cultural significance of the properties.

      LSTM owns the Galkoff building and the former book shop, which is part of the court dwellings. LSTM has been able to make the former bookshop building more structurally secure with remedial work. There are no current plans for redevelopment. The Galkoff tiles were suffering from weathering after being outdoors for more than 80 years. The removal of the tiles from the Galkoff building will preserve that heritage asset for the long term in the collection of the Museum of Liverpool.

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