As I conducted some of the Trust’s annual monitoring inspections in New York City recently, I was repeatedly struck by the ubiquity of the rear ell in row house designs throughout New York. This urban housing type is found in other cities where the Trust works, as well, including Baltimore and Boston.
Often when visiting a brownstone, I would pass through a paired, 19th-century parlor and dining room to a kitchen located in a narrower ell at the rear of the building, from which I could access the rear yard and complete the monitoring visit.
Though the designs differ from house to house, the ells have a few things in common – they are almost universally shorter than the main block of the house, and they are constructed of common brick. In some cases, I found no ell at all, and it was clear that one had never existed. The universality of the ell and its common design attributes led me to wonder about its history and articulation.
History of the Rear Ell
It was not uncommon for Federal row houses (1785-1820), the earliest type found in the U.S., to have back buildings or ells in the rear yard that housed the kitchen, privies, and slave or servant quarters. English row house, or terrace, precedents dating to the mid-to-late 18th century had developed with similar floorplans, where a narrow rear extension often housed the kitchen and a washroom with extra bedrooms above.
The long and narrow house types were well-suited to the long and narrow urban lots laid out by developers and land speculators on previously open lands as they were subdivided and sold. This type of lot allowed a maximum number of houses to be built along a blockfront, thereby maximizing profits. Further, in the days before electricity, the ell arrangement provided space for at least one window in the rear wall of the main block that provided light to its rear rooms. Windows in the sidewall of the ell itself provided sufficient light to the kitchen and extra bedrooms. If instead the house was built to the full width of the lot as it extended toward the rear lot line, a central pile of rooms without natural light would have been created. Although this did happen in some row house plans, the floorplan was much less desirable. This became less of a problem after the advent of electric lighting.
In some of the grandest early row houses, the kitchen ell was connected to the main block of the row house with a small hyphen, often used as a pantry. The pantry might also contain a set of back stairs that provided a secondary means of access to the bedrooms for servants. Row houses designed and built for members of the working class might have a simple one-story ell without a hyphen that contained only the kitchen.
As the 19th century progressed and mechanization in the building trades made it possible for row houses to be constructed quickly in long groups, the traditional arrangement with a main block and a rear ell was perpetuated by developers. It was often, although not always, more economical to join the rear ells of adjoining houses. With such an arrangement, each house was a mirror image of its next-door neighbors. This eliminated the need for construction of two exterior ell walls by replacing those two walls with one party wall constructed down the middle of what was essentially a single ell structure. Party walls were often thinner, requiring less brick, than exterior walls. This practice reduced construction materials and time.
Further, the two ells could be housed under a single roof structure. Using joined ells also allowed light and air to penetrate into the space of two joined lots instead of the small rear yard of a single lot. In this manner, neighbors could visually “borrow” the open space of their neighbors, reducing the sense of urban crowding.
Row house development continued well into the 20th century. One of the more popular types of later row houses was the “daylight house,” which was wider and less deep than earlier row houses. Large front and rear porches recalled popular aspects of suburban living, as did the creation of front yards. Because the goal of the design was to have lots of daylight and fresh air in each room, the rear ells began to disappear.
Appearance of the Rear Ell
It is important to remember that during the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, the rear yard was not a place for rest. It later developed into the landscaped garden we know today. Before the advent of modern sewer systems and trash collection, rear yards were receptacles for waste, including household trash, and human and animal excrement. They were also work spaces where laundry was hung and wells were located. Accordingly, the exterior appearance of the ell, particularly in comparison to the public face of the row house, was relatively humble in design. This juxtaposition in the level of architectural articulation, in fact, is a significant feature of urban row houses.
The rear walls of a row house, both of the main block and the ell itself, are almost always constructed of common brick. Common bricks are less finely finished than pressed bricks, which are uniform in color and size and have hard, smooth faces. Pressed brick was more expensive and, accordingly, it was reserved for the street façade. The rear façade is generally rougher, with more texture, variation in color, and wider mortar joints, than a pressed brick street façade. Common brick construction is even more distinct when compared to an elaborately carved and incised brownstone or limestone street façade.
Nevertheless, builders did enliven the rear façade with some articulation at the roofline and sometimes around windows. It is not uncommon to find dogtooth cornices at the roofline, where a row of bricks is laid diagonally so that one corner projects from the wall surface. Another common treatment was a simple corbelled cornice, where successive rows of bricks are cantilevered out over the rows below, creating the appearance of the underside of a stair. Such corbelling devices were also occasionally used to create brick window enframements. The use of brownstone as window sills and lintels was also very common and dressed up the rear façade slightly.
Preserving Your Rear Ell
The most important thing you can do to preserve your rear ell is keep its footprint intact. That, more than any other feature, defines its character and the overall character of row house development in your city.
In addition, accepting and celebrating the rear façade of your building for its simplicity and utilitarian appearance will preserve a reminder of the way that rear yards were once used. You can assist with its preservation by ensuring that masonry is repointed appropriately and left unpainted and unparged. Retaining the original pattern of windows and doors on the rear façade is another laudable choice. Windows placed asymmetrically between floors may indicate the location of a now-lost stairwell, while the appearance of unusually short or narrow windows may give hints of the original floorplan, helping to locate an original bathroom, storage, or kitchen space. All of these clues will help current and future historians understand the ways in which people have lived in and used these significant buildings throughout their history.
For additional information:
Bunting, Bainbridge. Houses of Boston’s Back Bay: An Architectural History, 1840-1917. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1967.
Hayward, Mary Ellen and Charles Belfourse. The Baltimore Rowhouse. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.
Rybczynski, Witold. City Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.