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Voices Spring-Summer, 2002:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “The Alley: A Back Street History of New York’s Communities” by Theodore Corbett here.
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Voices 28-1-2 cover


Volume 28

Headline: The Alley - A Back Street History of New York's Communities by Theodore Corbett

Three cities illustrate different patterns of development in urban alleys. New York City’s alleys were created as amenities for aristocratic and bourgeois residents. In Waterford, the alleys and the brick step-gabled carriage houses of the mid-nineteenth century were signs of the community’s business acumen and determination to succeed after the fire of 1841. At Saratoga Springs, alleys were conceived as amenities but took on a working class aspect, serving as low-income housing and commercial enclaves. In the twentieth century, alleys survived the age of the automobile and the decline of central cities; they have been gentrified and protected for their contributions to the quality of life in our cities. Now they are waiting to be studied as microcosms of vernacular architecture and social history.

In the nineteenth century, the rise of carriage traffic in New York State made it necessary to keep animals in cities and villages, causing the creation of urban alleys. Alleys were spaces where valuable animals could be kept in barns or, as the century wore on, decorative and substantial carriage houses. Alleys were thus constructed as amenities, places that improved the value of a property, and a convenience to the household they served. Yet paradoxically, alleys were hidden behind the main house, not to be seen by respectable people—for the owners preferred to display their carriages and themselves formally, traveling on the most fashionable main streets.
Photo of a carriage house entrance on North Row, Washington Square, New York City
A carriage house entrance on North Row, Washington Square, New York City, still has its old doorway, built to accommodate a horse-drawn wagon or carriage. This alley, modeled on the mews of London, served wealthy residents of the city.
All photos by Theodore Corbett.
After the Civil War, the alleys’ original function as an amenity declined, as they became populated by working class residents. Often, alleys were sites for both low-income housing and commercial development, because the housing was cheaper than on the main street and the space was ideal for small-scale enterprise. Such neighborhoods were the forerunner of the urban ghetto. Only in the twentieth century, with the gentrification of alley structures by returning professionals, did the alley reacquire the prestige it had originally held, sometimes to the extent of forcing out both the working class and commercial establishments.

Because alleys were back streets, the sources for their study are scarce and require the application of interdisciplinary techniques. My approach treats planned alleys as built and social landscapes to be investigated as vernacular architecture, and then viewed as service, residential, or commercial space that attracted the working class. Although alleys appeared in numerous New York State communities, I have chosen New York City, Waterford, and Saratoga Springs to represent different types of alley development. The alley did not appear in each place in the same way: in New York alleys were rare, early Waterford had extensive alleys, and Saratoga Springs falls in between.
New York City
The Aristocratic Residential Square Supported by the Mews
Although New York City became nineteenth-century America’s largest city, it had few planned alleys. A New York townhouse’s service entrance was commonly in front and provided access to basement kitchens and storage, with no access to the rear or a carriage house. Most of New York’s carriage houses were multiresidential, catering to several patrons in a neighborhood and placed on streets a few blocks from the homes they served. Even speculative developments in exclusive residential squares like Gramercy and Union were planned without alleys. The high price of Manhattan real estate put alleys last on the list of amenities—the cost most likely to be cut to assure the financial success of a venture. . .

A Phoenix of Brick Stepped-Gable Stables and Alleys
A different alley story is told at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, fifteen miles above Albany. Waterford, the first place incorporated as a village by the New York legislature, in 1794, was established at the head of sloop navigation on the Hudson River. To promote trade, workers eliminated riffs in the channel and maximized the river’s depth in shallow areas. Waterford became the terminus for the Champlain Canal, completed in 1823, which fed into the Erie Canal, and also developed its own King’s Water Canal, completed in 1828. Waterford grew modestly until the Panic of 1837 and then suffered a sharp decline in population. Prosperity returned a few years later, as Canadian and Irish immigrants worked in its mills, and industrial and commercial entrepreneurs built many brick stepped-gable houses along its streets.

The village’s alley system was the result of early planning and a determined leadership. Lots with alleys had been laid out in 1784 by Flores Bancker. An 1805 map shows that alleys paralleled Waterford’s grid of streets throughout the village. As houses were built, so too were stables on the alley behind. . .
Photo of carriage house in Waterford
The carriage houses in Waterford mirrored the step-gabled houses they served.

Photo: Woodframe stable on Railroad Alley in Saratoga Springs
This wood-frame stable on Railroad Alley in Saratoga Springs now has the outline of a New England saltbox, but the rear lean-to was added circa 1900, about fifty years after the original structure was built.

Saratoga Springs
A Working Class Presence
he elegant resort of Saratoga Springs lacked the commerce and industry of New York City or Waterford, but about half its streets were served by alleys. Alleys were developed by private or individual initiative at various times, so some alleys remained vacant while others were crowded with structures. From 1820 to 1890, stables that were once mere barns came to look as elegant as the main houses they were meant to serve. Most alley structures were wood-frame stables—no mews or stepped-gable carriage houses here—and the evolution of the spa’s alleys can be traced over a broad span of time. In some alleys, the appearance of the laboring class led to struggles for control of alley space. . .

By the 1890s, however, the appearance of the Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque carriage houses built in the image of the main house signaled a change. The new carriage houses represented an effort by the upper classes to retain or return control of the alley to the well-to-do who could afford such amenities. Apartments for servants and caretakers were placed above carriage houses and, later, automobile garages. Living in these structures, the employees of the upper class prevented the laboring class from finding cheap alley housing. By the turn of the century, the number of lower-class permanent alley residents had declined from its peak in the 1880s. . .
Photo of Queen Anne carriage house in Saratoga Springs
A Queen Anne carriage house in Saratoga Springs has been renovated for apartments, but it was originally built to accommodate servants as well as horses and carriages.


Ted Corbett is involved in historic preservation in Bennington, Vermont, and is preparing a book on the history of American alleys.

See also ALLEY CATS by Mick Green in this issue.

The high price of Manhattan real estate put alleys last on the list of amenities— the cost more likely to be cut to assure te financial success of a venture.

Those few alleys that did appear in the city were limited to a few residential squares developed inthe 1820s and 1830s, which were the epitome of aristocratic living.

For Further Reading

F.W. Beers, County Atlas of Saratoga (New York, 1876).

James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (Urbana, IL, 1980).

Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham, A History of the City of New York (New York, 1999).

Hope Cook, Seeing New York, History Walks for Armchair and Footloose Travelers (Philadelphia, 1995).

Theodore Corbett, The Making of American Resorts: Saratoga Springs, Ballston Spa, Lake George (New Brunswick, NJ, 2001).

A. J. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (1850; reprint, New York, 1969).

Sydney Ernest Hammersley, The History of Waterford (Waterford, 1957).

Elliot Willensky and Norval White, AIA Guide to New York City (New York, 1988).

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 28, Spring-Summer 2002. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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