nerd alert: the history of duplexes
January 30, 2015 9:22 AM   Subscribe

not sure if this is the case in other areas, but where i live there are zillions of one-bedroom duplexes built in the 1920s. why the sudden duplex housing boom in the 20s? and why are they all single bedrooms - were they meant for singles or couples without kids? i've googled and googled and can't find the answer, so hopefully one of y'all knows!
posted by megan_magnolia to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Where do you live?
posted by headnsouth at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2015

These exist from that era in parts of Los Angeles. Where are you?

Many are by this architect, or I assume, builders copying his style. A librarian in your area may actually know the answer to this, and I suggest a trip to the best library in your area with this question in hand.
posted by jbenben at 9:34 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

One point in this article about LA duplexes is interesting--they were designed to blend in with nearby single-family homes, because the neighbors didn't like the idea of apartment buildings.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:35 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a good chance they were built primarily for factory workers--depending on where you are, possibly for immigrant communities. A lot of young men, many of them bachelors. Was the neighborhood an industrial one at the time?

Chances are, of course, that people still raised families in the spaces, even if they're officially "one bedroom."
posted by yoink at 9:37 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

I live in Portland, and there are a bunch of these. They were mostly for young single professional men, who had moved from other, less prosperous areas of the country in the '20s.
posted by Specklet at 9:37 AM on January 30, 2015

By duplex do you mean houses in a row on two floors? Here's an example of the kind of worker housing we have in Montreal, built between the 1880s and 1920s.

I lived in an upstairs flat in a building like that for a long time. One day the doorbell rang. It was a family group: two older women, accompanied by a middle-aged man and a teenage boy. The two younger people were a little embarrassed, but the older women were ebullient. Their family had lived in my flat years ago in the 1930s and they wanted a look again after all those years. Some walls had been torn down and some additions had been made since they lived there – remember, some of these buildings didn't even have indoor toilets or baths when they were built.

These houses were built expecting that entire families would fit themselves into a space that felt like just enough room for myself, my cat and a modest quantity of books and furniture.

People then had different ideas about privacy and space, and a lot of the family members would be out working at any one time. Our standards have changed. I think that's one response to your question.
posted by zadcat at 9:39 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's a halfway measure between detached family homes and apartment buildings with several units. In my experience this is mostly done because the local housing stock is mostly suburban stand-alone residential buildings, but it would be kind of nuts to build a one-bedroom stand-alone unit. There isn't the demand for large apartment blocks, so you get this compromise. (Also, yes, this might be somewhat due to the stigma against apartment living in highly suburbanized areas.)

Also, in my experience in Los Angeles, the older multi-unit apartment buildings (pre-WW2? pre-1970?) tend to be studios and "bachelor" units without kitchens. A duplex seems like a compromise between that type of housing and a full multi-bedroom detached house.
posted by Sara C. at 9:53 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: i'm in durham, nc - so back then the tobacco industry was booming, so i guess it makes sense that they were meant for single factory workers.

the style of these houses is one story, plus an addict and a basement. they basically look like a typical 20s house, except they are split right down the middle.
posted by megan_magnolia at 9:58 AM on January 30, 2015

It was about housing workers, but those workers were usually domestic servants who served the house. LA had a ready stream of affordable help who only needed housing in order to take the low salary and occasional fringe benefits. As domestic servants became more costly, the second unit was used for rental income. You may find that some of the units may have an original back or front door which cannot be locked from the inside. Our house has a maids quarters accessible from the main house which has a door which only locks from the outside.

Houses that split in the middle are built that way. Americans are pretty much obsessed with the detached house, but when suburban living was a new idea, a lot of developers followed the English Garden City idea and built semi detached houses in order to build more family units in a subdivision. That changed after the boom in the 1950s made many people leave under suburban neighbourhoods and go to live outside of the city.
posted by parmanparman at 10:06 AM on January 30, 2015

Yeah, that's a style of housing stock that is ubiquitous all over America anywhere that is not a terribly dense urban environment. It's just the most logical way to make houses meant for a small number of inhabitants, because it would seem exceedingly weird to see a 500 square foot one bedroom detached home. I don't think any particular architectural reasoning went into it.

You also see it in New Orleans with the "double shotgun" style of row houses.

FWIW bachelor industrial workers probably wouldn't have been the market for spaces this large. These would have more likely been starter homes for couples, or working class families who couldn't afford a large detached home.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 AM on January 30, 2015

I used to own a duplex in Massachusetts from that era. Most of the houses within two blocks share the same or a very similar design. To my knowledge, all the houses were built by the companies that ran the mills that were within a few blocks of the houses.
posted by plinth at 10:17 AM on January 30, 2015

I'm in Denver. We have a ton of these, too, all built in the early decades of the twentieth century. (FYI, they are my very favorite form of residential housing in this city.) They wouldn't have been for single male workers -- many of them would have rented units in exisiting rooming houses, become a boarder in a private home, or rented an apartment if they were white-collar workers. They were designed for married couples starting out (although two-bedroom duplexes, triplexes, or terraces -- the word most commonly used in real-estate ads here to refer to a row of four or more of these units -- are pretty common here, and would have been for families with children).

In the early twentieth century, urban planners and reformers were fairly insistent that apartment buildings weren't healthy for families. People were crowded together. Women living in apartments wouldn't have the space to perform their gender duties/household roles properly. Children had no real places to play. Plus, the constant exposure to "strangers" -- other tenants or their guests -- would harm children's moral and ethical development, people believed. Duplexes were an inexpensive form of housing that still provided the spatial separation many thought essential to proper family formation -- and, as others have mentioned, they provided multi-family housing that was more acceptable in single-family neighborhoods. Plus, it's easy to overlook now how difficult it was to get a mortgage for a single-family home before the 1930s -- homeownership rates were low because people had to save up quite a bit to purchase a home, and were given mortgages that amortized over five or ten years, not the 30 that is standard now. Many people simply could not afford to buy a house, unless it was something small or they purchased the land and built the house themselves.
posted by heurtebise at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Other's have given some good answers, but since you're in Durham (hello, neighbor!) you should check out Open Durham if you haven't already. There's a ton of info on the different neighborhoods and their history, as well as the history of many individual buildings too.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 10:51 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

My great aunt lived in one half of a duplex, with her daughter and son in law on the other side.
posted by brujita at 11:20 AM on January 30, 2015

You are in a Company Town and these are Company Houses for Factory Workers. You'll see such housing in Alcoa, TN and Bessemer, AL as well, to serve the Aluminum and Steel industries in those areas.

This comes from a time when the company provided a price. There would also have been a Company Store, from which you were expected to buy all of your goods. There was a great deal of paternalism and the object was to assure workers that infrastructure was set up to support family life, especially if they wanted to attract workers from other parts of the US. Additionally, it was a way of getting the worker to rely upon the company for EVERYTHING in one's life. How likely would you have been to move onto another employer if you had to move to do so?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:29 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

It would be helpful if you could post a photo. The term "duplex" is a pretty loose term used for a variety of different kinds of houses, and some additional info would be useful for those of us who aren't familiar with Durham.
posted by Leatherstocking at 11:32 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

because it would seem exceedingly weird to see a 500 square foot one bedroom detached home

I've never understood why people think this would be so weird. I'd have bought a house many years earlier if such buildings existed. Instead, I had to wait until I could afford a house much larger than I actually need, which I share with a couple of friends.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:50 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that in some jurisdictions, zoning laws also comes into play. In some areas, lots cannot be subdivided* any further from a minimum size.

So in order to get two domiciles onto the minimum sized lot, developers had to build one contiguous building and duplex them into two separate homes. Maybe there were similar zoning laws even back then?

*Where I grew up there were a bunch of multiple-acre-sized subdivided lots 'a little further out from $anywhere' that were all developed at the same time, and possibly unfortunately all in the same style. Most have not aged well. Some - the better built ones, or the ones lucky enough to be nearest to the next $anywhere - were lottery-winners for the young families who bought in early 15 or 25 years ago, cashing out now, and moving to another municipality once the kids are out of the house.
posted by porpoise at 6:54 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hi - I was just researching this topic so it's fresh in mind. Lots of folks here have mentioned the central concept: indeed, there is a broad historical movement that unites them all, even though their expressions are different from place to place. IT's the Garden City Movement, a reigning trend in architecture and urban planning from about 1900-1930ish, originating in Britain [primary source] but with an influence found across the US.

The movement developed from aesthetic ideals somewhat related to the City Beautiful movement, but more focused on using architecture and planning as a way of minimizing the by-then widely acknowledged ills of high-poverty, inner-city tenement neighborhoods and "slums." Its proponents believed that a combination of rural/bucolic elements - winding streets, lots of landscaping, garden paths, small-scale buildings, and features normally associated with single-family dwellings - could be combined in multiple-unit dwellings of modest population density, eliminating the intense crowding and lack of air, green space, and landscaping in city life. They believed this would not only improve the health but the character of workers. Because of its promise its principles were often used in developments intended to function as workforce housing. The 1-BR houses you're seeing actually were meant for families, mainly young families. But though those places might seem crowded to us today, they were an improvement over the crowding in city tenements or sharecropper shacks, where families often slept in one room.

This school of thought, though somewhat utopian and grandiose in its belief that architectural choices could transform society, was enthusiastically embraced during the boom times associated with WWI war work and other development in the modernizing early 20th century. Planners and developers did not want to repeat the mistakes of the late nineteenth century. So their ideas gained wide traction. Garden City developments are everywhere today, so much so that we take them for granted and have pretty much forgotten their roots. Their forms range from low-slung California modern apartments to four- to six-story brick towers with courtyards to small brick cottages along winding streets to row houses and duplexes and other multifamily dwellings. Once you get used to their period features and common approach to dwellings and landscapes, it is fun to spot them as you travel around.
posted by Miko at 8:09 PM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

Historic preservation professional here, familiar with a wide range of historic 19th- and 20th-century building types. I came back today hoping you had posted a photo or more descriptive information, which would be very useful in trying to provide an informed answer. Without that, you're probably not going to get a lot of useful information but I will tell you what I can.

I should note that your question is so broad that a full answer would be the length of a doctoral dissertation.

You are in a Company Town and these are Company Houses for Factory Workers.

Probably not. While these kinds of houses were built in company towns, most of them were just speculative developments built by professional builders or developers in the general vicinity, or within commuting distance of, jobs held by men who were generally heads of small families. Depending on the area and the quality of house, these houses may have been rented, or they may have been sold to blue-collar or lower-status white-collar workers who would buy these houses, live in half of them, and rent out the other half. Size was not a huge issue because home ownership was expanding at this point, families were getting smaller, and most homeowners did not hire live-in servants, as the rise of modern conveniences and opening up of domestic interiors lessened the need. The housewife would have been able to handle a house like this all by herself. (And the owners of these houses wouldn't have been able to afford servants anyway.) Most industrial cities in the U.S. have tons of these kinds of houses. Yes, sometimes they were part of company towns (where they would have been constructed by the company and rented to its workers), but company towns were a fairly rare phenomenon within the wider context of 19th- and early-20th-century industrial and housing development. So I would need a lot more information before leaping to the conclusion that these were part of a company town.

I was just researching this topic so it's fresh in mind. Lots of folks here have mentioned the central concept: indeed, there is a broad historical movement that unites them all, even though their expressions are different from place to place. IT's the Garden City Movement....

It's doubtful that the builders of these Durham houses were that enlightened. What are being described sound like inexpensive houses for working people, built by developers who were trying to squeeze as many pennies out of the acre of property they'd bought as they possibly could. They were not thinking of social improvement, just of their own bottom line. This kind of housing dates back to well before the rise of the Garden City movement.

There were also much more elaborate duplex houses, which looked like large single-family houses but had separate entrances and were divided vertically on their interiors for two families. But I don't think that's what you're asking about, so I won't go there.

I would recommend picking up a copy of Gwendolyn Wright's Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America, which you may find interesting, and in contacting your local historic preservation organization. Allan Gowans' The Comfortable House is another good one, and Daniel E. Sutherland's Americans and Their Servants is a fascinating book that provides additional background. Your local preservationists may know much more about the specific context that created the houses you are seeing around you, or could direct you to sources that could be helpful to you.

And you can always ask your local librarian.

But again, without additional information, this is a really hard question to answer. In the future, you may find it more productive to post questions with a narrower focus, and to provide more context to help us provide a useful answer.
posted by Leatherstocking at 1:30 PM on January 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I also work in a related field. Planned worker housing is consistent with the contextand so it is a strong possibility; for instance, housing in Edgemont for workers at the Durham Hosiery Mill - and it doesn't need to have been a utopian collective development scheme to have been deeply influenced, as most worker housing was, by prevailing progressive ideas in architecture. If you thought that's what I was saying, you misunderstood me; even private developments hired architects who delivered on current thinking.

There's some discussion of duplexes here. IT's true, there are two-family dwellings in a lot of eras and styles, but the mention of need for worker housing makes me think about it a particular way.

A photo or two, or even just an example from Google Images, would really be useful, but I'm not sure how the question itself could have a "narrower focus" when the Asker is at the very beginning of the inquiry. It's a great question and one with answers. I bet these folks would be of help, as would these folks.
posted by Miko at 8:22 PM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is great as well.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Milwaukee is likewise a very duplex-heavy city. Many were built by Polish immigrants, supposedly by jacking up an existing house:

Here's a couple examples on a random block:,-87.919931,3a,75y,77.73h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sDuctqi2kcpy4flfI_cD2Zg!2e0
posted by akgerber at 9:59 PM on February 1, 2015

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