Tea porches were once popular in city houses—this 1830 Greenwich Village home still has one

There are many reasons to swoon over 18 Commerce Street, a three-story Federal-style dwelling built in 1830 just inside this cowpath-like Greenwich Village side street.

The tidy red brick and white trim, the slender columns flanking the front entrance, the black shutters with crescent moon cut-outs, and the twin dormer windows matching those of the house next door—its a vision of Village tranquility and loveliness.

It’s also a house similar to many others in this part of Greenwich Village, built at a time when the city center was crowded with residents and easily transmissible diseases. The suburb of Greenwich, along the Hudson River, became a popular escape for families who could afford to move north and build (or rent) one of the new fashionable row houses.

But Number 18 has more to it than its graceful street-facing facade. Go around the corner to Seventh Avenue, where the back of the house can be seen.

On the second floor above a first-floor patio is a “tea porch”—an architectural feature that typically overlooked secluded backyard gardens and greenery. Here, in the refined Greenwich Village of antebellum Manhattan, homeowners would sit and take their afternoon tea.

Tea porches, or tearooms, were once common in New York City houses in the mid-19th century. This second-floor tea porch was likely added in the decades after Number 18 was built, according to Off the Grid, Village Preservation’s historical blog.

“Though a rare surviving architectural element today, the tearoom (also known as a back porch or tea porch) was an original feature of Greek Revival row houses throughout New York City in the 1840s and 1850s,” states Off the Grid.

The tea porch at Number 18, once visible only from the interior of the block, probably felt very private in the 19th century. That privacy ended when Seventh Avenue was extended through the Village in the late 1910s, slicing through the block and putting the tearoom on view from the street.

Later homeowners seem to have tried to restore some privacy, building the brick fence and installing a barn doors–like gate, though I’m not sure when those features first appeared. (The fence and gate can be seen in this photo from 1939-1941, below.)

If an authentic 19th century tea porch isn’t enough to make Number 18 one of the most charming homes in Greenwich Village, consider the house’s other amenities: four bedrooms, five wood-burning fireplaces, wood-beamed ceilings, and a private parking spot just inside the gate in front of a patio, according to a Curbed article from 2017.

Oh, and there’s a secret basement room accessed only by a tunnel, states Curbed; a resident of the house who happened to be outside when I strolled by said that the room was used to keep food items cold in an era before refrigeration.

A private tea porch and other examples of Antebellum enchantment come at a cost these days. The Curbed article includes gorgeous real estate listing photos and a price: monthly rent ran $25,000.

[Fifth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

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10 Responses to “Tea porches were once popular in city houses—this 1830 Greenwich Village home still has one”

  1. beth Says:

    i love the tea porch element the best

  2. andrewalpern Says:

    Friends of mine (now both dead) owned two of the 1840 houses in Cushman Row on 20th Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues. They lived in one and rented out the other, which still had its tea porch.

  3. nhu876 Says:

    Beautiful home, that rare driveway & parking space adds a huge amount to the house’s value.

  4. Andrew Porter Says:

    There are numerous of these in Brooklyn Heights. If you stand on Middagh Street looking at the back of the houses on Willow Street, you can see several of them.

  5. velovixen Says:

    When I win PowerBall…

    That is a beautiful house. Andrew is right: There are others like it in Brooklyn Heights. But I think that the house in this post stands out even more simply because it’s in Manhattan, albeit in an area where more of its history has been preserved than, say, Midtown.

    We’re all taught that one of the opening salvoes of the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party and led to coffee becoming America’s morning beverage of choice.

    I find it interesting that at a time when there were still people who could remember the Revolution, a house would be built with a “tea porch.” It seems that the upper classes still associated tea with ease and leisure and that friendly, low-stress gatherings were “tea times,” not unlike the break taken, to this day, by privileged Brits–and, interestingly, the wealthy and powerful in Chile and Argentina (probably the most Europhilic countries in Latin America.) It’s also fascinating, to me, that in those countries, there are ceremonies surrounding it (‘high tea”) as intricately choreographed as a ballet or a Kabuki play in its etiquette.

  6. Mark E. Phillips Says:

    Best thing about it… if you get locked out of your home, you know exactly where to go.

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