No, I'm not talking about universities. Well, actually I am, but in a roundabout way.Brief piece
on Marketplace last night about a back-to-the-future trend. Some rich suburbs are starting to make zoning allowance for what they call 'accessory apartments'. In this context, it's a rational adjustment to a distribution problem: some people made the mistake of building over-large houses, and others can't afford to rent or buy in the city where they work or belong.
New name, old concept. The 'accessory apt' has always been around, especially in college towns. It grew hugely with defense workers during
WW2, and again with the GI Bill college boom just after
The key architectural feature that made the basement apartment practical was the Grade Entry.
The main purpose of the Grade Entry was a convenient vestibule for all the services that a middle-class home used in the 1920's. The grocery boy, iceman, milkman, furnace-stoking man and the maid... all used the Grade Entry.
The door and a small landing were at ground level (thus Grade). From the landing you'd go up 3 steps to the kitchen or down 9 steps to the basement. The servicemen could thus reach the furnace or the icebox without traipsing across the parlor carpet; and the maid or the housewife could take laundry to the clothesline with minimal steps. Fancier houses sometimes had a large enough landing to hold the icebox so you could lock the kitchen entirely.
Many homeowners took advantage of the Grade Entry's decoupling effect to set up a basement apartment for GI students or war workers. In some houses the apt is still intact but unused; in others you can spot telltale remnants of a bathroom or kitchenette.
Having students in the basement isn't always fun, but the extra money must have been worth it to the homeowners of the '40s.
Grade Entries disappeared in the '50s, as one-floor open-plan ranchers designed by utopian idiots crammed
all the functions and personalities of a house into one undifferentiated space. Spokane seems to have carried on the Grade Entry later, along with the parallel tradition of detached garages. Some late-60s houses have Grade Entries, and detached garages at the back of the lot are still being built now.