Extreme downsizing is a hot trend in popular culture these days. For some, it’s a philosophical stand against consumerism and the distractions of modern life. For others, the appeal of living in a small space is about avoiding mortgage debt, or minimizing the ecological impact of new housing. Whatever the reason, the “small house movement” is growing. There’s even a new reality TV show, Tiny House Nation, airing on the A&E network this summer.
So we were intrigued when one of our regular patrons, while browsing the Rochester Images database, came across a series of photographs that look like they would be right at home on a modern “small house” blog.
Taken by long-time newspaper photographer Albert R. Stone, these images illustrated a feature story, “Where Rochester Arcadians Dwell,” that appeared in the Rochester Herald in 1921. Together, the text and images offer a glimpse into this unique small house movement from Rochester’s past.
(All quotes below are taken from the original article.)
Away from the tread of hurrying multitudes…stands the Italian Arcadia. Down Lyceum Street, a rutty country road running away from a city of paved streets that is hard upon its heels, up Blakeslee Street and down Waring Road… are little squares of growing things…and in a corner of each fence that indicates individual possession in the little colony stands a structure.
Who were the Rochester Arcadians? I found no references elsewhere to an organized group in Rochester calling itself by this name. In ancient mythology, the mountainous Arcadia region of Greece was home to nymphs, dryads, and the god Pan. Arcadia was often depicted in Renaissance art as a rustic utopia where humans lived in harmony with nature. The anonymous journalist seems to have christened the neighborhood with a classical allusion.
In plain reality, Rochester’s Arcadia was a cluster of approximately 100 small shanties that sprung up at the northeastern edge of the city on land recently subdivided for development. Unlike most new homeowners during Rochester’s big housing boom (roughly 1890-1930), the Italian-American residents moving into this tract chose to build their new homes with their own hands rather than employ an architect or construction firm. Crudely constructed of scrap lumber, the little structures shown here were intended only for short-term occupation while the homeowners labored to replace them with permanent family homes.
There are hints in the article that the phenomenon may have drawn some negative attention. Noting that, at first glance, the small houses shared some similarities with the cabins of poverty-stricken Appalachia, the writer takes pains to show the reader that “the little Arcadia is yet in its caterpillar stage of existence” and that “hard labor, persistence, and economy will eventually bring from the colony cocoon a transformation that will enlighten the passerby who has found the quaint little shacks more than interesting.”
While the arch tone the article employs may be jarring to our modern cultural sensibilities (for instance, rendering quotes from the Italian residents in stereotypical broken English), it is obvious that the writer greatly admired what they were doing.
The images below, all of which ran in the 1921 feature spread, illustrate the “transformation” happening in the Arcadia neighborhood.
The first structure to appear on a housing lot was often nothing more than a shed, or “rain house,” used for storing tools and for taking shelter from sudden showers while the homeowner was working on the property.
More substantial structures allowed residents to “(cheat) the profiteering landlord,” as the article gleefully phrases it:
A typical year round shelter in the Italian Arcadia. The plot on which it stands is fenced off with broken cracker boxes, branches from trees interwoven into a form of lattice work and now and then a bit of wire. The scrap of chimney shows it to be the type of small house built to serve family needs until a larger structure can be erected in front of it.
This creative little house would probably not pass muster under today’s building codes, but it must have been a lot of fun to sleep in.
Fruit and vegetable gardens were typically established before the house itself was begun. The Herald article mentions chickens, goats, and even milk cows, giving the whole neighborhood the atmosphere of a rural village. Even though Prohibition was in effect, the journalist noted that “(s)omebody is going to quench his thirst in the near future, no matter how dry the American Sahara. Grapevines and hops nearly hide the little house at the rear of the lot.”
Some permanent houses were already complete. The journalist got a full tour of this three-room cottage from its builders and notes that the interior featured “woodworking of a splendid quality.” In an early example of retirement downsizing, the wife of the couple stated that she had wanted just “a little house for me and me man ’cause keeds all married now.”
This house, singled out as “one of the truly beautiful homes of that section,” showed Herald readers the ultimate goal of the Rochester Arcadians:
Already there are signs of what the colony will one day be. Small houses of the bungalow, semi-bungalow, and cottage type, with traces of old-world artistry of half forgotten handicrafts, blendings of Italian and American architecture, are beginning to rise here and there in the colony, and to the poor American-born apartment-ite or rented-house-ite, lacking the courage to do the same, the cosy little homes in the process of building give rise to the mingled emotions of envy and admiration.
Substantial homes like this one may still stand in northeast Rochester, but the little structures that came before them and made them possible survive only in these images. Next time you are in the vicinity of Waring Road and Lyceum Street, take a moment to remember the perseverance and creativity that built Rochester’s Italian Arcadia.
–Amie Alscheff, Library Assistant
“Where Rochester Arcadians Dwell.” Rochester Herald (July 31, 1921).
Special thanks to the Rochester Museum & Science Center for allowing us to publish these images from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection!