19th Century "Garages" Find New Life as Dwellings – And Inspire Small Homes
Think of the carriage house as the detached garage in 19th century America – or a cart shed as the British call it.
But, really, what is a carriage house? The original carriage houses, which were very popular in the Northeast, bring to mind romantic images of a genteel society when families – dressed up in their finery – traveled in elegant horse-drawn carriages. Often tucked away behind large estates and manor homes, carriage houses were designed for more utilitarian purposes. Carriage house designs were drawn and built to provide a shelter for the coaches, maintenance equipment, and livery accessories. Let’s look at how carriage houses are being transformed and reinvented today.
The Carriage House in the Modern Era
The term “carriage house” in the 21st century has taken on more than the traditional and established concept of an outbuilding home to coaches and their accessories.
In the strict sense, carriage houses refer to the original carriage houses restored and transformed into guest quarters, apartments, in-law suites, garages, art studios, workshops, retail shops, bars, restaurants, or storage buildings. Quite often, carriage houses that are part of historic mansions are converted into offices, gallery space, tea rooms, and museums.
The carriage houses that exist today may be
Refurbished versions of the old structures with the living spaces on the second level. A number of original carriage houses have been renovated as barn-style garages with apartments above.
New-builds designed to look like the original carriage houses.
And in some areas of the country, restored and refurbished carriage houses are a big attraction for renters who like to live in a free-standing home but cannot afford to buy one.
This eye-catching original carriage house on East 19th Street in New York City has been renovated into a single-family home. Check out the distinctive red door and its decor accents (photo credit: 124 East 19th Street Carriage House by Beyond My Ken under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
This attractive barn style home is a throwback to the original carriage house where the first floor is dedicated to the horse-drawn carriages and accessories, with the upper level devoted to staff living quarters. This 2-story 1,920-sq.-ft. home comes with a 3-car garage and space for boat storage on the ground level. The open-floor-designed upper level includes 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, a Great Room (with kitchen/dining/living room spaces), and a home office (Plan #132-1694).
A more modern classification is an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or a detached dwelling unit that, similar to the carriage house, is located on the same grounds as the main house or attached to the single-family home (as in a basement apartment). Whether it’s an apartment above the garage, a she-shed, or a backyard cottage designed to look like a carriage house, these contemporary adaptations offer the property owners more than just nostalgia for a bygone era.
Here are some benefits of having an ADU on the main property:
A separate living space for adult children as they join the workforce
A way to help parents or in-laws stay near the rest of the family – within the same property but under a separate roof
The potential for rental income
Private office space, workshop, or artist’s studio
Top: This charming garage with an apartment is designed to look like a carriage house. Adding to its appeal are a gable roof of asphalt shingles, an exterior of wood siding and shakes, and a covered porch. The 906-sq.-ft. detached dwelling has 2 garage bays, second-floor living quarters that feature a large 1-bedroom suite and a Great Room – living room, kitchen with an island, and eat-in area. Bottom: This upper-level floor plan illustrates the spacious living quarters (Plan #163-1041).
A beautifully landscaped backyard Cottage-style tiny home with 395 sq. ft. of living space, this structure is perfect as a guest house or in-law suite. The 1-story floor plan includes 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, and a laundry room (Plan #178-1345).
A carriage house or a carriage home? Be aware of the distinction between an authentic carriage house and one that is called a carriage home as a marketing strategy. What’s the difference?
Let’s start with the size and style. Remember that a carriage house is big enough to accommodate one or more horse-drawn carriages. It is also a free-standing structure that is part of the main house.
A carriage or patio home (or zero-lot-line home) is a single-family residence built on a lot that’s just large enough for the house and “often sharing in common land with other homes in the same planned unit development.” In terms of architectural style, the carriage home is more like a condo or a townhouse in that it shares walls. Realtor.com describes carriage homes as having “small or no setback regulations – rules that keep houses from being built too close together.”
The only outdoor living space in a carriage home is a small private patio – hence the name “patio homes.”
This Cottage style multi-unit home comes close to the look of patio homes, which are often referred to as carriage homes. Each unit comes with a kitchen, dining, and family areas, plus a full bathroom on the main level. One unit has a master bedroom on the main floor and two bedrooms and a half bath on the second floor. On the second floor of the other unit are the master bedroom and a second bedroom. The 2-story floor plan of the duplex structure has 1202 square feet of living space in the larger unit and 928 square feet in the smaller one (Plan #120-2621).
A Short History
In huge, sprawling properties, carriage houses were often elaborate and usually mimicked the main residence's architectural style. In New England, for example, most of the carriage houses had low-pitched roofs and clapboard siding like the main house. Victorian style homes featured carriage houses with bay windows, stained glass, and even some of the intricate scrollwork on the eaves.
A 1900 carriage house in New York City features a large center doorway that allows easy access for the coach. It also looks spacious enough to shelter more than one coach and other livery accessories (photo credit: Library of Congress, Public Domain).
Most carriage houses were built with high ceilings and a center doorway tall and wide enough to allow the carriages in and out of the structure. Carriage houses for large country properties were spacious enough to include more than one coach, several stables, and an upper level that served as living quarters for household staff, caretakers, and workers in charge of the horses and the coaches.
On the flip side, smaller city homes had carriage houses with simple structures with room for just one carriage. Picture a house today with a one-car garage.
The historic Colonial Revival style Gluek House in Minneapolis, Minnesota, includes an amazing 2-story carriage house at the rear, complete with horse stables and storage for hay. Look at how the carriage house reflects some of the main property's architectural features (photo credit: John & Minnie Gluek House & Carriage House by McGhiever under license CC BY-SA 4.0).
As industrialization took over and cars replaced horse-drawn carriages, the carriage house's original purpose as a shelter for coaches and storage for hay and livery equipment became obsolete. However, the way of life that established the carriage houses in the 19th century continues to capture the imagination of architects, builders, designers, historians, and homebuyers who are fascinated by the rear house behind the big house.
There are original carriage houses still scattered around the country – reimagined in different styles, shapes, and forms. And even as they are refurbished, revamped, and adapted to modern living, their charm, history, and heritage have been thoughtfully preserved by building planners, designers, and architects.
Carriage Houses Today
Architectural buffs curious about original carriage houses and their historic backgrounds can find them in small and large cities across the country – converted into apartments or modern homes.
But if you’re a potential home buyer interested in acquiring and renovating a piece of the past, the best places to look for actual carriage houses are in the historic districts of Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans; and parts of Atlanta. In the Midwest, Chicago and Minneapolis have elaborate and simple carriage houses in their older residential areas. The same holds true in Philadelphia.
The Charles O. Boyton Carriage House was built in 1887 at the same time and in the same style as the Queen Anne residence that it served. The carriage house was sold and separated from the main residence in 1986 and converted into an office space (photo credit: Charles O. Boyton Carriage House by Andy McMurray under license CC BY 2.5).
And if you look tirelessly, you will find restored carriage houses for sale in New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. In San Francisco, the carriage houses look like smaller versions of the Victorian row houses – the so-called “painted ladies.”
In Montana, Wyoming, and Arizona, a few rustic carriage houses still exist in some former mining towns and stagecoach lines.
But even if you can’t find – or don’t want – an original carriage house, you can have your own “carriage house plan” by building a garage with an apartment over it if you have enough space on your lot.
Top: This charming Craftsman-like Cottage style garage with apartment would be an ideal modern “carriage house,” with its 1-bedroom layout, as an in-law suite or guest house. Center: The main floor sports a 2-car garage and a gathering area separate from the garage. Bottom: The upper floor is a cozy 1-bedroom apartment with a good-size kitchen and a bathroom with enough space for a laundry area with a stacked washer and dryer (Plan #100-1261).
While the days of the horse and buggy are long gone, carriage houses – with their charm, style, and historic significance – will remain intriguing and fascinating symbols of a genteel era and society.
Footnote: The top illustration in the lead image of this article is an attractive barn style "carriage house" with more than 830 sq. ft. of living space. The 2 story floor plan includes 1 bedroom, 1 bath, and a 3-car garage. For more details, go to Plan #109-1023.