January 26, 2021
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Old World Spirit

A brief look at carriage houses in Evansville
Dating to the 18th century, carriage houses — like the Viele mansion house — still stand on many Evansville lots.

If you’re a fan of Evansville’s Riverside Historic District and the old neighborhoods surrounding Downtown, your architectural gaze has likely been lost not only on the pristine homes on the street but on those stately structures on the back of the lots: the classic carriage house.

In some markets, the carriage house may be referred to as a coach house, or even tack house with a nod to their equestrian roots. Think of them as urban barns — that’s almost precisely what they are.

As a carryover of European architectural influences dating back to the 18th century, carriage houses are accessory buildings constructed at the rear of the lot that originally housed horses, carriages, related equipment and tools, and often living quarters for servants, groomers, and coachmen. In modern parlance, a carriage house often refers to a detached garage with a dwelling unit above it. At any rate, as almost every house built today has a garage, even many modest homes in the horse-drawn days of early Evansville had some form of a carriage house.

For households that may have not had the room or the budget for their carriage house, liveries around Downtown were used to house horses and equipment offsite. To fetch one’s carriage and horses, the Victorian household would call upon staff to hitch up their team and meet them for a drive. The last remaining livery building still stands at Walnut and Fourth Streets, in what was recently an automobile body shop — not too far in context from its origins.

Carriage houses in the Riverside neighborhood also provide an important architectural framing for the area’s historic context, one that you can best appreciate at the slow pace and perspective of a pedestrian. Even if empty, their position on a home’s lot creates a quaint, narrow street feel along the alleys which certainly evokes a European look. These urban streetscapes provide more than the minimum street width to building height ratio of 6 to 1 (which is recommended by urban planners for making a street or pathway feel walkable); in some places the building height exceeds the width of the alleys, allowing our alleyways to transport you to an Italian village.

Take for example the carriage houses at Chandler and Southeast Second Street (left). Stare at them long enough, and you might be transported away to another time and place. Just as mansions today feature pharaonic garages and auto-court areas to store and showcase exquisite automobiles, Evansville’s grandest homes in the Victorian era also included carriage houses on a massive scale. At Cherry Street and Southeast Riverside Drive, the Viele mansion was constructed in 1855 — first in the Italianate style and later remodeled in 1873 as a French Second Empire.

To implement their opulent Sunday afternoon driving style, the Viele family were known to employ English-style footmen dressed in red and black. When they saddled up the team of horses and had the carriage ready, they utilized two matching carriage houses. Later in the early 20th century, the Viele children sold off a part of their side yard for the construction of a Beaux Arts mansion, but they retained the carriage house. Further in the 20th century, to address a Victorian-era carriage house foundation that was not below the frost line, both carriage houses were completely reconstructed and replicated using current building codes and period craftsmanship.

Around the corner at Chestnut and Southeast First Street (right), John August Reitz built a near-perfect example of the French Second Empire architectural style in 1871. In the 1890s, his son Francis Joseph Reitz and his sisters not only remodeled the home to Victorian gold-gilded glory, they constructed a carriage house that is more than 6,000 square feet in size. The carriage house was built with room for several carriages, seven stalls for horses, and a puncheon floor made from end cuts of cedar posts in a tiled pattern. An area of the puncheon floor still remains to this day.

Upstairs, there was ample area for the necessary tack, horse feed and straw, and living quarters for male servants, the coachman, and the family’s stable boy. A first-rate carriage house, the stable boy could lower feed into the stalls of the seven horses from the second story above. Now, the carriage house is the home for the offices of the Reitz Home Museum, and a period carriage sits on display.

“Our massive and solidly-built carriage house allows us flexible space used for event rentals as well as a board room, staff offices, and a visitors center where our guests begin their tour of the property,” says Matthew Rowe, executive director of the Reitz Home Museum.

Don’t miss the next event in the Reitz Home yard, as it is a perfect opportunity not only to admire the home and grounds but the opulent carriage house as well.

Just down the block from the Reitz Home sits the home of Watkins F. Nisbit, a massive brick home in an eclectic mix of Queen Anne and French Second Empire styles that took three years to build from 1878 to 1880. The carriage house is constructed with a significant orientation to the front of the site, viewable from the street on the northwest side of the home. Boasting an original driveway that curves through the side yard, the carriage house (below) features an eclectic style that is as refined as it was when it was constructed.

For example, the large half-round window is reminiscent of that which one would find in a late 20th century millennial mansion style home, perhaps in a grand, vaulted foyer. Here, the window is a period detail, as extant in historic photos. Made of mahogany, the window opened for ventilation on muggy days in the hot city. Later, at the advent of the automobile age, an early electric car was known to be seen in front of the home.

In larger, pricier urban markets where multi-million-dollar sale prices put different pressure on the local housing market, it is more common to see carriage houses parceled off as separate residences in the late 20th century and converted into first-rate homes. In Evansville’s market, our carriage houses have a range of uses from automobile garages and residential apartments to private art and sound studios, classic car storage, and other areas for hobbies and entertainment.

Whether you’re on a stroll or passing through in your car, take a turn through Evansville’s urban alleyways and slow down to take in the carriage house architecture. It may inspire your next dream home project, garage addition, or simply transport you briefly to another time and place — for a peaceful respite from that which we call 2020.

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