From the Architectural Archives: Decoy Houses

October 31, 2014

Did you grow up with a “haunted house” in your neighborhood? It turns out that some buildings that look like houses aren’t really houses at all, but are instead the haunts of infrastructure. I first learned about these decoy houses from BLDGBLOG (Geoff Manaugh’s excellent and thought-provoking blog) and found the idea too fascinating to pass over. Hidden among the ordinary houses in ordinary neighborhoods, buildings that look like houses to the casual observer are actually power substations, water pump stations, subway vents or exits, and more. Some have been built this way from scratch in order to appease neighbors. Others are ex-houses, converted from real houses into shells in order to conceal infrastructure or preserve the historic character of a neighborhood. All of them are a bit spooky. Here are few for your consideration.

Image courtesy of Autopilot via Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Autopilot via Wikipedia

58 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn, NY

This is an ex-townhouse, built in the late 19th century as an ordinary house, and converted during the building of the IRT subway into a subway fan station. Its windows are permanently shut, and a penthouse has been installed to provide the ventilation opening. Apparently it’s on fairly good terms with the neighbors. The NYTimes wrote about it in 2004.

3215 Wade Avenue, Raleigh, NC

This suburban house was purpose-built as a water pump station to maintain water pressure for the residents of Raleigh. Built in the 1970s, apparently it was the result of a city effort to satisfy the neighbors, since pump stations are generally loud and ugly, but the city decided one was needed in this existing neighborhood. The city staff have noted that it receives much less vandalism than the city’s other pump stations, which they assume is due to its inconspicuous appearance. If you look closely, you’ll see that it lacks a front walkway, and the windows and front door aren’t real. Check out this neat video from WUNC, and here’s the story.

Image courtesy of Sladen via Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Sladen via Wikipedia

23 and 24 Leinster Gardens, London, UK

Another false townhouse, but this one was purpose-built, also for use by the subway. Built in the late 19th century for use by the steam-powered underground, the building is a facade only, five feet thick, to allow steam trains to vent without bothering the neighbors. The doors and windows are fake. It plays a minor role in the TV show “Sherlock.”

If you’d like to read about more of these, check out Geoff Manaugh’s post, where he discusses some Canadian electric sub-stations built to look like houses; several more decoy houses are described in the comments.

I love the idea of pieces of city infrastructure hiding in plain sight, disguised as ordinary buildings. I think it falls somewhere on the same spectrum with speakers disguised as rocks at Disney World, or trompe l’oeil paintings on the sides of blank ConEd buildings to look like townhouses or smaller-scale buildings, or parking garages made to look like apartment buildings, of which I have seen several in Silicon Valley. I have mixed feelings, however, about this last decoy architecture. For some reason, I think concealing necessary shared infrastructure, like electric substations, makes sense, while disguising apartment parking garages, which are large, private buildings, seems odd; perhaps it’s because there are so many well-designed garages these days that it feels like a cop-out, or because it seems disingenuous to disguise one building as another. Hiding machinery or equipment inside a decoy structure is amusing, while hiding one building inside another seems like a failure of imagination. (Except, of course, in the case of theme parks, which I find fascinating.)

Have you seen any decoy buildings? What were they hiding? Send me a picture if you can!