Phelps, New York is home to one of the few two-story outhouses in the country, but this one is the only brick two-story outhouse in existence.
by Chris Clemens
If you’re reading this, then you are lucky enough to have access to some of the best technology of our time.
There’s a good chance you’re even reading this on your tablet or smartphone. That means you might even be reading it as you’re using other technological advancements, like while sitting in the bathroom.
It was 1891 when Thomas Crapper made a series of inventions to create the modern toilet we know today. Before that your literary perusing would’ve been done in a privy, or as it’s more commonly known, an outhouse.
By far the most common outhouse has always been s a wooden shed with a private single-hole spot. Though a few outside-the-shed thinkers have come up with creative arrangements. Some of those creative arrangements have included two-story outhouses.
In the United States there are about 13 or 14 two-story outhouses in existence. Only one of those two-story outhouses exist in New York right in the town of Phelps. Plus it’s believed to be the only brick two story privy in the entire country!!
A Bit About Phelps, New York
The Town of Phelps is in the upper right hand corner of Ontario County just North of Geneva. Though once the sauerkraut capital of the world, there isn’t a particularly famous history associated with Phelps. Nevada’s fifth Governor, Charles Stevenson, was born in Phelps, as was famous baseballer Joe Gleason.
In 1869 the home at 66 Main St. in the Village of Phelps was first built by Dr. John Q. Howe. A successful mill owner, he was responsible for a number of Phelps town advancements.
While he was busy building mills and channeling water to power them, his son Frank was responsible for the first electric power station in the town. After his other son, William, graduated from Columbia University in 1888 he was appointed head of the Department of Communicable Diseases.
It was in this well home where the Howe family would grow and prosper. But as families grow, so does the need for more, uh, facilities.
The Howe House In Phelps
The home was built in an architectural style known as the Second Empire. It’s a popular design for the time that was reminiscent of French stylings. Now this house is a museum and home to the Phelps Historical Society.
Before even going inside, some pretty unique architectural qualities are obvious. Be sure to check out the unique brickwork of the chimney. The mansard roof (also a French thing) and the yankee gutters (though, these are easier to see while looking out a window from the second floor) are each really cool.
Simply stated, the house itself is really a unique work of art all over. But we were really there to learn more about how the Howe’s went to the bathroom.
Our guide through the museum was a volunteer docent studying History at Nazareth College in Pittsford. A local Phelpsian herself, it was really cool to chat with Sarah while she showed us around the Howe House. There aren’t too many young people who are passionate about preserving and celebrating our regional past, so to encounter someone who was excited to share what the museum had to offer was really great.
We walked through a small gift shop, a former parlor room which is now a rotating exhibit space, a sauerkraut room, a military room and even a room full of kids’ toys, Sarah then politely gave in to my incessant banter about the toiletry.
The Two-Story Outhouse
If you’re still reading this far down, I know it’s because you are just as curious as I was about how a two story outhouse might even work. I won’t make you wait any longer.
At the back of the home, a rectangular brick structure was added to house the entire system. The first floor has three holes and is accessible from the porch that wraps around the back of the home.
Once inside, it’s obvious that the three toilets on the first floor are protected from the second floor by offsetting each row. To fully avoid any problems, they placed a wall divider between them.
The second floor of the bathrooms are only accessible by a second floor doorway leading out on to the roof of the porch. Relieving yourself on the second story required walking across the roof. From there, a doorway entering the second floor of the outhouse reveals another three toilet seats.
Wondering where “it” all went?
From the seats of both floors, waste would drop to the base of the outhouse. There a large wooden tray located at the very bottom of the building would catch everything that dropped. It was designed so the tray could be slid out, cleaned and put back.
I was kind of bummed to find that the first floor of the privy was filled with ladders and buckets like a storage shed. I know not quite everyone gets excited as I do about being able to stand in the only brick two story outhouse in the country but I really think the Historical Society could be leveraging the interest of such a unique feature a bit more.
If you’re in the area, be sure to drop in and pay them a visit and show some support!
More Photos From Howe House Museum
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Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens