Courtyards Old and New

Earlier this week while driving on a street adjacent to Fort Sam Houston I discovered a classic example of a courtyard neighborhood. An arrangement of homes oriented with their front doors facing one-another rather than facing a street. The cottages, built in 1950 according to BCAD, are tiny, 520 square feet each and the eight units, their 6’ common central walkway and a small 12 car parking lot fit neatly on a 65’ x 250’ lot.

The Whippoorwill Cottage Courtyard Community

The cottages are tidy and well-kept with small raised square stoops and porch lights and mail boxes. Small side-yards, some with garden sheds and BBQ grills populate the area between the homes. The minute scale of this little enclave is as fantastic to behold as the little cottages themselves. A low stone wall separates the public sidewalk along the street side of the courtyard from the shared central walkway and clearly delineates the public and private realms. Entering the courtyard, you feel instantly that you are in someone else’s space. Almost like you are standing in their living room. I felt immediately like an intruder, a feeling that is almost impossible to evoke when standing in so many ill-conceived public spaces. The very human and intimate scale of the cottages and the spaces between them leaves you with no doubt that you are somewhere. And standing there it is easy to imagine the community that must exist between the occupants of the eight little cottages.

The Whippoorwill Cottage Courtyard Community

If the sign out front is to be believed the units are available for rent and a google search of the address indicates that at some point in the not-too-distant past they were marketed as hotel rooms. One website referred to them as the Whippoorwill Cottages. If accurate, their vacation rental legacy would give them a bit of shared history with several of the early Pasadena, California courtyard neighborhoods. And that purpose would make sense, considering their location across the street from the old parade grounds of a large military base.

A Whippoorwill Cottage

I was thrilled to discover this little gem hiding there in plain sight, on a street I have driven down numerous times. ”Baader-Meinhof” is the name for this phenomenon, where once exposed to new information you seem to encounter it repeatedly. In this case I had been studying courtyards and pocket neighborhoods in conjunction with an on-going proposal to introduce courtyards into the Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) community of Plum Creek in Kyle, Texas. And in driving around the Post I was hoping to find a classic courtyard tucked away in the historic neighborhoods that border Fort Sam, or at least to identify a few sites that would be good candidates for their reintroduction. And lucky me, I found both.

A view of the Whippoorwill Courtyard from the Parking Court.

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15 thoughts on “Courtyards Old and New

    • Ross, what a pleasant surprise to hear from you. Not only am I a fan of the book, we just ordered and delivered copies to an entire central Texas city council in advance of a council meeting on a proposed courtyard development to be built in our Plum Creek project by Perry Bigelow. I think you’ll enjoy the presentation Perry and I put together for the planning commission as well – http://www.slideshare.net/peterlfrench/plum-creek-courtyard-presentation-11-2011

      • Peter, how great you discovered this community right in your own back yard! Was nice that Perry was able to stop by our Chico Beach community this summer when passing through. So good to know our development work has seemingly inspired so many. Best of luck on Plum Creek. I’ll have to drop by when I’m next in Texas. Linda Pruitt

  1. Peter, thanks for this post. You’ve inspired me to write about this design pattern for my column in Plaza de Armas (I’ll post a link when it’s published). While doing research for this, I was reminded of another, newer development in San Antonio that takes a similar approach: the Clay Street Compound, aka Tunaville: http://g.co/maps/zwgr4

  2. Tim the Girl shared this blog post on her Facebook wall yesterday. Glad I checked out the link. I never knew those cottages existed in Government Hill. Thanks for writing about them and sharing. I went ahead and liked your FB page and will follow your twitter feed as well. I’m going to share this post with Hilary Scruggs who’ll be building the Mews on Devine Street here in Lavaca. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mews-on-Devine-Street/198658806844210 I’m very excited to see what she creates. If you google anything about it you may read that I spoke as the President of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association and we were in opposition to the project. Several of the neighbors were initially very concerned with the density and parking problems that might have resulted. Hilary did a great job of educating the neighbors about the project and winning over everyone which resulted in the LNA writing a letter of support for the project. I think it’s going to be a great addition to our neighborhood.
    Ben writes above about the Clay Street Compound. I have a listing there I could show you sometime if you were interested it seeing the construction and layout, or you could check out the info here: http://418clay.checkoutmore.com/
    Glad I found your blog and your FB page. I’ll be sure to read the links as we seem to share a similar passion for urban living. Check out my page sometime if you would like. http://www.FrontPorchAgent.com.
    Also, next week when I’m in Austin I’ll be sure to take a short detour and check out Plum Creek.

    • Curtis, Thanks you for the follows and links. I am very excited about Hilary’s new project and have visited her other Southtown project as well. I agree that the Mews on Devine will add a lot to the neighborhood and provides a great example of good urbanism for future developers and builders to follow. I’d be very interested in seeing the Clay Street units and call me if you have any questions about Plum Creek http://www.plumcreektx.com/ Peter

  3. Good to see this gem (a forgotten form of affordable housing) being shared with those that might not know about it. Thanks to the PdA article that got me here.

  4. A very cool update on the history of this Courtyard thanks to Beth Standifird from the San Antonio Conservation Society –
    “Originally named Grayson Courts, the complex opened in April of 1929 and featured “8 beautiful Normandy cottages (which explains the steeply peaked roofs),” complete with Frigidaires and new furnishings. They were advertised as “San Antonio’s most beautiful apartment-bungalows” (S.A. Light, 4/28/1929). The complex continued to be known as Grayson Courts through 1951.
    I haven’t gone further in the city directories to see when the name changed to Whippoorwill yet.”

  5. Pingback: Pocket neighborhoods in San Antonio | Scattered Work

  6. Good blog! I truly love how it is simple on my eyes and the data are well written. I’m wondering how I might be notified when a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your feed which must do the trick! Have a great day!

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