story and photos by James P. Hughes
During any Finger Lakes ramble, an interesting fact or two is certain to turn up. It never fails. Taughannock Falls at 215 feet is the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Internationally acclaimed peppermint oil was once produced in Lyons. Adventurer and Avon native John Hubbard Forsyth died at the Battle of the Alamo. Celebrated author and humorist Mark Twain is entombed in Elmira.
Nonetheless, on a recent visit to the Howe House Museum in the village of Phelps I stumbled across what may well qualify as my quirkiest discovery to date … an outhouse. “An outhouse?” you say with skepticism. Yes, an outhouse.
This extraordinary edifice is not just any petty potty or common commode. No, no, this outhouse is a rarity; a particular and peculiar privy. It is situated in a brick tower-like building with traditional French features including a mansard roof. More importantly it is two-storied, one of only a dozen or so such structures deposited (er, located) around the U.S. There is a “three-holer” at each of the two levels, one over the other. Ah, I bet that got your attention! Since graphic images will inevitably come to mind, from this point forward a careful path must be trod between gravity and good manners.
The Howe House is now home to the Phelps Community Historical Society. The impressive residence was constructed in 1869 for Dr. John Quincy Howe, a prominent village businessman, and was donated to the PCHS in 1999. The building’s architectural features and the fine exhibits within are certainly worthy of a visit, and viewing its lofty latrine is a singular and historical plus.
At the door I was greeted by one of the society’s volunteers. Uncertain about how to broach the reason for my visit, I stammered a bit until my host chuckled, “Of course, you came to see the outhouse. Follow me.”
The other two-story affairs scattered across the country are wooden and rustic, some even ramshackle. They draw attention simply because of the novelty. But the Phelps outhouse puts them to shame. Being the only brick throne room of its kind, it is much more regal. Its stately features push the rest of the lot to the rear … or end… or bottom of the list.
The three holes at each level are somewhat varied in size to accommodate dissimilar posteriors. To access the lower level chamber, one exited the house through a kitchen door and passed over the length of a covered porch. A doorway from the home’s second floor led the user across a roof above the kitchen to the sanctuary of the cloistered closet’s upper level. While not pleasant on a cold winter’s day, the treks were most likely less stressful than those experienced by local country folk with primitive one-holers much further from the house.
The unique structure was utilized by family members for the first three decades of the home’s existence. By the tail end of the 19th century, Englishman Thomas Crapper (yes, you read that name correctly) had patented several inventions which facilitated the introduction of plumbed flush toilets into private homes. The Howe family ceased to use the “penthouse privy,” but their domestic staff continued to access the facility from their quarters in the rear of the home. Presumably, one or more of those staff members bore disposal and cleaning responsibilities of the functional “catch tray” in the septic pit below.
Far from being the butt of jokes, the logistics of the building’s operation are well-designed and quite interesting. Despite the obvious unpleasant images, there never was any danger from a “look out below” scenario. I could explain and diagram specifics of the procedure, but would much prefer your curiosity be satisfied with a personal journey to Phelps. The quaint village is inviting and, as mentioned previously, there is a great deal more to view at the Howe House Museum with its splendid history and varied displays.
Scores of historical museums dot the Finger Lakes landscape, a region drenched with local, state, and national history. Enthusiastic and well-informed people stand ready to treat you to some fascinating facts and introduce you to their programs and events.
Howe House Museum
66 Main St. Phelps, NY
Hours: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday
10:00 – 4:00
or by appointment