1809 Terrain 6 – Town Houses

During the 1809 campaign, there was a lot of fighting in urban areas – Ratisbon, Landshut, Ebelsberg, Groß Enzersdorf, to mention just a few. How did town houses in Bavaria and Austria look at the time?

Historical town centre of Landshut, with buildings going back to the 16th century. Image from wikipedia.

Urban architecture of the time can be divided in several categories: There is religious architecture, which I have already covered elsewhere, there are municipal and administrative buildings and there are the palaces of the nobility. However, the by far largest group is made up by so-called “Bürgerhäuser”, bourgeois or citizen’s houses. This ist not only, even not primarily, an architectural category, but also a legal and social one.

Concerning its legal meaning, for a long time, being the citizen of a town was tied to owning a dwelling space (with local differences on whether this meant owning an actual house, a house floor or being a rightful tenant). Citizenship meant the right to political participation, but also the obligation to pay taxes and to participate in communal duties, such as defending the town in case of war.

Up to the 19th century, the bourgeois house contained, like the farmer’s house, not only living spaces, but also a working spaces and sometimes a shop floor. It was the dwelling place for the house community, which not only meant blood relatives (usually three generations) but included servants and staff.

Gillis van Tilborch: Farmer’s Household (17th century). Image from Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

In German, for most of the time the word “Haus” (house) was used to designate this ensemble, the word “Familie” (family) only being introduced in the second half of the 18th century. The house was seen as a self-sufficient entity: The inhabitants produced goods (or traded them) and they had the right to use communal land to grow foodstuff. As such, the house was the organisational fundament of the economy. It was also the basic cell of society and sovereignty. The paterfamilias or housefather had patriarchal authority over his wife, while the pair of them had parental authority over the children and the servants.

This means that the architecture of the bourgeois houses was determined by its function. Several types can be distinguished. The most basic form is the so-called “Ackerbürgerhaus”, or famer-bourgeois house. This is the dwelling space of landowners who earn their living through farming. Here, the boundaries between rural and urban architecture were blurred. Such types of buildings could also be found in large villages, while small towns were dominated by them. In large towns around 1800, they were mostly confined to the periphery. Their actual shape was determined by the type of agriculture practised. For example, in some regions of Lower Austria, “Weinhauerhäuser” (vintner’s houses) were very common. They often developed out of a “Streckhof“, with working spaces arranged behind the narrow front.

Vintner’s house. Purbach, late 17th century. Image from Paläste und Bürgerhäuser in Österreich.
Ackerbürgerhäuser in a small town (Rust). Image from Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

Another very common type was the “Handwerkerhaus” (artisan’s house). Its basic shape goes back to the Middle Ages and was internationally astonishingly consistent. The ground floor was made up by a vault, which contained the workspace and shop floor. The top floor contained the living quarters. Sometimes, other rooms were added in the backyard, which were connected with arcades.

Artisan’s house in Vienna. Built in the 17th century, façade modified in the 18th century. Image from Kräftner: Bürgerhäuser.

The “Patrizierhaus” (patrician’s house) was owned by a rich merchant or trader. Large, massive, and often furnished with a decorated façade, they were characterised by a spacious hall at ground level and a cellar, where goods were stored. The top floors contained the representational and living spaces.

Patrician’s house in Bruck an der Mur, late 15th century. Image from Kräftner: Bürgerhäuser.

Lastly, tenement buildings slowly became common, providing space for the many people living in towns. In Vienna, for example, from the 16th century up to the end of the 18th century, the government obliged house-owning citizens to provide living spaces for clerks and servants working at the imperial court (the so-called “Hofquartierpflicht”), which fostered the building of houses for tenants.

All those types have their origin in the Middle Ages. However, as towns are living and changing organisms, buildings were destroyed, newly erected, and modified according to needs and tastes. Therefore, in many towns different types and styles could be found next to each other.

For a long time, houses were built in narrow spaces with the gable end facing towards the street. Façades were irregular and asymmetric, often featuring projecting alcoves. 

Late medieval houses (Mödling). Image from Andraschek-Holzer: Das Bürgerhaus.
Medieval houses with renaissance façades (Krems). Image from Andraschek-Holzer: Das Bürgerhaus.

During the 18th century, however, houses began to be built with the eaves towards the street. They became wider and the façades took on a more regular, symetrical look. In some cases, several old houses were united and fitted with a false façade, often with blind windows, to bring them up to the new style. Baroque façades were decorated with elements made of plaster or stucco, such as cartouches and columns. 

Obernberg am Inn, houses going back to the Middle Ages, with elaborate baroque façade. Image from wikipedia.
Baroque house in St. Pölten. Image from gedaechtnisdeslandes.at
Late baroque façade on a house from the 16th century (Zwettl). Image from Kräftner: Bürgerhäuser.
Ensemble of houses from the 18th century (Krems). Image from Kräftner: Bürgerhäuser.

In Austria, the 1780s saw the emergence of the so-called “Plattenstil” (panel style), with smooth, regular panels and a bright, single-coloured coat of paint – in Austria, but also in Bavaria often in a yellow ochre called “Schönbrunner Gelb” (or “Barockgelb”).

Viennese house in Plattenstil. Image from wikipedia.
The so-called “Dreimäderlhaus” in Vienna, a typical example of a late-18th-century Austrian bourgeois house. Image from Wien Museum.

While churches and palaces have often been depicted, there is an unfortunate dearth of contemporary visual representations of bourgeois houses. However, surviving examples can still be found in many towns today.


Andraschek-Holzer, Ralph et.al. (ed.): Das Bürgerhaus. Wohnen und Arbeiten. St. Pölten: NÖ Landesregierung 2019 (available online)

Kräftner, Johann: Bürgerhäuser. Ensembles, Einzelbauten und Details in Österreich und den angrenzenden Gebieten seiner Nachbarländer. Wien und München: Herold 1984.

Paläste und Bürgerhäuser in Österreich / Noblemen’s and Citizens’ Town-houses in Austria / Hotels Particuliers, Palais et Maisons Bourgeoises en Autriche. Wien: Notring 1970.

4 thoughts on “1809 Terrain 6 – Town Houses

  1. Mads Kofoed December 8, 2021 / 5:07 pm

    Very interesting indeed. You description of farmers houses with a Nice front And a long backyard is probably universal. One. Thing that you do t mention is that Even big towns as woenna People often had pigs, cows and different birds, and of course Horses, in the backyard.
    In harbour towns, and probably a long rivers, there were long areas where you had supplies and whatever along the beach, harbour or What you called it. Thanks for the article.

  2. James Fisher December 12, 2021 / 7:47 am

    Another really fascinating and useful post. Really interesting and useful photos and images from then, now and in-between!
    Regards, James

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