700 Samsom Street, perhaps the first row house in America.

The Philadelphia Row House: America’s First Row House

700 Samsom Street, perhaps the first row house in America.

There are houses attached in a row and there are row houses. For our purposes, at The Urban Row House, we treat all houses that are attached in rows as row houses because the community is the same regardless of how your row was constructed; piecemeal or uniformly. However, there is a difference. The strict row house, one in a row of houses that were built at one time, in a uniform design, has a unique history in America and that history began right here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Row house development began in Philadelphia with Carstair’s Row on what is now Sansom Street, in Center City. The row was named after Thomas Carstair who designed the homes for developer William Sansom and is the oldest row in America. The style of the homes, which were originally relatively large, was Federal, a popular style of the time.

Today, the buildings house the jewelry stores of Jeweler’s Row, the oldest Jeweler district in the United States. Of the original houses, only one retains its original design and storefront, No. 700 Sansom Street. You can still see some details on No’s. 730 and 732 as well but an elevated front door and stairs are not original and have changed the appearance. The others have been greatly modified over the years and no longer resemble the original row homes.

You may remember our story on Elfreth’s Alley and wonder how Carstair Row can be the oldest row when it was built in the early 1800s. Additionally, also other attached homes in older urban areas which are rows but clearly pre-date 1800. Simply put, houses in a row are not always row houses. Throughout Philadelphia there are twin houses as well as sets of three or four homes all built together with continuous brickwork, indicating that they were probably built all at once in a row. However, it is most likely that these homes were commissioned by the owners for their personal use. For example, parents would build homes for themselves and children or relatives would build residences for themselves in a joint project.

How Row Houses Are Different

700 Samsom Street, side view.What differentiates a row house is the manner in which it’s developed. Historically, someone would purchase a plot of land and then commission craftsmen to build a house, or houses, on it for their personal use. With row houses, a developer would purchase an entire block of plots, build a row of connected houses and then sell the finished buildings. This is called speculative development and was a new concept in the 19th Century although today, most people buy new real estate this way.

Whether built in rows or individually, attached housing was, and is, very practical in urban areas so it didn’t take long for row houses to catch on and the style of development was mimicked. Developers could make a decent profit, residents could buy a pre-made home without dealing with construction, and city plots could be developed in the most space effective way possible. As a result, row houses quickly became the urban house of choice. Regardless of where row houses popped up, because of the origins of row houses in Philadelphia, row houses in America were called “Philadelphia Row Houses,” at least in the beginning.

Additional Information

Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia – http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/23000

Steven Singer Jewelers – http://www.stevensingerjewelers.com/about/historyofJewelersRow.asp

Elegant homes along Walnut Street.
Elegant homes along Walnut Street.


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  2. My daughter has asked me to come up with a design for her row house in Troy NY and hire a contractor and get the job done! Ha ha I live in Maine. Can anyone at least recommend how I can get an exterior design, paint etc colors. I am at a loss. Thanks

    1. Hi Kim,
      Unfortunately, I can’t make recommendations for a contractor. Some good places to get some ideas about a contractor include Angie’s List, the local preservation board, and joining the neighborhood NextDoor site, which is like social just for neighbors. Regardless of who she chooses, good things to keep in mind during a row house reno, is to keep the overall look of the row in mind. Don’t deviate from the neighbors too much or you ruin the uniformity. Next, if the house is older, definitely check with the preservation sites to find out what materials are appropriate. If it’s pre-1880 brick, do not use modern mortar, for example. Have a solid, comprehensive plan, and a well-padded budget. We upgraded our washer and dryer and it ended up being three times what we anticipated when all was said and done. And, if she can take her time and break down the work into smaller projects, it’ll allow her to live with the changes for a bit before moving on. Sometimes it take a breather to see new opportunities and ideas. Best of luck to your daughter and her row house! 🙂

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