My professor of architecture at CUNY Queens College once told me that there are cities of houses and cities of apartments. He was speaking of urban growth and architectural development in the late half of the 19th Century and said that, at that time, apartment buildings were on the rise in cities like New York and Paris. He added that in cities like London and Philadelphia, however, they were still predominantly building row houses.
Philadelphia has a lot of row houses, more than any other type of dwelling. In fact, the city has such a rich history of row houses that the row house could be the official dwelling of Philadelphia, if they had such a thing. Row houses don’t just exist in the older parts of the city but also radiate outwards. Even in areas where detached homes could have been built, and indeed were built, you’ll still find row houses. It’s almost as if planners conscientiously decided to represent every size and style house within each neighborhood, making sure residents would have a choice between small row houses, elegant attached townhouses, and detached mansions. This hasn’t stopped since, even these days, there are still row houses being built here.
With such variety, homeowners need some guidance. Rachel Simmons Schade from Schade and Bolender Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Office of Housing and Community Development and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, all worked together to produce the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual. The Manual is a concise guide to owning a row house. The contents touch on all major points and are presented in short, bulleted lists with a decent list of resources at the end. It’s not an extensive volume on home ownership and maintenance but it’s enough to prompt homeowners to stay on top of things and ask more effective questions when it’s time for home improvements.
The Manual is divided into four main sections, an introduction to row houses in Philadelphia, the general inside of a row house, the general outside of a rowhouse and, finally, things dealing with how an owner relates to their specific row house.
“The two-story dwellings of this city are beyond all question, the best, as a system, not owning to the single family ideas they represent, but because their cost is within the reach of all who desire to own their own home.” – Frank Taylor
There are three periods of row house development in Philadelphia: Colonial, the 1800s and Post-1900. For each, the Manual provides three examples of typical dwellings based on size: small, medium, and large. Although there are more styles of homes in Philadelphia than nine, usually you can find enough similarities to match your house with one of the examples. With each unique style, there are things to consider. For example, the Manual points out that older houses may have very limited outdoor access while newer homes have off-street parking and garage issues.
The next section addresses the exterior of the row house. In a city with many homes over 100 years old, it’s especially important to promote good maintenance and awareness of specific issues that may arise as a home ages. Because most of the homes are made out of brick, either entirely or partially, there are special notes about taking care of brick. (See our article about historic masonry as well.) There are also pictures that show what damage looks like so homeowners can be on the lookout. When covering other features like windows and porches, each section includes little red notes indicating things that are very important to know. The overall tone is that it’s important and preferable to keep the row as close to original as possible. The Manual also stresses importance of keeping the row maintained, well lit and clean. A beautiful block can increase property values and decrease crime. It often doesn’t take more than keeping things clean and tidy but well maintained exteriors, trees, plants and flowers help too.
The Manual isn’t without a sense of humor. When discussing parking, they suggest you get rid of your car since Philadelphia is a highly walkable city. In reality, all homes built in the last ten or so years have off-street parking for at least one car and parking on the street is doable with resident parking permits.
Next, the Manual moves inside. Row homeowners have the most flexibility inside. Often row homes can be entirely gutted inside creating a blank slate. The vast changes in row house interiors, which are readily observable in the over 300 years of row house architecture represented in Philadelphia, are a testament to the superior versatility of the row house. However, there are still some things to consider. The advice given in the Manual is practical for any homeowner, with a special focus on row homeowners in Philadelphia who may have to deal with quirky things like small spiral staircases. For example, they caution against buying furniture that is too big for the space or won’t fit up the stairs. The Manual suggests best practices when designing closets, powder room interiors and buying appliances. They conclude the section with a very basic introduction to the structure of a row house.
The final section is about how the row homeowner relates to their specific row house. Maintenance is important on many levels. If your home is not properly maintained, it will lose value, become unsafe and make the entire row look disheveled. There is a really thorough check list that will help homeowners stay on top of maintaining their row house. There is an additional checklist of things that should be considered when renovating or doing other major construction to the house along with a guide to all the places you will need to go to to get permits for your project. The Manual mentions that in Philadelphia, because of all the historic houses in the city, they have specific property owner guides for people who own historic homes and want to preserve the original character.
In closing, the Manual adds that “between 1887 and 1892, nearly 45,000 new houses were built, most of which were rowhouses, worth an average of $3,000. Many of them were variations on this two story model. More citizens owned their own single family homes in Philadelphia during this time than any other major American city. Because of the growing industrial production in the City, good affordable housing for working people was a necessity. Between 2001 and 2006, 1,350 new homes were built, at an average cost of $160,000 each.”
The Manual includes a quote from Frank Taylor, author of The City of Philadelphia as it Appears in the Year 1894. He wrote, “The two-story dwellings of this city are beyond all question, the best, as a system, not owning to the single family ideas they represent, but because their cost is within the reach of all who desire to own their own home. They have done more to elevate and to make a better home life than any other known influence. They typify a higher civilization, as well as a truer idea of American home life, and are better, purer, sweeter than any tenement house systems that ever existed.”
The Manual isn’t definitive but its short format allows it to be available for free download at http://www.dvrpc.org/HistoricPreservation/Tools/pdf/PCPC_rowhousemanual.pdf. It’s a great, easy to understand and use, guide that will get row homeowners started and involved with the maintenance and domestic lifestyle of living in a row house in Philadelphia.