William Penn designed Philadelphia to be a green and spacious city where everyone would have a lawn. Of course, sometimes the best laid plans can go terribly awry. Penn couldn’t have anticipated what would happen when the city blossomed into a major urban center of the New World. The once spacious plots were divided, again and again, into ever-shrinking bits and pieces of property. Attached housing was the natural progression of urban architecture because it maximizes the small spaces but without formal building codes, people seemed to build row houses where ever they would fit even if that meant putting a row inside a block of other row houses so that you would have to pass through a passage through other peoples’ homes to get to your house.
We thoroughly believe that row homes are the best sort of urban dwelling there is but everyone has their limits and by the mid-1800s, many Philadelphians were ready to move out. Fortunately the public transit system also grew during this time, allowing the population to expand outward. The surrounding estates and farmland were divided into large lots on which expansive Victorian homes were built. Having more space meant that these grand homes were anything but cramped, many being over 4,000 square feet, and they were semi-detached allowing for much desired breathing room between neighbors.
Normally we wouldn’t write about semi-detached homes, even if they are right next door to proper row homes, because our focus is on houses built in rows. However, I recently got the opportunity to view a beautiful Queen Anne home just across the street from Fairmount Park which is a wonderful example of how large homes can be transformed into viable housing for today’s urban dweller.
Many historic homes are really just too large to manage for one family. The maintenance of a large home is often cost prohibitive for average homeowners. Without people with the means to care for larger, old homes, many fall into disrepair. For these, and many historic row homes in Philadelphia, the solution has been to divide them into apartments. From the outside, they retain their original facades and the landscape of the neighborhood remains intact. However, divided into more managable domiciles, a wider demographic of residents can own the property and share in the care and upkeep of the homes. While living in an apartment is not quite the same thing as living in a complete row house, this adaptability has saved many older row homes from certain doom.
One of these suburban Victorian-era Philadelphia neighbors is Parkside, named so because it faces Fairmount Park as seen in the photos. This neighborhood has a wealth of homes from small workmans true row houses to large mansions such as the semi-attached home I toured.
Developer Stanley Bailey has been renovating old homes in Philadelphia for the past nine years. Prior to that he was a carpenter for 20 so he has a wealth of knowledge about fixing up old homes. When he is approaching a new project, he first looks to the structure to make sure it’s sound. We asked what he enjoys best about renovating old homes in Philadelphia and he told us it’s in the details. He loves to discover original details like moulding, brick, wood windows, hardwood floors, and stained glass. He enjoys uncovering the character in an old home.
During the course of this project, Stanley had to figure out how much of the house could be restored and how to stay within budget, allowing for replacement of expensive details like the distinguished curved window glass and frames. He plans on keeping as much intact as possible including salvaging tin ceilings, copper trim, moulding, several doors, and the grand central staircase.
Parkside is a thriving urban neighborhood undergoing a period of renual. Its proximity to the park makes it a great location. However, these days not too many people are likely to want or need a mansion-sized house. Instead, there is a bigger market for spacious apartments. When converting a large, older house, Stanley says that he considers how to not only maximize the space but retain as much historic integrity as possible. His signature is preserving original brickwork. In the end, though, he really enjoys providing residents the opportunity to enjoy a place with historical character, with a modern flair. He takes great pride in finishing the house perfectly, down to the last detail.
I want to specially thank Inayah Hart, a realtor at Coldwell BankerPreferred in Old City, Philadelphia, who introduced me to Stanley and his beautiful house. She also contributed information to this article.