Originally posted June 2008.
If you live in a row house neighborhood, chances are you have to walk past other people’s homes on a regular basis. And, if people leave their curtains open, most find it impossible not to sneak a peak inside. It’s even better when a front door is left ajar. Drawn like a moth to a flame, I slow down and linger just a little longer to see how people design their row houses.
Fortunately, for the row house voyeur, many urban neighborhoods have annual open house events where obliging home owners let complete strangers walk through their homes for a moderate fee, which ensures that people with less than wholesome intentions don’t wander in.
This past May, I participated in the “Walking Tour of Queen Village,” as a house-sitter. When you’re not scheduled to house-sit, in this case there were two shifts, you can take the tour yourself. Afterward, sitters and homeowners have a wonderful party in our local Mario Lanza park.
Besides being a great experience, I got to market RowHouse Magazine and make some new friends. I was really surprised to meet someone who had heard of the web site and am really excited that word is getting around. It just so happens that she is the proprietor of Lovely Rentals here in Philadelphia and has been a great contact to add to our growing list of RowHouse friends.
Of the 16 stops on the self-guided tour, six were currently occupied row houses. They varied in size, style, and age. They were a great representation of the diversity of row homes in Philadelphia. I wish I could include photos with this review but “no photography” is a standard house tour rule. If you see the article, “Queen Village: The Pleasant Place,” you can see similar homes in this neighborhood.
House number one, no specifics for this review, was a modified Trinity-style house with one room on each floor and three, above-ground, floors altogether. I passed through a small, tastefully decorated living room to get to the backyard. This beautiful, outdoor space had lush greenery situated in stone borders and steeply, sloped stone stairs leading down to the kitchen/eating area. Having the kitchen in the basement is a typical arrangement for Trinities. Along the path, there were also little tiles mosaics. Above this peaceful space, I could see the angled extension to the second floor. The owner had left the blueprints for this extension on his office desk. A house-sitter told me that he had designed the alterations to to the house himself and over the years, the visitors on the tour had been witness to the many changes.
I passed through the kitchen and back up the spiral, pie-slice, staircase, also very typical of a Trinity. The owner had turned the space into a photo gallery. The most interesting feature of this unique home is the bathroom. The tub was placed in an unconventional middle spot between the bathroom and the bedroom. On either side, was glass so that one could sit in the bathtub and see both the front and the back of the house. The area was entirely mosaic tiled in shades of blue and small mirrors. I really wish I had a photo to share since my words don’t do it justice.
House number two was a more traditionally laid out row house with two rooms per floor. Again, this home had the dining room and kitchen in the basement so to liven up the space, the owners had a beautiful landscape mural painted on the wall. In Philadelphia, home owners are not afraid to bring bold art and color into their homes.
By the time I got to house number three, quite breathless from running around, I realized I should have been taking notes. Like house one and my own house, house three was a Trinity. However, house three was the most original with one room, about 12 feet square, on each of the three floors and probably not more than 600 square feet total area. The owners had restored it to like-new condition. Like all Trinity homes, this had a very narrow, winding staircase. I asked the owner how she got her normal sized, antique furniture into the rooms. She told me they had taken out the windows during the renovation and hoisted the furniture up. As part of the renovation they also outfitted the house with appliances specifically for small spaces and low environmental impact.
Another unique feature of number three was that it is one of seven that are situated in the middle of a block. In order to get to these homes, you must go through a gated passage, inbetween street-facing homes, to get to what is essentially someone else’s backyard. Except in this case, the backyards are filled with these little row homes and a small courtyard.
House number four was a great example of how adaptable the row house is. The owner bought the adjoining house and broke down the walls, creating a double-wide row house. Although the inside was redesigned to create modern and open spaces, the homeowner retained the historic facades. This was the only house with a young child in it.
Some of the oldest houses on the tour occupy Workman Place. These date from the mid- to late-1700s. Today they are rental properties managed by the Octavia Hill Association whose mission is to provide safe, clean houses for lower-income residents while still making a profit for the owner. It is a model retained from the work of Octavia Hill, the namesake, who developed responsible landlord best-practices in Victorian London. Unfortunately, none of the houses were open to visitors.
Number five was a luxurious modern town house with all the comforts one could ask for. This is the house I got to house-sit for, telling visitors about the den, library, guest room, and bathroom with matching wallpaper and shower curtain. It was the largest home on the tour at nearly 3,000 square feet. Unlike the older homes, this home had a garage. In Philadelphia, all new-construction rowhomes must provide off-street parking. Previous owners of this home include several local sports celebrities. The current owner was a very gracious host and walked most of the guests through personally.
The last home on the tour, number six, was the oldest we could walk through. The owner had expanded the original home, which he dates to the 1760s, by purchasing the Trinity behind it and building a bright airy connecting space between the two. He also bought the property next door, demolished the house, and created a parking space and outdoor area.
So many of these homes I would love to revisit. It was incredible to see what people have done with their homes, big and small. Some have worked within their limits and some have expanded creatively. In all the homes, the possibilities are only limited to the owners’ imaginations. It was also great to meet fabulous row house dwellers who are willing to share their homes with the public. I can’t imagine a better way to promote the row house life!