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Philly’s Art Deco Treasures

Originating in France in the 1910s, the Art Deco movement was embraced by Philadelphia architects in the 1930s. It was a breakaway from the Art Nouveau Movement, featuring angular, geometric forms. These Jazz Age buildings combined modern style with decorative themes from Nature, Ancient Egypt, Antiquity, and Native American design. It also included curved exterior walls known as “streamline.” 

While Philadelphia isn’t typically known for its Art Deco architecture, our city houses many fine examples of the style. We encourage you to take a walk through Center City to view some of the grandeur of these buildings firsthand and gain a deeper appreciation of Philly’s architectural heritage.

Beury Building, Broad & Erie

When Architect William H. Lee designed the National Bank of North Philadelphia in 1926, the 14-story limestone, brick, and terra cotta structure was considered a masterpiece of Art Deco design. Renamed the Beury Building, it was topped by a three-story penthouse with a pyramid roof.

In 1985, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Following forty years of abandonment, the property was renovated into a Marriot in 2019. The ground floor continues to display an elegant Art Deco archway with magnificent windows. 

Lee also designed many of Philadelphia’s opulent Art Deco movie palaces. Although most are gone, several remain including the Sedgewick, Anthony Wayne, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and the Hiway.

PSFS, 12th & Market

In 1932, the first skyscraper in the International Style in the United States, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) was greeted with both praise and criticism. Designed by architects William Lescaze and George Howe, some felt it was too sterile.

The 36-story building was a radical departure from the traditional Greek and Italian-inspired bank architecture. Lescaze and Howe went on to design PSFS branches all over the city, including the Logan Branch, now a Citizen’s Bank, a beautiful example of Art Deco at 5000 N Broad.

PSFS Building exterior. Image: Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress
PSFS Building exterior. Image: Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

In 1969, the PSFS building received the “Building of the Century Award.” But by 1992, the skyscraper was 85% vacant. It was auctioned off and is now a Loews Hotel. The building is still topped by a red neon 27-foot PSFS sign that can be seen for 20 miles.

Interior of the PSFS building, 1932. Image: Hagley Digital Archives.
Interior of the PSFS building, 1932. Image: Hagley Digital Archives.

Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Designed by Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary in 1927, the Perelman Building is a registered national historic landmark. It features a stunning, three-story, arched cathedral entrance with decorative windows. The exterior décor includes relief sculptures of animals and people, typical of Art Deco design. 

Perelman Building. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Perelman Building. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Originally built as the headquarters for Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, the building reopened in 2007 as an extension of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The façade renovation received a Grand Jury Award for Exterior Restoration and Adaptive Reuse from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

WCAU Building, 1622 Chestnut 

WCAU building facade. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The WCAU building stands out as one of the most recognizable Art Deco buildings in Philly. Designed by Harry Sternfeld, it was the first building in the nation designed specifically for a radio station. Over the years, it has been a Woolworth’s, the Art Institute of Philadelphia and now it is an Old Navy.

The Ayer, 210 W Washington Sq

Built 1927-29, the Ayer was originally designed by Ralph Bencker as the headquarters for N.W. Ayer, one of the oldest ad agencies in the country. Now a condo, its Art Deco features are still prominently on display both inside and out, including the elaborate bronze front doors, decorative lobby, and the large monumental figures at the top of the building.

Ayer building door details. Image: Newyorkitecture
Ayer building door details. Image: Newyorkitecture

The Drake, 1512 Spruce St

The Drake. Photo: Brookfield Properties
The Drake. Photo: Brookfield Properties

This 33-story masterpiece is one of the landmarks of Philly’s skyline. Originally a hotel, it was designed by the architectural firm Ritter and Shay.  Who hasn’t looked up in wonder at its iconic terra-cotta dome or marveled at its Spanish Baroque interior? Today, it is an apartment building with a penthouse swimming pool.

SEPTA Suburban Station, 1600 John F Kennedy Blvd

Suburban Station’s Art Deco design owes its opulence to a collection of architects, including Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, and Thalheimer & Weitz. The building originally served as a terminal for Pennsylvania Railroad trains. Today, it is an office building and train station, with retail located below. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

30th Street Station, 2955 Market St

30th Street Station Interior. Image: Amtrak
30th Street Station Interior. Image: Amtrak

While the exterior is neoclassical, the interior of 30th Street Station is pure Art Deco designed in 1929-34 by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White. Now considered one of the last remaining grand stations in the country, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

More Art Deco Architecture

Other fine examples of Art Deco architecture in our city include the Market Street National Bank at One East Penn Square and the Automat Building at 818 Chesnut Street where the first Horn & Haddart Automat opened in 1902. Want to see more? The Preservation Alliance offers Art Deco walking tours in Philadelphia and the next one is on Saturday, September 18th. Visit their website for the schedule and to get tickets. 

The Secret Life of Buildings: Rowhouse Cornices

If you have a rowhouse in Philadelphia, you probably have a cornice, a decorative molding that crowns your house, door, or windows. Over time, your cornice may rust or deteriorate. In this article, we’ll cover the history behind the architectural feature known as a cornice, what materials were used throughout the years, and introduce you to conservators who have the knowledge and skills to restore and preserve your decorative cornices.

History

The idea of a cornice has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. In Classical Greek architecture, the cornice was the top element of the entablature, the horizontal section of a building exterior immediately above a series of columns and below the roof.

Cornices were not merely decorative. They had a basic utilitarian purpose, to direct rainwater away from the sides of a building, but they quickly became a decorative element as well. Greek architecture had three types of cornices: Doric with simple, geometric lines; Ionic with scroll elements; and Corinthian, the most elaborate. 

Cornices were prevalent in Philly rowhouses as far back as Elfreth’s Alley. 19th and 20th Century Philadelphia rowhouses display a wide variety of cornice designs, including bracketed cornices which originally developed during the Italian Renaissance but reemerged during the Victorian period. An example of a bracketed cornice can be found on a rowhouse at 519 Bainbridge Street with a contemporary mosaic façade by Isaiah Zagar

Bracketed cornice

Up until the mid 19th century, cornices were sculpted in wood, stone, or plaster by skilled craftsmen. When the Philadelphia rowhouse boom was at its peak in the early 20th century, old-world techniques were replaced by mass-produced sheet metal cornices that mimicked wood and stone. Made of zinc-coated steel or tin-coated iron (galvanized steel) and, in rare instances copper, these mass-market cornices deteriorated over time. The paint peeled, leaving behind unsightly rust.

Restoration

Because every cornice has its own unique and often intricate design, restoration begins by making a mold of a small section that is still in good repair. If the original cornice was stamped metal, the mold is sent to a metal shop where a life-size reproduction of the entire cornice is stamped out in copper, zinc, steel, or aluminum. The final step is painting the cornice to replicate its original appearance.  If, however, your cornice was originally carved out of wood, the mold will be reproduced in a woodworking shop.

Sheet Metal 

Black Sheep Contracting in Fishtown is a family affair. For four generations, the Brooks family has passed down their craft of restoring roofs and cornices in keeping with historical certification.

“We do historical sheet metal fabrication and installation to match an existing cornice or totally new design, from complex to standard with old-world craftsmanship,” said Black Sheep owner David Brooks. “Cornice design is drawn with dimensions and then transferred to flat sheet stock to be bent and formed. This work is done in the traditional way by hand. Materials are duplicated if existing. If not, it can be formed out of copper, steel, or tin. Painting can be matched if historical or, if not, it would be owner’s choice.”

Image courtesy of Black Sheep Contracting

“Part or ornamental pieces can be duplicated or repaired depending on condition. All cornices and accessories are different and patterns need to be taken on-site to allow for duplication unless we have pattern in our inventory,” said Brooks.

Wood

If your cornice is wood, speak with John P. Hovanec Construction in Pennsburg. But don’t try to Google him. “I am so busy though word-of-mouth, I have not bothered with advertising or websites,” said Hovanec. (At least, he’s got an email address.) For thirty-five years, Hovanec has been a contractor and, for last eleven years, he has specialized in historic restoration. He recently did cornice restoration for one of Solo Realty’s clients.

“The property was built in the late 1800s and the cornice had deteriorated from a roof leak,” said Hovanec. “We took a sample back to our shop and, working in mahogany, we started over from scratch.” Hovanec works in partnership with his sons who launched Old Capital Custom Millwork in Schwenksville.

Stone & Masonry

For forty-five years, Dan Lepore & Sons have provided stone and masonry restoration for Philadelphia row houses. Working with architects, engineers and preservation professionals, they are uniquely skilled in repairing terra cotta and stone cornices. 

“All members of our masonry restoration team are graduates of the RESTORE Training masonry conservation course,” said owner Dan Lepore. And, yes, they do stone carving. Their clients have included the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall –  gargoyles and all. 

Restoring a cornice can be costly but there are some grants available to help homeowners cover the costs. For information on these, contact the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

The Secret Life of Buildings: Modern Row Houses

Jeremy Avellino, founder and design director of Bright Common Architecture and Design, has a passion for bringing row houses into the 21st century. “Philadelphia is an extremely rare and unique city with one of the highest rates of density in the nation. This density allows for sustainability and affordability,” he said.  Plus, one other thing at the top of Avellino’s list – an opportunity to achieve decarbonization.

“Think of a row house as a power plant,” said Avellino, an award-winning member of Green Building United and an expert in Passive House Design. “Buildings are responsible for 72% of greenhouse gases in Philadelphia. The national rate is only 39%. Most of our carbon footprint is related to gas lines that heat and cool our homes. If we want our city to be carbon neutral by 2050, we need to make a huge dent in this starting now.”

The solution? Electrification. “People understand electric cars. If your home were as fuel efficient as an electric car, it would greatly reduce your carbon footprint,” said Avellino. Meanwhile, a zero-energy home drastically lowers heating and cooling bills. 

Avellino put his theory to the test in retrofitting his own row house, making it a carbon-free, zero-energy house. “I installed solar panels on my roof which will eventually provide free electricity,” he said, tipping his hat to Solarize Philly, which offers a Solar Savings Grant Program to low and moderate income homeowners. Before you wince at the expense of solar energy, consider that there are 10-year affordable loans which are calculated to match your existing energy bills so you won’t feel the pinch.

20th Century Update

There is more than one way to bring an older row house up to speed.  For a project Avellino calls House Askew, he chose “a moderate retrofit,” maintaining the original architectural details while providing energy efficient measures.

“This 3-story, 2300 square foot brick row house in Philadelphia received one of the city’s first foam-free deep energy retrofits, foregoing the toxicity and underperformance of spray foam,” said Avellino.  Instead, he used Building Biology and Passive House principles as his guides. “This electric-only, “frack-free” house is solar-ready to push it closer to net-zero energy,” he said. Meanwhile, the exterior maintains the original charm of its early 20th century brickwork, masonry and arched front door and window. 

Something Old, Something New

Deciding when to maintain a row house’s original façade and when to build a totally new structure takes into consideration questions of safety, engineering and design. In designing Kensington Yards, Avellino did both. He maintained the mid-19th Century brick façade of one row house and created a new modern property of the adjacent vacant lot, connecting the two with a shared courtyard.. The result was a fourteen-unit, multi-family development.

Exterior view of Kensington Yards Condo building.
Kensington Yards

 “The properties had been vacant for fifteen years. We found a shoe in the wall from 1890,” Avellino said. Working in collaboration with Red Oak Development and with Alejandro Franqui and Deborah of Solo Real Estate, Avellino designed a new addition for the rear of the property.

“It was a fun space to design. When you combine the new with the old, you have a wonderful transition,” he said. Case in point: the arched windows on the original property are echoed in the new construction. “While saving the historic façade of one of the homes, the project illustrates the value of preserving Philadelphia’s rich history and using it as a catalyst for regeneration,” said Avellino.

Reimaging Row houses

Sometimes, the best update for a row house is totally new construction. An example is a modern structure Avellino calls “Outlet.”  It is one of many design projects that resulted in Bright Common winning AIA Philadelphia’s Emerging Architecture Prize. Outlet makes no effort to blend in. Its exterior is corrugated aluminum in bright white and charcoal grey with contrasting levels. These modern row houses rise to new heights, shoot off at unexpected angles and feature oversized round and arched windows. What they all have in common is they are all Passive Houses. 

Outlet House designed by Bright Common. Photograph courtesy of Sam Oberter Photography.
Outlet House. Photo: Sam Oberter

Zero-energy houses are a commitment to the health of the planet and future generations. By making an investment in your home now, you are banking on a future with no heating or cooling bills and the satisfaction of knowing you are part of the change that you – and Jeremy Avellino – want to see. “ 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

Rehabbing Your Rowhouse

Bringing an older Philly rowhouse into the 21st century can be challenging. We want to make it easier and more affordable. With 70 years of experience, our agents at Solo Real Estate have managed multiple home renovation projects across the city so we’re sharing some insights on what to look out for in a rehab property, and what you can expect to have to update. 

Whether you’ll be doing a gut-renovation or updating a few things, most row houses tend to have the same problems. They are dark and narrow with small kitchens, postage-stamp-size middle bedrooms, and outdated bathrooms. The secret to home renovation is knowing where and how to open up a space to more light and functionality. For that, you need to work with an experienced architect and contractor who have expertise in rehabbing homes like yours.  

Kitchens & Bathrooms

Even the most livable property usually requires a major makeover of the kitchen and bathroom. If sustainability is your goal, just say no to granite and marble countertops. “Custom made cast concrete countertops and sinks are better for the environment,” said Jayme Guokas, owner of Craftwork Design, a Philadelphia-based design firm specializing in customized living spaces. “Using cast concrete saves material from being quarried from the earth. It has a more hand crafted, warm feeling, especially with inlays of fossils, agate rocks and minerals,” he said.

When Guokas rehabbed his East Kensington row home, an 1880 structure, he conceived of it as a showcase for his business. “The house reflects my firm’s design principles as well as our ethic of sustainable building, using reclaimed and locally sourced materials wherever possible.”  

For example, Guokas used Heart Pine flooring from a South Philly factory and a former livestock tank as a shower base. The cast concrete throughout the house, on countertops, windowsills, and sinks, featured inlaid glass, stone, and antique tile. Guokas balanced the reclaimed accents and poured concrete with contemporary appliances, light fixtures and ceiling fans. Guokas also used custom cast concrete to update the kitchen of Deborah Solo.

Deborah Solo’s kitchen. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography

In his work for Parish House, a 1912 property in East Kensington, Guokas applied principles of sustainability. He created hand-troweled concrete countertops in all six units, as well as concrete sinks in two of the four bathrooms. An antique longleaf pine vanity is made from the beams salvaged from the adjacent church.

Parish House Interior by Craftwork Design. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography
Concrete Sink made by Craftwork Design. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography

Influenced by woodworker/designer George Nakashima and the Arts & Crafts aesthetic of Henry Mercer, Guokas uses birch plywood for kitchen cabinets with creative stain options. A beautiful example is the hand-stained cabinetry he completed for a house on Seventh Street.

Let there be light!

An open floor plan is a popular way to bring more light and flow into your house. Or add a skylight to the living room, kitchen, or at the top of the stairwell. When possible, enlarge windows or select a front door with a decorative glass panel. When it comes to ceiling light fixtures, consider mixing recessed lights throughout the first floor with contemporary or vintage hanging fixtures.

The lighter your walls, the more light bounces off of them. Go with bright neutrals or white. But not just any white. Sherwin Williams offers 48 shades, ranging from cool to warm.  Benjamin Moore has over 300! We recommend bright white for ceilings and a warmer white for walls. If you’d like to add a pop of color, paint an accent wall to create a focus area while maintaining a sense of openness with the surrounding white walls.

Doing away with the cramped second floor bedroom and enlarging the bathroom is an option if you do not require the room as a nursery or office. Another way to open up your home is to create a trendy roof deck with an outdoor spiral staircase.

The Rehab Bible

Before you make any decisions, read the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, an online, free, homeowners Bible. It clearly spells out how to approach renovations and additions, permits and codes. More importantly, it tells you how to avoid costly mistakes.

  • Don’t try to be your own contractor
  • Don’t work with relatives or friends
  • Don’t work without a written contract
  • Don’t put down more than a 20% deposit
  • Don’t release more than 95% of the total cost before all work is completed to your satisfaction

“Managing over 400 units for different owners, Solo Real Estate is positioned to help row house owners identify reputable architects and contractors,” said Alex Franqui.  “We get multiple bids from contractors. If you have a small job, it’s difficult to find a plumber or roofer. But we do enough business with them that they will handle the job.” 

Interested in purchasing a rehab property? We can help! Learn more about our buying or property investment services here, and contact us for more information.

The Secret Life of Buildings: Bay Windows

There is something irresistible about a bay window. Whether it’s the abundant light it brings into the home or the constantly changing views it affords from inside. As part of our “The Secret Life of Buildings” series, we’ve decided to explore the history of this unique architectural feature that adds value to buildings throughout the City, whether they were built two hundred years ago or yesterday.

Origins

The popularity of bay windows in Philadelphia can be traced back to England. Way back! Starting in the 5th century. During the Gothic period, 12th to 16th century, bay windows were known as “oriel” windows. 

An ornamental addition to the building, bay windows were added to cathedrals across Europe. A famous example is St. Sebaldus Church in Nuremberg built in 1361.  In private homes, the area inside the bay window alcove was often used as a house chapel. Meanwhile, in Islamic architecture, bay or oriel windows were used throughout the Arab world as a mashrabiva, a balcony from which women could view public life from behind a screen. 

St. Sebaldus Church

During the English Renaissance, 15th – 17th century, many of the grand houses of the Baroque period featured bay windows that illuminated the ornate detailing of the time. A variation of the bay window is the curved bow or circle bay window. These first appeared in 16th century England and migrated to the United States during the Federal period. 

One of the most exciting and innovative uses of bay windows was Oriel Chambers, built in Liverpool in 1864. It was the world’s first building featuring a metal-framed glass curtain wall, considered to be one of the most influential buildings of its age.

Oriel Chambers, built in Liverpool in 1864.

The Philadelphia Story

Although bay windows made their way across the Atlantic Ocean as early as the Federal Period, it was during the Victorian and Edwardian eras that they really exploded. An example is the bay window at 1219 Spruce, a Romanesque Revival townhouse designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day in the 1890s. The front of the house features a large bay window capped with a copper cornice with a corbelled design and two small shields. There is another bay window on the Camac Street side of the house. Day also used bay windows to bring light into Houston Hall when he designed it in 1896.

1219 Spruce Street – a Romanesque Revival townhouse designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day in the 1890s. Photo courtesy of Howard Silverman.

Around the same time, bay windows were making their debut on townhouses ringing Rittenhouse Square. From inside their grand mansions, the City’s elite, including Philadelphia Railroad president Alexander Cassatt and department store founder John Wanamaker, could gaze down upon the lively Square. 

Several opulent mansions with bay windows still exist on the Square, including 1912 Rittenhouse Street and 1923 Walnut. Bay windows are also a prominent feature of 1830 Rittenhouse Square, the first high-rise residential building on the Square, designed in 1913 in the Baroque style by Frederick Webber. 

When affluent people moved from Center City to North Philadelphia in the early 20th century, they were attracted to Gothic and Victorian mansions along North Broad Street and in Strawberry Mansion which featured not only bay windows, but circular windows built into turrets. 

A home in West Philadelphia with circular windows built into turrets

Architectural movements, such as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, came and went, but the bay window remained a Philly staple. And not just for the affluent. They were used by builders of middle and working-class row homes in every section of the City throughout the 20th century. By adding three large windows angled out beyond the exterior wall, formerly dark, stuffy homes were filled with light and air.  

Various styles of bay windows in West Philadelphia
Various styles of bay windows

Contemporary Bay Windows

In the 21st century, bay windows have seen a resurgence. Their classic design is popular with homeowners seeking to maximize the natural light and optimize the space in their home while increasing its value.

Modern bay windows are either polygonal or square. The box bay window, which is shaped like a rectangular or square box, is still popular throughout Europe. Today, the term bay window is used to describe any window construction that extends from a building’s exterior wall. Interestingly, the box bay window is the hallmark of new apartment house construction in Philadelphia. 

Modern Bay Windows

When modern versions started appearing in Point Breeze, some older residents were so concerned by this sign of gentrification that they worked with a City Councilman to propose a ban on bay windows in their neighborhood.  However, Philadelphia Preservation Alliance cited bay windows as a defining characteristic of row homes in the Point Breeze section in the late 19th century, early 20th century two-story, single-family row homes. As a result, the ban wasn’t enacted.

Other examples of box bay windows can be seen in a four-story apartment complex on Front Street between Sansom and Walnut, affording breathtaking waterfront views.

Modern Box Bay Windows on Front St.

Bottom line? Bay windows add beauty and value to homes. They improve curb appeal, add natural light, and maximize available space. 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

The Secret Life of Buildings: Row House Styles

Philadelphians love the row house as much as they love their cheesesteaks and water ice.  How did this unique architectural style take root and thrive for over 300 years? We will take a look at the origins and evolution of the row house, from working man’s home to opulent mansion.

While the row house is synonymous with our City, we did not originate the style. We borrowed it from London and Paris where it first appeared in the 16th century. (Next time you are in Paris, check out the swank Place des Voges. It looks like a mansion, but is actually a series of row houses.) In London, row houses were built for both workers and noblemen. Philly took that cue and ran with it.

From humble dwelling to stately splendor

Early row houses, dubbed Bandbox or Trinity, were only 400-600 sq ft.  They had one entry, one room on each floor, a narrow winding staircase, and no running water. Toilets? Outside! They first appeared along narrow alley blocks near the waterfront in the early 18th Century to house dock workers. Trinity houses can be found today in Society Hill, Washington Square West, Queen Village, Old City, and Kensington. Want to learn more about trinity homes? We covered them in another blog post from this series.

Although early row houses were half-timber, mimicking the English style, they soon switched to brick which was a better fire retardant. An abundance of local clay allowed brickmaking to flourish here. By the 18th century, we were America’s preeminent brickmaking city. 

In the 19th Century row houses expanded into the Double Trinity or London House. These spacious 1,000-8,000 sq ft homes had three stories plus a basement, two fireplaces, and a rear yard. Today, these larger row houses ring Washington Square and may be found in several neighborhoods throughout the City.

Georgian Row House: Powell House is located at 244 S. Third Street.
Georgian Row House: Powell House is located at 244 S. Third Street. Image: VisitPhilly.com

The wealthy favored Townhouses, 3,000-7,000 sq ft with three to four stories, grand staircases, and abundant light. These are found in Society Hill and Washington Square West.  A classic example is the Powel House, built in 1765 and located at 244 S. Third Street. It is now a museum and considered to be one of the finest Georgian row houses in the city. 

Row House Architectural Styles

Georgian houses, 1714-1830, featured symmetrical windows, shutters, and columns. Entrances were often embellished with pediments, arches, and columns. Interiors featured high ceilings and crown molding.  

Federal Style: 171 Poplar Street
Federal Style: 171 Poplar Street. Image courtesy of Solo Real Estate.

Federal style, 1780-1820, had many of the same elements but with details that are more delicate, including front door fanlight windows and elaborate porticos and curved arches. A Federal-style home in Northern Liberties is currently available for Sale through Solo Real Estate.

Greek or Classical Revival: Girard Row.
Greek or Classical Revival: Girard Row. Image: WikiMedia

Greek or Classical Revival, started in 1820. The ceilings were taller. Attics were replaced by a full third floor. Examples include Girard Row, a set of five-row houses built in 1831 by banker Stephen Girard, located on the 300 block of Spruce Street. Or consider the elegant Thomas Eakins House, built in 1854, at 1727-29 Mount Vernon Street, now the headquarters of the Mural Arts Program

Greek or Classical Revival: Thomas Earkins House.
Greek or Classical Revival: Thomas Earkins House. Image: Philly Voice

Gothic Revival, 1830-1860, can be recognized by its pointed arches on roofs, windows, or doors. Other characteristic details include steeply pitched roofs and front-facing gables with delicate wooden trim called vergeboards or bargeboards. Examples can be found in West and North Philly. Tip: If it looks like the Adams Family lives there, it’s Gothic!

Renaissance Revival or Neo-Renaissance, 1840-1890, combined elements of Italian, French and Flemish Renaissance architecture. They featured
brownstone or light-colored brick facades and often had decorative
motifs, like wreaths, flower garlands along the cornice and around the
windows.

Victorian style, 1837-1901, which often included Gothic elements, inspired the towering brownstone mansions found in Rittenhouse and Fitler Square. The 4100 block of Parkside Avenue in West Philly, built in 1876 during the Centennial Exhibition, is an excellent example of Gothic-Victorian style and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Row house Styles: Gothic Victorian in Parkside Ave in West Philadelphia.
Row house Styles: Victorian in Parkside Ave in West Philadelphia. Image: Wikipedia.org

Mid to Late 19th Century 

With the advent of the streetcar and increased immigration, developers expanded row house developments creating new neighborhoods close to factories and industry.

Small row houses with indoor plumbing, 1,000-1,600 sq ft, sprang up in Manayunk, as well as North, West, and South Philadelphia. Larger, “Streetcar Town Houses”, 2,200-2,500 sq ft, with front porches, bay windows, and tall ceilings also appeared in these areas. 

For the elite, there were Urban Mansions, 3,00-6,000 sq ft with three to four floors, with two stairs (one for servants), carriage houses, skylights, and ornate fireplaces. In the 1890s, Urban Mansions attracted wealthy Jews to Strawberry Mansion in North Philly, while the City’s elite gravitated to Millionaires Row on South Broad.  A beautiful example is the Lippincott Mansion, 1897, 507 S. Broad which featured a 10×20’ stained-glass skylight. 

Lippincott Mansion, located at 507 S. Broad St.
Urban Mansions: Lippincott Mansion, located at 507 S. Broad St. Image: Vintage-Instruments.com

Our City’s row house styles are each unique in their right and built to last. From Kensington to East Passyunk, from West Philly to Germantown, these homes continue to stand the test of time, evolving and contributing to Philadelphia’s architectural landscape.

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered common Philadelphia brick styles, trinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!