The Secret Life of Buildings: Residential Courts

In our last Secret Life of Buildings post we tackled trinity homes. What we didn’t get around to mentioning are the residential courts that many houses of this style are nestled into. Residential courts are the smallest of the small streets, cartways, and alleyways that were carved out of William Penn’s Greene Country Towne in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are so small, in fact, that these dead end nooks are pedestrian only, often with an communal courtyard space.


Often gated and consisting of anywhere from three to twelve homes on average and typically (though not always) bandbox style, these petite residential courts are yet another distinctive feature of Philadelphia’s urban design and built environment.


Lewis Court in Fishtown dates back to 1797.


Unfortunately, fewer of these residential court have survived into the 20th century than the trinity homes of our earlier exploration. The small scale, dense houses were historically built for craftsmen and factory workers, and as these industries faded in the 20th century, so did much of the housing.


As a city that cherishes history, however, Philadelphia held on to a handful of these residential courts. Some might sit right in your neighborhood without you ever having noticed since they’re such hidden secrets of the city. A few of the most architecturally or historically pertinent courts have even made their way onto the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Among those are Loxley and Bladen’s Courts in Old City and Drinker’s and Bell’s Courts in Society Hill.


Bell’s Court in Society Hill (above) was not always closed off to traffic (see below).


The common form that the residential court takes is with one or two larger houses fronting a main street with an attached row of trinities behind accessed by an alleyway between the two or beside the one street fronting properties.


Here is a residential courtyard tucked away on the petite Waverly Street in Washington Square West.


While some of the most iconic Philadelphia residential courts still standing today are in Old City, Society Hill, Queen Village, and Rittenhouse, this housing type was at one time even more common in neighborhoods like Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington. The reason for this was mainly that the courts were built to house factory workers efficiently and close by to the workplace which were frequently located in these River Wards neighborhoods.


Earl Court in Fishtown is an example of a residential court in the Riverwards that still remains today.


Many of the residential courts in these neighborhoods just northeast of Center City vanished after the industrial age and in the wake of the construction of I-95 between 1959-1979. While these homes were not necessarily notable for their architectural style since they were of a straightforward and unadorned construction, they are significant for their representation of a local housing type and as a distinct iteration of 19th century urban design in Philadelphia. We’ve touched on a few residential courts in prior blog posts, like our Blocks We Love on 700 Miller Street and 700 North Bodine Street.


Not only are these homes desirable for their historic connection, original features, and quiet, private space that is separated from the main street, they also are uniquely Philadelphia. Many of the courts are so obscured within the city’s blocks many people don’t even realize they exist. As a hidden secret of Philadelphia, the residential courts tell a story about the city’s early development, industrial roots, and distinction as a city of streets of rowhomes within streets of rowhomes within streets of rowhomes.


New Digs: The Penn’s Landing in Old City

This past Friday we stopped by Cindy & Chris Penn’s new digs at 144 Vine Street. On such a gloomy, muggy summer day, the facade of 144 Vine Street, tucked away in a corner of Old City, truly pops against a backdrop of grey skies. That’s because the building’s facade is an Isaiah Zagar original.


If you live in Philadelphia, chances are you’re already well versed in the mosaic masterpieces of Zagar. A Philadelphia based mosaic muralist, Zagar is famous for his Magic Gardens on South Street. Less known, however, is that he has adorned a number of residential facades as well.


Zagar’s Magic Gardens at 1020 South Street



His work on the facade and side of 144 Vine, which Cindy explains was “the cherry on top” of the property for her and her family, is magic and then some.


Its fitting that Cindy & Chris landed on this property. As artists of all sorts themselves, they were attracted to the quirky facade, the historical property, and the opportunity for retail space.


After living in Brooklyn for eight years, the pair decided it was time to buy. Yet, after a yearlong search for something in their native Brooklyn failed to produce results, Cindy decided to take a look in Philadelphia, just for fun. She immediately found Solo Realty’s listing for 144 Vine and the rest was a done deal.


Cindy & Chris enjoy a morning coffee in their future events space


As a multi-use property with commercial/office space on the first floor and residential taking up the rest of the building, the spot had already checked off Cindy’s main requirement. Throw that together with the walkability of Philadelphia, the burgeoning art and gallery scene in Old City, the reasonable price, the historic aspect, and the Zagar facade, the opportunity was too good to pass up. It was on to Philadelphia for Cindy’s family of five and the group has been loving their first months here.


In addition to being artistic people in general (most recently Chris has been working in drone photography while Cindy drums in a Brazilian marching band), the two are interested in gadgets. This interest is reflected in their groovy aesthetic in decorating the house, and in their keen interest in the historical workings of the home such as exploring the evidence of fireplaces and furnaces past.


While they knew the Philadelphia rowhome was old, they didn’t realize just how old until after they bought the house. Dating a house in Philadelphia can be quite the feat, but they have concluded that the house, along with its four neighbors on the block, likely dates back to the late 1700s. This is evidenced in the brickwork and beams the couple are exposing, not to mention the outdoor privy still standing in the rear.


Uncovering historical features of the home: wooden beams in the front commercial space (above) and brick foundation in the basement (below)



So far the beams have been exposed, the kitchen recreated on the first floor, the bathroom overhauled with a new funky modern aesthetic, and the floors refinished on the second floor. Next up is exposing brick where the existing walls can come down easily, tackling the third floor, and finishing up the commercial space. With the difficult aspects of the project largely behind them, such as moving the kitchen to a different part of the house and reorienting the bathroom, the final vision has taken shape and is within reach.


A modern tub, historic exposed brick, and whimsical sink mesh together in this artsy bathroom


Cindy and Chris plan to use the front area of the house as a creative rental space for anything ranging from yoga studio to pop-up gallery to event space. They’re also playing with the idea of putting a mock speakeasy in the basement.  


This historic rowhome is rooted in local history and tradition on every level: The past of people named Cindy occupying the space (the previous owner of 144 Vine and its neighbor 142 Vine was named Cindy), the classic 18th century structure, and the city’s famed Isaiah Zagar facade. 144 Vine is evocative of Philadelphia heritage in every sense.


Cindy & Chris are the perfect duo to have stumbled upon this fixer-upper. Creative thinkers and artistic makers, they have some amazing ideas for modernizing the space while constantly keeping its historic roots at the forefront of their process. We at Solo are so happy to have helped facilitate such a magical match and we’re looking forward to seeing how Cindy & Chris continue to upgrade and transform this unique space.


Photographs (from top to bottom): More Isaiah Zagar mosaic dons the interior courtyard; Exposed brick fireplace in the 2nd floor bathroom; Refinished wood floors; Exposed ducts; Winding stairs; Fully redone kitchen w/ new appliances and floors; Two neighboring historic homes; Big, open park right across the street; 140-146 Vine Street facades; Two more snapshots of the intricate Zagar mosaic facade; A view of the Ben Franklin Bridge from the street corner.


This Facade is Literally Magic

A small snapshot of Isaiah Zagar's multi-story, multi-faceted mosaic Magic Gardens

It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to buy a house that includes a piece of magic—Magic Gardens that is. Isaiah Zagar, the mosaic artist behind the mindblowing Magic Gardens at 10th and South Streets, will occasionally complete a piece on a rowhouse façade. Solo is thrilled to currently be the seller’s agent for one such rowhouse!

The Magic Gardens itself was constructed over many years, beginning in 1994. The immersive piece of art includes tunnels, grottos, stairs, and paths, all completely covered in Zagar’s unique mosaic style, comprised of colored glass bottles, found objects, hand-made tiles, mirrors, and a lot of bicycle wheels. It is now a popular tourist attraction, which thousands of people visit every year.

Now there is an opportunity to own an original Zagar, and did we mention it comes with a home, office, and an amazing location? Situated in Old City, 144 Vine Street leaves a great first impression with its distinctive Zagar mosaic façade. The interior doesn’t disappoint either, with handsome original features such as wide-planked pine floors, high ceilings, and original panel doors.

The facade of 144 Vine Street, with original mosaic by Isaiah Zagar
The facade of 144 Vine Street, with original mosaic by Isaiah Zagar

With a first floor office space and two apartment units on the upper floors, the property itself is a mosaic of uses and potential uses. The lucky future owner could rent out one unit and live in the other, or use it as a spacious single-family home with an in-home office or studio.

A lovely office space currently occupies the first floor of 144 Vine Street
A lovely office space currently occupies the first floor of 144 Vine Street

Philadelphia’s rowhouse stock is beloved partially for its consistency. The backdrop formed by that consistency allows for slight deviations to create a sense of delight, and that’s precisely the effect of the façade of 144 Vine Street.

144 Vine Street has additional Zagar murals on the rear of the property
144 Vine Street has additional Zagar murals on the rear of the property

Swamped by Litigation, OCCA Disbands

After four decades in operation, the Old City Civic Association (OCCA) has disbanded. The dissolution of the OCCA, a group known for its uncompromising efforts to preserve the historic character of its neighborhood, could mean big changes for both Old City and civic groups throughout Philadelphia.


While Old City has certainly seen its share of redevelopment and new construction, the OCCA made significant impacts on the area’s life, look and economy through their spirited opposition to expanded liquor licenses and a number of major building projects. Indeed, it was that single-minded focus on their vision of community development which ultimately lead to the Association’s demise – by objecting to many new construction projects, the OCCA was sued dozens of times by developers. In early May of this year the group came to the decision that it could simply no longer afford to operate with such sustained legal costs.


This news has been met with decidedly mixed reactions. For his part, former OCCA President Ryan Berley told Philly.com “On the one hand, there will be folks who see (the OCCA’s dissolution) as a benefit for unbridled development and expansion of business…but there’s a tremendous void now in Old City for residents and business owners, in terms of having a voice in the public civic process related to zoning, developments and liquor-licensing issues.”


Berley is probably correct – without the OCCA this prominent (and some might argue underdeveloped) community is likely to quickly draw the attention of builders looking to bring more of the city’s residential construction boom to the area.


But beyond the borders of Old City, the news of the demise of the OCCA sets a troubling precedent: while the City has strong laws preserving the character of individual buildings, it lacks the mechanisms to truly extend that preservation to the character of neighborhoods. That’s where organizations like the OCCA come in. It’s also what makes the conclusion of this story, chiefly that enough lawsuits can bring down even the most firmly established civic groups, so deeply problematic.