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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!

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!