The Secret Life Of Buildings: Trinity Homes

A while back we touched on trinity homes in our blog post on Philadelphia’s own stock of tiny houses. This week we decided to take a closer look at the trinity house specifically to shed some light on the origins of this unique style.

The style we’re dealing with here is the trinity house, sometimes also referred to as a bandbox or Father, Son, Holy Ghost house. These homes, largely unique to Philadelphia, are characterized as having one room per floor, with each floor joined by a winding staircase. 

Trinity houses are typically three stories or two and a half (with the top floor being a dormer), although in some versions the kitchen is in the basement, leaving an extra level for living space aboveground. Clocking in at 500-1,000 square feet, it wouldn’t be far off to claim that trinity houses were the original tiny house, popping up long before the modern day movement took hold.

Before Philadelphia was a dense city of rowhomes, it was something else entirely. Long before the city was filled with houses ranging in size from the sometimes 500 square foot trinity homes to grander Federal and Victorian style rowhomes of 3,000 plus square feet, and had secret side streets cutting through blocks every which way, it was built in a different fashion.

In fact, the original vision of Philadelphia was that of William Penn’s 17th century “greene country towne” city plan. The emphasis here was on a development of the city with each home laid out with plenty of extra space and greenery around it. This style came about as a direct response to the lack of space many had fled in London, where countless units were crammed together along tiny streets.

A map of the William Penn’s city plan for Philadelphia (By Thomas Holme [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMap_of_Phila-William-Penn.jpg)

However, as the population grew in the beginning of the 18th century, these large plots of Penn’s pastoral oasis had to be subdivided to meet the need for more housing. Thus were born the tiny side streets and alleyways so characteristic of the Philadelphia we know today. The smaller streets were created by breaking up the larger parcels designated by Penn, and the smallest of them became home to trinity houses while larger avenues sported the grander rowhomes of the time.

While the trinity home was originally born out of a necessity for quick, efficient, and affordable housing that builders could squeeze into miniscule streets, countless of these homes remain throughout the city today. Given their relatively small size, the trinity lifestyle is not for everyone, but they have garnered somewhat of a cult following.

Attractive features include the maximization of space with each floor devoted to a single room, the lower cost of the property making the houses low-income friendly, and the connection to a real piece of Philadelphia history. Many trinity houses are still jam packed with original historic features such as exposed brick, fireplaces, stone or brick floors in the basement, wide plank wood floors, built in shelves, and exposed beams.

The earliest trinity homes were done in a Georgian style with gabled roofs and pedimented dormer windows. In many modern revampings of trinity houses the circular staircase is replaced with a free standing spiral staircase to open up the space and increase light flow.

Another common modernization tactic in these old homes is the expanded trinity. In an expanded trinity a landing is created which allows for a door separating the second bedroom in addition to a second bathroom. The expanded trinity often occurs when a court of five or so homes is converted to three, for example. An additional expanded trinity method comes in the form of an addition to the rear of the house, creating extra living space on the first floor.

A trinity house can sometimes be spotted from the outside because its distinct height-to-depth ratio with three stories but no more than a room’s worth deep. These houses are almost always hidden along tiny alleyways between the city’s bigger streets, even smaller alleyways built off of other alley streets, and pedestrian courtyards that are carved out of the center of city blocks. The removal of these clusters from main thoroughfares is another reason the trinity lifestyle is appealing to some, namely those in search of a quieter abode while still sitting close to the action of the city.

Some examples of long standing trinity house courts are the famous Elfreth’s Alley in Old City and Bell’s Court in Society Hill. Yet, aside from these well known enclaves that boast the trinity home, these houses can still be found standing and serving in just about every neighborhood across Philadelphia.