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.


Solo Listing Featured in The New York Times

We are thrilled that a current Solo listings has been features in a New York Times piece on what $1.2 million can buy in three different metropolitan areas in the U.S. Read on to see how Philadelphia and our listing stacked up against two other cities. We think the city and the property both shine!


In the article, Solo’s listing for 309 Spruce Street in Society Hill is showcased alongside a downtown loft in Kansas City, MO and a modern rancher in Los Angeles.


The New York Times highlights the properties many lovely features, including its original wide-plank pine floors and marble mantels, updated kitchen, and the fact that it is on the end of a row, meaning more windows and natural light.


Speaking of natural light, the photographer also beautifully captured the glass conservatory off the living room, a stunning and unique asset.


The facade of Solo’s listing at 309 Spruce Street (left), and living room (right) with original mantel and pine floors

As for the other properties, the L.A. contemporary boasts a swimming pool, and a sleek modern look with polished concrete floors. The Kansas City apartment has a skylight to die for and skyline views.


But if you look beyond the listings to the neighborhood context, 309 Spruce Street’s location in the heart of Society Hill puts it smack dab in the middle of one of the most historic neighborhoods in America, as well as mere blocks from public transit, shops, and restaurants galore.


Not that it’s a competition, but if it was, we think 309 Spruce Street wins!

Blocks We Love: 400-500 Locust Street

t’s a safe bet that most Philadelphians are ready for spring after this historic winter. And as we rediscover the outdoors, one block tucked away in Society Hill will offer one of the most impressive floral displays in the city.


While the tourists may flock to Society Hill for its history and architecture, locals love this area for another less well-known reason: the neighborhood’s collection of pocket parks. In spring, these small green spaces help bring many of the neighborhood’s blocks back to life.


The Magnolia Garden, located on the 400 block of Locust Street, may be the best example of this small transformative space. The Garden, owned and managed by the National Park Service, was created in 1959 in honor of President Washington, who was known for his fondness for this flowering tree.


The space’s thirteen magnolias represent the thirteen original colonies of the United States. Each spring this bakers’ dozen of mature trees flower at once, spilling their pink and white petals out onto the street. The effect is nothing short of magical.


The 400 block of Locust Street's quaint colonial homes (right) and blossoming trees are surprisingly tucked beneath the high-rise offices (left) of Independence Mall.
The 400 block of Locust Street’s quaint colonial homes (right) and blossoming trees are surprisingly tucked beneath the high-rise offices (left) of Independence Mall.


And yet while few displays exist like this in Philadelphia’s urban core, this parklet is a bit of a secret. Locust Street essentially falls off the grid east of Washington Square, with just this section between 4th and 5th tucked between apartment complexes and high-rise office towers. Road and foot traffic here then are minimal, making the 400 block a surprisingly serene and uncrowded place to experience the bright colors of spring.


Although the street has just a few homes, the 400 block of Locust Street’s extravagant display is certainly one of the many great perks that life in Society Hill offers all year round.