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The Secret Life of Buildings: Beaux-Arts Architecture

Philadelphians often refer to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as being our very own “Champs-Elysees.” They are not mistaken. The Beaux-Arts style of this grand boulevard was borrowed directly from Baron Haussmann’s 19th-century urban renewal of Paris.  We invite you to go back in time, to understand how the Beaux-Arts movement came to become part of Philadelphia’s architectural heritage. 

History

Beaux-Arts architecture gets its name from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the premier French school of architecture that flourished from 1885 to 1930. When American architects traveled to Europe, they were astounded by how Paris had changed from a dark warren of narrow streets to grand boulevards filled with gleaming monuments, museums, and libraries in the Greek and Roman decorative style. If the French can do it, they thought, why can’t we?

The Beaux-Arts style combines grand and imposing size with Italian Renaissance and classical Greek and Roman decorative elements like columns, pediments, and balustrades. Exterior decorative details may include arched windows, balconies, and terraces, as well as ornamental windows and grand entrances. 

One of the most distinctive features borrowed from ancient Rome was coffered ceilings, consisting of a series of rectangular, square, or octagon grids in three-dimension sunken or recessed panels. 

Philadelphia’s Beaux-Arts Buildings

Take a walk back in time by visiting the City’s Beaux-Arts treasures, starting with two buildings created in 1871 as part of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. They include Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum), originally built as the City’s art gallery in Fairmont Park prior to the creation of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) at Broad and Cherry streets, designed by Philadelphia’s renowned architect Frank Furness.

Below we’ll go over a few more examples of buildings with Beaux-Arts architectural details in our vibrant city.

The Bourse

The Philadelphia Bourse, designed by GW & WD Hewitt in the Beaux-Arts style, modeled after the Bourse in Hamburg, Germany, was built from 1893 to 1895.  Originally designed as a commodities exchange, it is now a food court across from Independence Hall Park.

The Philadelphia Bourse building

The Union League

The Union League was originally built in 1865 in what’s called Second Empire-style and didn’t have any Beaux-Arts elements until it was renovated in 1910. The building’s Beaux-Arts style additions, which face 15th Street, were designed by Horace Trumbauerer

The Curtis Building

The Curtis Building (now the Curtis Center), on the northwest corner of 6th & Walnut is a must-see, inside and out. Designed by architect Edgar V. Seeler in 1911, the building’s lobby contains The Dream Garden, a breathtaking mosaic mural by Louis C. Tiffany based on an original painting by Maxfield Parrish.  If you go, make sure to visit the Curtis Center’s historic atrium, a vast, marbled-floored hall topped with a steel and glass roof, now used for weddings and special events.

SONY DSC

Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central

The Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Branch was designed by Julian Francis Abele, the first black architect to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. He worked with Horace Trumbauer on the Union League and Philadelphia Museum of Art. The construction which started in 1917 was held up for ten years do the start of the First World War.

Next to the Free Library is another Beaux-Arts gem, the Family Court Building built between 1938 and 1941. Designed by famed architect John T. Windrim and his colleague William Richard Morton Keast, the building tips its hat to Paris with its resemblance to the Hôtel de Crillon and the French Naval Ministry on Paris’ Place de la Concorde. This allows architecturally astute Philadelphians strolling in Paris to exclaim,” This looks just like Philly!”

Beaux-Arts in Residential Homes

While the Beaux-Arts style was predominantly used in public buildings due to the high cost, affluent Americans were still eager to erect impressive mansions to showcase wealth. In Rittenhouse Square, you can find three local examples of private mansions built in the Beaux-Arts style. 

The first is the Alexander Van Rensselaer residence (now an Anthropologie) on the northwest corner of 18th and Walnut by Rittenhouse Square Park. Step inside the store to check out the opulent interior details of the former mansion which later served as Penn Athletic Club’s clubhouse. Inside a sweeping spiral staircase leads shoppers through four floors of merchandise and displays. When you visit, be sure to look up! The most notable original detail of the interior is an impressive stained glass dome with painted portraits of Italian princes.

Just one block away is the former Drexel Residence (now the Curtis Institute) on the southeast corner of 18th and Locust, and the Samuel P. Wetherill Mansion (now the Uarts/Art Alliance) at 251 S. 18th St. Both are stunning examples of Beaux-Arts classicism and elegance.

You can visit and appreciate many of these buildings by taking an afternoon stroll and walking through Center City. If you’d like a guided architectural walking tour, consider contacting the Preservation Alliance.

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we cover the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s storied buildings. We’ve written about row house stylescourtyardsand star bolts, 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: The Philadelphia Trinity House

One of Philadelphia’s most unique architectural features are its trinity houses located on charming alleys and picturesque side streets. How did they get here? And why are these tiny homes so coveted? We took a deep dive into our City’s history to find out.

Origins

Trinity homes started as affordable housing for the working class in the 1680s. The oldest surviving and most famous trinity houses are on Elfreth’s Alley in Old City, a National Historic Landmark located between North Second St. and North Front St. Built 1703-1836 to house tradesmen and artisans, these small brick structures were built in the Georgian and Federal-style along a cobblestone street. 

The name trinity or “bandbox” refers to the three-story structure which features only one room on each floor, connected by a narrow spiral staircase. They are also called “father-son-holy ghost” houses. They clock in at around 500-1,000 square feet so 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.

Narrow staircase at the Betsy Ross House

As the City grew during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, trinity houses also sprung up on alleys and side streets to house workers who worked along the main thoroughfares. They were often built on courts behind larger properties or in alleys that divided larger blocks. No larger than sixteen feet on any side, rising two or three stories, the bathrooms were originally built in courtyards behind the homes. Kitchens were usually below street level.

A charming cobblestone street in Philadelphia

In 1893, Philadelphia promoters constructed a trinity house described as a “model Philadelphia house” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The cost for such a building was approximately $2,500. Today, renovated 18th-century trinities can be priced as high as $750K. 

20th Century

In the early 20th century, the Great Depression hit Philadelphia exceptionally hard. The city had formerly been the financial capital of the country; that all ended, and the banking industry moved to New York.

After World War II, the city began its decades-long decline, losing people to the suburbs and to other cities. Unemployment skyrocketed, and for the first time, the population began to drop. During this time, trinity houses fell into disrepair and these historic little streets fell out of favor.

Trinity Renaissance 

In the late 20th century, Philly experienced an economic boost and one-hundred-year-old trinity homes became “collectible.” With fresh coats of paint on doors and shutters, re-pointed brick, and window boxes blooming with flowers, they were snapped up by young professionals and connoisseurs of history. These new residents were happy to renovate and expand these tiny houses, adding roof decks, hardwood floors, modern bathrooms, and restoring working fireplaces. 

rowhome windows and planter

While the trinity home was originally born out of a necessity for quick, efficient, and affordable housing that builders could squeeze into minuscule 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.

312 kauffman, a traditional trinity home sold by Solo Real Estate
312 Kauffman, a traditional trinity home previously sold by Solo Real Estate

A trinity house can sometimes be spotted from the outside because of 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.

Over time, neighborhood associations have banded together to keep these historic, charming streets clean and safe from demolition. Examples of long-standing trinity house courts are the famous Elfreth’s Alley in Old City and Bell’s Court in Society Hill. The appeal of the trinity has survived the test of time and these houses can still be found standing and serving in just about every neighborhood across Philadelphia.

Our Favorite Blocks With Trinity Homes

  • Located near Jefferson Hospital, between Locust and Spruce Streets, Quince Street is a tiny block of historic trinity homes with potted planters, colorful shutters, and tall trees lining the street. 
  • 700 block Bradford Alley is tucked between Lombard and Rodman Streets in Washington Square West. 
  • 2600 block Panama St, just off the Schuylkill River in Fitler Square. While it is beautiful year round, be sure to walk along it in the fall, when the Gingko trees are in peak yellow form. 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we cover the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s storied buildings. We’ve written about row house stylescourtyardsand star bolts, 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: Mid Century Modern Philadelphia

The Philadelphia skyline changed dramatically from 1940 to 1970, creating over 400 significant mid century modern buildings. Designed by the great architects of their day, these bold buildings reflected a dynamic change in the way we live. Here is a guide to some of our City’s best surviving examples of mid century modern design.

Woolworth, 1948

Woolworth Building. Image: Free Library Picture Collection
Woolworth Building at 1330 Chesnut Street in 1949.
Image: Free Library Picture Collection

When this store opened at 1330 Chestnut, it was the largest Woolworth’s in the nation and marked a radical change in Philly architecture. Its sleek, modern design contrasted with the rococo architecture on the corner of Chestnut and Sansom, as well as the late 19th century Wanamaker Building across the street. Today, it is the home of West Elm, Lucky Strike Bowling, and Blick’s.

Penn Center, 1953

The centrally located complex of office towers and retail space, between 15th and 19th Streets on Market Street, is credited with bringing Philadelphia into the era of modernity. To create it, a ten-block, red stone wall viaduct known as the “Chinese Wall” had to come down. Ed Bacon, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, came up with a master plan for the area to be cleared. 

Penn Center. Image: Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

The original plan called for just three hi-rise towers. Now there are eleven. The first to be completed was 3 Penn Center, 1515 Market, designed by Vincent Kling. Five more towers were completed by 1970. Today, the tallest tower is 9 Penn Center with 54 floors, completed in 1990.

Beth Sholom Synagogue, 1959

This Elkins Park synagogue located on Old York Road (Route 611) was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commissions at the age of 85. It was completed five months after Wright’s death and one month before the dedication of one of his most iconic buildings, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Beth Sholom. Image: Library of Congress
Beth Sholom’s metal roof and sloped glass mid century modern features. Image: Library of Congress

Designed to emulate Mt. Sinai, the building has a steeped, sloped glass and a metal roof which allows light to radiate into the sanctuary. Added to the National Register in 2007, tours are available upon request.

Richard’s Medical Research Labs, 1960

Louis Kahn designed this building at 3700 Hamilton Walk on Penn’s campus when he was a professor in the University’s Architecture School. Now considered a National Historic Landmark, at the time it was completed it was criticized by the scientists who worked there and praised by architects.  

Richard’s Medical Research Labs. Image: UPenn.edu
Richard’s Medical Research Labs. Image: UPenn.edu

In this innovative design, Kahn returned to the formal complications lost in International Modernism, reviving the richness which had been so much a part of the tradition of Philadelphia architecture. This is one of the most important buildings on the Penn campus, by one of the most important architects of the modern era. 

Love Park Welcome Center, 1960

Roy Larson of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson designed the iconic mid-century “Flintstones” era flying saucer in Love Park as a futuristic celebration of postwar Philadelphia optimism. 

LOVE Park Welcome Center. Image: Fairmount Park Conservancy
LOVE Park Welcome Center is an example of mid century modern architecture in Center City. Image: Fairmount Park Conservancy

When the Visitors’ Center relocated to Independence Mall in 2016, the saucer was saved from demolition. It is scheduled to reopen as a restaurant with 360-degree views. 

Police Administration Building, 1963 

"The Roundhouse". Image: Temple University Library, Special Collections
“The Roundhouse”. Image: Temple University Library, Special Collections

Is it a coincidence that a Brutalist building was created to house Philly’s finest? Known as the Roundhouse, it was designed by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls, and Cunningham and was considered groundbreaking because it was built using an innovative system of pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete. Located at 750 Race Street, the future of the building is unclear as plans to relocate the Police Administration to the former Inquirer Building on N. Broad Street have been delayed.

Society Hill Towers, 1964

When ground was broken for Society Hill Towers at 220 Locust, Philadelphians were puzzled. Who would want to live in what had long been a forsaken area before the advent of Penn’s Landing? The answer was “everyone.”

Society Hill Towers

The three 31-floor residential towers were part of an urban renewal effort by Edmund Bacon who had already launched Penn Center. Designed by I.M. Pei, the towers, with their exposed concrete facade and floor-to-ceiling windows became an instant success and helped turn Society Hill into a dining mecca.

At the base of the towers sits a townhouse development, which was also designed by I.M. Pei. A sharp contrast to the mid century architecture of the towers, the exterior of the Pei-designed modernist townhouses feature Flemish bond brick and arched doors. If you’re interested in learning more about these, there’s a great Curbed article about a beautifully-renovated private residence in one of the townhouses.

Romm & Haas, 1964

Designed by Pietro Belluschi, this nine-story building at 100 S. Independence Mall West marked the start of the renewal of the Independence Hall area. Serving as the headquarters of Rohm and Hass, a chemical engineering company, it was innovative for its use of Plexiglas, corrugated sunscreens, and modern interiors. 

Romm & Haas Corporate Headquarters. Image: Wikipedia.org
Romm & Haas Corporate Headquarters. Image: Wikipedia.org

Today, it is considered one of the best examples of International Style. It contains a landscaped plaza that cuts through the middle of the ground level of the building and opens up to a larger plaza with a fountain and small pool.

Our architectural heritage

Many of the design elements of mid century modern architecture continue to resonate in contemporary commercial and residential properties. Even in Philly’s newest buildings, you will find modernist concepts that were first introduced over 75 years ago. That is the pleasure of living in a city that embraces the past and the future!

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we cover the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s storied buildings. We’ve written about art deco buildings, repurpoused banksrow house stylesand star bolts, 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: Philadelphia Alleys

Philadelphia’s alleys have a rich history that contributes to the charm of Philadelphia with their cobblestone, tree-lined streets, and architecture. From tiny streets allowing passage between houses to service roads and residential courts tucked away between larger streets, Philadelphia’s alleys are part of the fabric of the city and hidden gems worth exploring. 

Origins of Alleys

The original function of these tiny streets was to hide the less attractive functions of urban life, including service and servant entrances, horse stables, carriage houses, and trash disposal. This hints at why “backdoor” alleys were synonymous with brothels in the mid-19th century.

An 1849 pamphlet, “Guide to Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love,” lists an abundance of brothels located in alleys, including seven on what is now Darien Street, an alley between 8th and 9th Street. Their proximity to the Walnut Theater was intentional. At the time, the theaters permitted “ladies of the night” to display their wares on the balcony.

Beautiful Alleys

Take a leisurely walk through Center City, and you’ll likely stumble across one of the city’s many alleys. Philly’s abundance of lovely residential alleys is overwhelming: Panama, Iseminger, Latimer, Addison, Van Pelt, etc. We have selected just a few “must-see” alleys to introduce you to their historic relevance and beauty. 

Photo: Elfreth’s Alley

Elfreth’s Alley

The nation’s oldest continually inhabited street, Elfreth’s Alley in Old City was created in 1702 as a cart-lane, to move goods from the Delaware River docks to Second Street. The Georgian and Federal-style houses on this National Historic Landmark were built between 1703 and 1836.  They are a rare surviving example of 18th century working-class housing.

By the early 20th century, Elfreth’s Alley was deteriorating. The founding of the Elfreth’s Alley Association(EAA) in 1934 saved the street from demolition. As a result of their efforts in the 1960s, brightly colored shutters, freshly painted houses, flowering window boxes and flags recast the Elfreth’s Alley in a brighter light. Now in its 300th year, the Alley features a museum dedicated to its history. 

Camac Street

This 300 South block of Camac Street, now protected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, did not always have a genteel reputation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the block was home to brothels and taverns. In preparation for the Sesquicentennial, it was given a makeover, adding Colonial-era lampposts and hitching posts, improving sidewalks and painting houses. 

By 1915, the houses of debauchery were replaced by discrete ladies and gentlemen’s clubs, including the Plastic Club, Poor Richard Club, the Sketch Club and the Franklin Inn Club. It now also is the home of Tavern on Camac, a popular gay piano bar and restaurant.

Photo: The Franklin Inn Club

The Venture Inn, at 255 S. Camac, which closed in 2016, was originally a stable built in the 1830s and served as a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1919, the former stable became a tea room and, in 1931, it turned into a restaurant. During Prohibition, the Inn served as a speakeasy as did a restaurant at 243 S. Camac named Maxine’s.  In the 1970s, both Maxine’s and the Inn became gay bars making the 300 South block of Camac the hub of the Gayborhood.

Quince Street

Running between Spruce and Pine, and between 11th & 12th,  the 300 South block of Quince Street is a tiny alley of historic homes and tall trees, creating an escape from the bustle of Center City traffic.

It is the home of the Mask and Wig Club, the oldest all-male collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the United States founded in 1889. This University of Pennsylvania eating and drinking clubhouse traces its history back to the early 1800s, during which time it served as a church, a stable and carriage house, and – drum roll please – the dissecting rooms for the nearby Jefferson Medical College.

The Clubhouse is home to a collection of early Maxfield Parrish artwork and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If you smell an enticing aroma on Quince Street, follow your nose to Effie’s Restaurant, a Greek taverna with garden dining, located on the corner of Quince and Pine.

Smedley Street

If you have ever walked along the 300 S. Block of Smedley Street, between Spruce and Pine, and 15thand 16th, you may have walked past history without knowing it. The beautiful Georgian-style, red brick house at 333 S. Smedley was not always a private residence.  

Built in 1800, for over fifty years, from the 1940s to the mid-1990s, it was known as the Three Threes, an elegant northern Italian restaurant popular with theater and concertgoers. During Prohibition, it was a speakeasy that made gin in a claw-footed Victorian bathtub. After the restaurant closed in 1994, the property was fully restored as a private residence and featured on a 2017 episode of the HBO series “If These Walls Could Talk.”

Photo: Cory J Popp

Walking Tours

Interested in an architectural perspective of Philly’s alleys?  The Preservation Alliance offers walking tours of The Littlest Streets East of Broad and The Littlest Streets of Fitler Square.

We invite you to discover the big allure of our City’s smallest streets! If you’re interested in buying a historic home nestled in one of the city’s beautiful tree-lined residential alleys or just want to share your favorite alley with us, drop us a line at info@solorealty.com

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 styles, common Philadelphia brick styles, trinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. 


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!

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.