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.

Solo Listing Featured in Philadelphia Magazine

Solo Real Estate’s listing for a trinity house 228 Catherine Street, #3 was featured in Philadelphia Magazine’s “Trinity Tuesday” series!

As the article puts it,

“A large part of the appeal of trinity houses is the character of the house. They’re often on tiny side streets, and the fact that they’re so small and so old adds an inherent vibe to them that you’re just not going to find elsewhere. This week’s Trinity Tuesday house has just that vibe.”

Read the full article here.

New Digs: DIY Dreams Come True in South Philly

Unlike many buyers, Caitlin Perkins was not looking for as much square footage as her budget could buy. Nor was she looking for recently rehabbed. Caitlin was looking for a house as small as possible with a sound structure, in South Philadelphia, to be her canvas. Solo found her just the place.


As a mixed-media artist, print maker, and painter, she knew she could peel back wallpaper, pull up carpet, and build furniture. Aside from structural integrity (and a basement), her priorities were size and location—and not in the typical sense.


As for size, Caitlin was inspired by the sustainability of the Tiny House Movement and originally sought to purchase a genuine “tiny house” on wheels (usually around 170-300 square feet), and a vacant lot to park it on. However, no bank would give her a mortgage for a house with wheels or vacant land.


Then a colleague pointed out that many houses in South Philadelphia fall within the tiny house criteria of 172-875 square feet. Added bonus for Caitlin was the fact that her employer, Fleisher Art Memorial, participates in Philadelphia Home-Buy-Now, an employer down payment matching program providing assistance for employees purchasing homes, typically near the workplace—in this case, zip codes 19147 and 19148.


The tiny house (left) and Caitlin, the tiny house owner and visionary (right)


With her budget and specifications in place, she needed a realtor to help her find and buy her future canvas. Caitlin reached out to several agencies to set up introductory interviews. “Deborah Solo was the only agent who took time to meet with me in person,” she recalls. “Everyone else was too busy to bother and just sent me a brief email back.” Deborah, on the other hand, thoughtfully walked her through the home buying process before Caitlin had even committed to being her client. Caitlin was sold.


Deborah was able to quickly identify properties that met Caitlin’s criteria and budget. Within a few showings, they found the perfect property in the Whitman section of South Philadelphia, and immediately put in an offer. Two other developers also put offers on the house. Deborah encouraged Caitlin to write a personal letter to the owners in addition to going in at the full asking price that the developers were offering. The letter worked, and the seller selected Caitlin’s offer!


Did we mention that the house, weighing in at 728 square feet, had drop ceilings, wood paneling, velvet wallpaper, and 30-plus year old carpet? In other words, in Caitlin’s eyes, “I knew this was the perfect house.” On March 1st, a week after closing, she began peeling back the layers on the walls, floors, and ceilings in the house to get down to the original structure, with the help of her friend and handyman Tom Karu. Caitlin began adding her custom, creative finishes from there.


The dining room before (left) and after (right). Caitlin cleverly painted the wood panelling and installed new pine flooring to bring this room into the 21st century


By the time the photographs were taken for this article in mid-May, Caitlin had made an astonishing amount of progress. Exceptionally astonishing considering she did all the work on the property while working her full-time job. “I find it energizing,” she explains.


Only an energized individual could remove five layers of flooring from the living room, layers of wall paper from each wall, lift drop ceilings, build custom kitchen shelving and countertops, patch plaster walls and use the historically accurate technique of lime washing.


Caitlin built this sideboard (left) out of a wall cabinet from the kitchen, and crafted a bedroom closet (right) with three folding chairs


Out of these and many more accomplishments, the only thing that temporarily thwarted Caitlin was the staircase. “It almost broke me,” she recounts, “it had carpet, then linoleum, then several layers of paint and adhesive…it took forever.” The results of her hard work? A house that is a Pinterest DIY dreamscape, and a homeowner who lost four sizes in the process!


The stunning kitchen counter, custom-made with metal pipes, butcher block, and a repurposed cabinet


Not only has the house itself been a canvas, Caitlin also plans to use much of the space in the house to create art in. The front room will be primarily a painting studio, the basement a printmaking studio, and the second bedroom is her writing room.


The living room, desperately in need of an update before (left), elegant modern painting studio after (right)


We may have to make a second visit to Caitlin in a few months, at the rate she’s enhancing the property, it has many more dramatic transformations to come! She has already decided that creating a water-saving washing sink in the bathroom will be her next project.

Tiny Houses: Less is More

While most households yearn for that extra bedroom, a laundry room, or space for a home office, some homebuyers are actually seeking less square footage.


Philadelphia actually has a long-standing tradition of tiny houses: small rowhomes originally built for factory workers that now have a whole new appeal.


Smaller homes have become an attractive and realistic option particularly for first-time homeowners, seniors looking to downsize and eco-conscious buyers.


The energy efficient size of a tiny home reduces cost of living while also forcing homeowners to simplify their lives by streamlining their possessions.


Known officially as the Tiny House Movement, an increasing number of homeowners are opting for said small abodes, the qualifying square footage of which is 172 to 875 square feet(unofficially).


A redwood and cedar tiny house in the woods

Subscribers to the movement can attend workshops to learn how to build their own little lodgings, purchase a pre-made portable pad for as little as $57,000, or buy from existing housing stock that pre-dates the movement but meets the qualifications.


As for the latter, Philadelphia has an impressive stock of tiny houses that were built long before small was cool.


Many neighborhoods in Philadelphia that have high prices per square foot boast a number of these small-bordering-on-tiny houses.


If potential buyers are willing to opt for less square footage and embrace the tiny house ethos, they can afford neighborhoods they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.


What’s more, the trendiest neighborhoods in Philadelphia also have excellent access to public transportation, further decreasing the cost of living.


In fact, the Federal Office of Housing and Urban Development now officially accounts for transportation costs in their housing affordability index, renamed the Location Affordability Index.


2423 South Juniper Street is a perfect example of a small, affordable house in an up-and-coming area


A perfect example of finding affordability at the nexus of less square footage and proximity to public transit is this charming 940 square foot property at 2423 South Juniper Street. In the Lower Moyamensing neighborhood, it is mere blocks from the Broad Street line and the ever-increasing Passyunk Avenue food, drink, and entertainment attractions.

Every inch is maximized in the space-efficient kitchen (top) and second bedroom (bottom) of 2423 South Juniper Street


While it’s just over the 875 square foot cut-off for tiny houses, we doubt anyone will complain about the extra 65 square feet. It’s what allowed the current owners to squeeze in an office, after all!


Opening image: cropped version of “Tiny House Giant Journey in the Petrified Forest and an RV” by Guillaume Dutilh – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tiny_House_Giant_Journey_in_the_Petrified_Forest_and_an_RV.jpg#/                media/File:Tiny_House_Giant_Journey_in_the_Petrified_Forest_and_an_RV.jpg

Tiny house in woods: “The Shed” by Benjamin Chun – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr –                                                                    https://www.flickr.com/photos/benchun/3625699371/