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.


Reuniting with Philly in Washington Square

Longtime New York residents Richard and Anne recently moved to Philadelphia, where Richard obtained his undergraduate degree at Penn in the early 1970s. The move brought them closer to convenience, friends in Philadelphia, and the Penn State women’s volleyball team (more about that later), while keeping them within a stone’s throw of New York where they still work.

Anne and Richard knew wherever they moved would ultimately be where they retired. They considered several places in New England, where they had owned a house on the New Hampshire seacoast, but they learned from experience that it was a bit too isolated from their friends in New York.

New Hampshire was also a 12-hour drive to Penn State. Richard blogs about the Penn State women’s volleyball team, and his mother resides in the college town.

Richard and Anne realized they still wanted to live in a city. Once they decided on Philadelphia, Anne and Richard knew what they wanted. After building their New Hampshire vacation home, they knew they didn’t want to be responsible for home repairs, which meant a condo was the way to go. The couple had also become accustomed to apartment living in New York.

Deborah Solo helped Richard and Anne find the apartment-style living the sought
Deborah Solo helped Richard and Anne find the apartment-style living they sought


Next order of business was obtaining a realtor. A friend recommended Deborah Solo, and Anne and Richard were thrilled with the results!

“Deborah was fabulous in guiding us, giving us a sense of neighborhoods, and she shared her honest opinions which we really appreciated,” Anne recounts.

Funny enough, Richard had actually met Deborah at a party when he was a freshman at Penn. So his return to Philadelphia was a reunion in multiple ways!

From among the many Center City neighborhoods they explored, Richard and Anne chose a condo on Washington Square
From among the many Center City neighborhoods they explored, Richard and Anne chose a condo on Washington Square


As for location, they looked broadly from Rittenhouse to Washington Square to Old City. Richard and Anne were impressed with how many of the properties they’d walk past in various neighborhoods that Deborah had personal experience with, whether she had sold them, been the buyer’s agent, or managed them as a rental.

“We always want a broker who has a broad range of experience,” Richard explains. “It helps them be holistic and present the full range of options rather than sticking to their personal comfort zone.” Deborah certainly showcased such experience.

The condo they chose was in need of some repairs, mostly cosmetic, which Anne and Richard believe helped them get a good price, despite its prime location on Washington Square Park. After building an entire house in New Hampshire, these minor updates and fixes didn’t intimidate the couple. “We’ve found you can create value by having a vision.”

Anne and Richard removed a large wall unit from the living room, repainted and installed recessed lighting
Anne and Richard removed a large wall unit from the living room, repainted and installed recessed lighting


Once they found the condo, Solo made the closing process run smoothly. Deborah deftly handled an unexpected hindrance during the final walkthrough, and Solo’s attorney Angel Franqui reviewed all the condo documents with a fine-toothed comb.

master bedroom2
A red accent wall pops in the master bedroom


Two and a half months after closing, the condo was repainted and had new lighting, tubs, toilets, flooring, and soundproof inner windows, which could not be penetrated even by the sounds of a bagpipe being played outside on the day these photos were taken.

And what a difference those cosmetic updates made! The hardwood floors gleam against the abundant natural light that floods through the unit’s massive windows. Richard and Anne’s art collection also shines in the natural light, as well as after the sun sets, thanks to the tasteful lighting they installed.

Anne and Richard's art collection shines in their new condo
Anne and Richard’s art collection shines in their new condo


Double-height ceilings add a sense of spaciousness even to the smallest room. Anne and Richard’s elegant updates blend seamlessly with unique touches from the previous owner such doors with frosted glass panels, a modern kitchen, and a master bath to die for.

The guestroom and Richard's office features a large window flanked by built-in shelving
The guestroom and Richard’s office features a large window flanked by built-in shelving


While Richard and Anne prefer not to make New York vs. Philadelphia comparisons, their cat Willow is certainly enjoying the additional square footage that buying in Philadelphia provided.

Willow the cat loves her new digs!
Willow the cat shows off the sleek, spacious kitchen in her new digs

Blocks We Love: 900-931 Clinton Street

There’s a classic trade-off facing every city dweller: people love the energy of downtown life, but with that vibrancy comes noise, crowds and dirt. However, tucked away in Washington Square West there’s a block that achieves a remarkable balance between beauty, serenity and a busy central location.


The little urban oasis referred to above to is the 900-931 block of Clinton Street. Located between Spruce and Pine and Ninth and Tenth streets, this block’s collection of mostly federal style townhomes makes up one half of the nationally-registered Clinton Street Historic District. With quiet sidewalks shaded by mature trees and meticulously-preserved architecture, it’s hard not to get lost in the peaceful splendor of the 900-931 block of Clinton Street.


The block’s historical and architectural legacy keeps this community particularly tranquil. Its brick townhouses were constructed mostly between 1835 and 1850, when Philadelphia’s early industrial economy boomed and the rich built homes in the newly affluent areas west of Seventh Street. The original builders also kept the block wider than most side streets, giving residents room to breathe and reducing noise and traffic.


Indeed, a visit to the 900-931 block can feel like a step back into a different era. Several of the street’s homes sport early American flags, and still more feature the navy, maroon and dark green shutters typical of Philadelphia’s federal architecture. In addition, the eastern end of the block sports a fine view of Pennsylvania Hospital (pictured above) whose brick front, marble columns and green and white cupola speaks to our city’s long relationship with medicine, as important today as it was when this block was first built.


Beautiful period details (left) compliment the well-preserved 19th century townhomes and picture-perfect apartments that line the 900-931 block of Clinton Street (right).


Perhaps what’s most amazing about this little community though isn’t just its well-preserved architecture (we’ve got plenty of that in this city), but also the street’s peace and quiet amidst all the energy of Center City. Located just steps from the boutiques of Antiques Row, the bars and restaurants of Washington Square West and Jefferson University’s bustling hospital complex, you might expect the 900-931 block to be a busy, concrete side street – but you’d be wrong. Often, all you can hear is the rustling of the elm trees.


And while not as pin-drop quiet as a suburban cul-de-sac, the sense of tranquility in this little urban community may surprise even the staunchest skeptic. And that little secret, along with the block’s beauty and history, is something we’re happy to share with the world.

Solo Real Estate’s New Video Platform

At Solo, we recognize how important good online research has become to conducting a successful house hunt. With that in mind, we’re excited to announce a new initiative at Solorealty.com, where select online property listings will now feature original videos giving you unparalleled access to the great homes that we represent.


The video below is an example of our new tour series – it explores 1109 Spruce Street, a beautiful Washington Square-area apartment. We hope that with videos like these, our clients will be able to truly experience the ins and outs of Solo’s variety of properties, in turn using these videos as a resource to make the right real estate decision. (For access to rental listings with videos, click here.)


It is my pleasure then to invite you to watch the following clip and share in an exciting new facet of what Solo Realty has to offer! — Deborah Solo