Yo! Consider the rowhouse

South Philadelphia photo courtesy of Brad Maule, check out his complete portfolio at www.phillyskyline.com/lovecopter

Dec. 12

By Ariel Ben-Amos
For PlanPhilly

Few icons represent Philadelphia more viscerally than the South Philadelphia rowhouse. When Philadelphians think of Rocky, they recall him just as vividly running up the art museum steps as running past the rowhomes of Fishtown and Kensington.

There are those who argue that the red brick rowhome, originally built to house industrial Philadelphia’s burgeoning population of the late 19th century, is exactly the housing stock which best positions Philadelphia for a move toward a greener 21st century.

Traditional rowhouses are notably energy efficient and are emblematic of dense, transit-supportive development – two of the most critical components of sustainable development.

They represent some of the most innovative and “greenest” new buildings in the city. Local developer Onion Flats’ “green” rowhomes in Northern Liberties are celebrated by Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Architecture Critic, as “danc[ing] with the exuberant boogie-woogie rhythms of a Mondrian painting.” However, while the rowhome may be deserving of our city’s love and pride, there are a variety of issues impacting their preservation and future development that should not be ignored.

Rowhomes date back to Colonial times; their shared walls helped make cheap and energy-efficient homes that housed Philadelphia’s early inhabitants.  Rowhouses are not limited to the small red-brick homes in South Philly, built for the army of workers who helped make Philadelphia the “workshop of the world” in the mid-to-late-19th century.  Rowhouses of other shapes and sizes can be found in the Northeast to Mt. Airy to Center City.

An aerial flyover of the city shows the universal scope of this design in stark detail – from a few thousand feet the row homes line up and look like so many uniform cords of firewood.

In some neighborhoods they are fronted by small marble stoops, while in others they are decked with deep wooden porches.  Moreover, according to David Brownlee, the Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, they housed even the city’s richest members of society – from the Cassats (of the Pennsylvania Railroad)  to the Wanamakers (of, well, Wanamaker’s).  They are clearly loved even today. When the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission partnered to create the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide, over 5,000 people downloaded the manual from the Commission’s website and another 5,000 print copies were distributed.  

The Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual is a practical guide for rowhome owners that details strategies and solutions for dealing with the common rowhome homeowner issues. These issues range from how to preserve the exterior walls (don’t paint the brick!) to how to reconfigure the floor plan.  In other words, the manual shows Philadelphians how to bring their 19th century homes up to date for the 21st century.  Laura Spina of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission notes that rowhomes are a “very good and adaptable housing form … they are extremely efficient, especially energy wise … [which is] because you share walls with other houses.”   A rowhome can, according to Spina, be configured for “any number of floor plans” from formal to open formats. “[M]any row houses have garages, many have porches… and you can change the floor plan in any number of ways.”

The question of identity
Some architectural historians feel the rowhouse design fights against modern updating.   Dr. George E. Thomas an expert on 19th century Philadelphia architecture argues that rowhomes, particularly the traditional South Philadelphia rowhome, “resist change, they are spatially absolute.”  Thomas argues that only rowhomes over 18-feet in width – like those found in West Philadelphia – are more adaptable to modern configurations.  For Thomas, the real problem is “that row houses don’t fit the way we want to live … We like to live in the modern world expansively … and come encumbered with cars …”  Perhaps the biggest problem, according to Thomas has more to do with “the rowhouse [which] in its uniformity resists [the individual’s expression of identity] … people want their houses to communicate… in the modern world the row house gives you the identity of the worker ant.”

There are, of course, those who disagree with Thomas’s assertion.  Dr. John Landis, the Crossways Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that people buy homes for a variety of reasons, and that identity can be expressed through housing in a variety of ways.  Rowhomes gives neighborhoods their character, something which he notes, holds plenty of meaning for a lot to people. “[T]o the extent that houses have meaning for their residents … we [value] authenticity,” he explained.  Moreover, Brownlee suggests that the diversity of architectural styles in Philadelphia’s rowhomes provide more than one message or identity. That is, not all were built for the 19th century industrial worker.  Brownlee notes that “you have long rows of developer-built rowhouses, but those rows are not all the same developer, and corner properties are frequently developed individually.”

However it is not simply the relationship between homeowners and their search for identity in their home that makes the adaptation of the rowhome to 21st century problematic.  As both critics and advocates of the rowhouse note, the rowhome, except for some of its later 20th century iterations, does not accommodate cars well, and even many of those with built-in garages, such as the airlites in the Northeast, have had their garages converted to living rooms or storage areas.  Thomas notes that “the space out front of these old traditional rowhomes [is] not big enough for a car.” Landis notes that “the problem is very simple “what happens when you have to add a garage” where does the garage go?  As soon as you put in a garage you destroy the street …”

Solutions to this conundrum have their own problems: Garages in the back alley destroy space for a yard. Garages fronting the street break up the curb. Any solution inevitably hurts the very density which is one of the prime attributes of rowhome development. 

Is density the answer?

However, some practitioners are not disturbed by this fact.  Beverly Coleman, Executive Director of NeighborhoodsNow, a non-profit working to improve the city’s neighborhoods, notes that transportation costs can account for more than a third of a household’s expenditures.  She suggests that the densities of rowhomes will prove supportive of transit service. “in the future I expect we will live more like Europeans … We can’t sustain [auto-oriented] sprawl … people are going to work closer to where they live and we will be more concerned about our carbon footprint.”

Urban planners are typically proponents of density – supporting the critical mass of residents to sustain shopping and mass transit. However, Thomas recalled that the popular Trader Joe’s operation did not open up downtown until after the arrival of a substantial condo market.  He notes that “it turns out that row houses don’t have the density of a real urban place” and that traditional amenities from supermarkets to dry cleaners cannot be supported by the density of rowhomes alone; a density which only supports as Brownlee calls it “a pizza shop on the corner.” However, Landis argues that “the rowhome is a nice intermediary between “high density apartments and single family [homes]” he argues that “you don’t have to have every little boutique on your street” and suggests that the way New York City is laid out, with “the houses on the streets, and the retail on the avenues” can provide all the necessary amenities for residential living.  Ultimately, it is important to realize that the rowhome is only one of many housing options necessary for a city to support different types of thriving districts.

While it is all well and good to talk about rowhomes in the abstract, in Philadelphia, the home of the rowhome there are a variety of very concrete issues facing their preservation. As Al Heavans wrote in a Philadelphia Inquirer article on February 11th 2007 “About 15 years ago, the city Department of Licenses and Inspections reckoned that there were 28,000 abandoned buildings in Philadelphia – mostly rowhouses.”  This is partly a function of how many rowhomes there are in the city (over 330,000 of them according to Laura Spina).  Rowhomes require special attention, not just from the homeowner, but from the residents of the entire block.  Though sharing walls enables neighbors to conserve energy, it also means that neighbors rely more on each other to maintain their houses. 

Keeping up appearances
While in some neighborhoods the disrepair of a house may simply signal a lack of investment, in rowhome communities such disinvestment actually threatens the structural integrity of adjoining houses.  As Spina puts it “the stability of your house relies on the maintenance and upkeep of your neighbors.”

In some areas this may not be a problem, but in poorer neighborhoods, with high vacancy, the proliferation of abandoned rowhomes presents a serious problem.  Turning these old rowhomes into new market-rate or affordable housing becomes particularly expensive when it entails repairing ancient utility systems or structural damage.  As one community development practitioner notes,  “when you get into some of these houses that you think you can tackle for $20,000 … forget about even adding a bathroom, just to get the wiring up to the code … you now are into $100,000.”  These homes also present a problem for developers who hope to build large projects at a scale far denser than a rowhome.  As Thomas notes “when it comes to assembling property for doing something new, you end up dealing with [so many owners] that private projects are stopped.”

Others are more optimistic. Brownlee suggests that these disinvested neighborhoods are “the territory of the rowhouse of the 21st century…” If Philadelphia re-urbanizes it will “be on that land and it will be some kind of a rowhouse.”



Ariel Ben-Amos is an MCP/MGA candidate
in the University of Pennsylvania’s
School of Design & Fels School of Government.

Contact him at arielba@design.upenn.edu

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