Look Up! Row houses to retail row

“Look Up” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. Each week, the photo essay will focus on a different Philadelphia area neighborhood and its distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.

For the 21st-century holiday season, the 700 blocks of Walnut and Sansom Streets dress up in wreaths, greens and LED lights and welcome shoppers to one of the city’s distinctive retail districts.

But at the turn of the 18th century, the city’s first complete, speculative row house projects were built on these blocks. Developer William Sansom hired Benjamin Latrobe, one of the first designers of Greek Revival as well as Gothic architecture in America, to erect a line of 22 rental row homes on the 700 block of Walnut in 1799.

Sansom employed Thomas Carstairs to build a row of 20 houses on the south side of Sansom Street a few years later. Sansom paved the street at his own expense to draw tenants to what was then the outskirts of town.

The two blocks were distinguished by identical homes, unlike previous row developments where the houses were built one at a time, each with its own features.

The houses along Walnut have since been transformed into stores and offices, and only 705 and 707 retain the original characteristics of Latrobe’s row homes.

The 700 block of Sansom has taken on the name Jeweler’s Row, the epicenter of Philadelphia’s jewelry trade. While Carstairs’ row houses are gone, the buildings now trace the evolution of 19th and 20th century commercial architecture.

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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