Subversion in the Rowhouse City

Olive St. between 4th and 5th | Photo: Peter Woodall

Virginia Restemeyer and E.I. Weiner, the authors of the welcome new book Hip and Hidden Philadelphia: The Unexpected House in a City of Tradition (Probasco Haus Press, 2012, $29.95), open their introduction with a deep sigh:

Yes, Philadelphia is old, and historic, and in many ways still defied by its Quaker reticence and aversion to appearing showy. Those are all true descriptors, to one degree or another; inarguably, some of those traits are what make the city interesting, even endearing.

Like all of us who have grown weary of this withering narrative, which ignores considerable evidence of innovation, foresight, ambition, and (yes) wealth spread over three and a half centuries, they quickly point out there is much more to the story. “Inside Philadelphia there is another Philadelphia…This Philadelphia is subtle and subversive…the true sign of a different way of thinking.”

I will argue that quaint, button-down Philadelphia is the little (small-minded) village inside a much more powerful, resilient, and inventive city. But that’s a question of semantics. What counts is that Restemeyer, a sculptor and Weiner, a journalist and writer, have presented us with forceful evidence of a city of startlingly diverse residential architectural expression, well-beyond the standard rowhouse design. (In some sense, the sheer breadth of the study is evidence of Philadelphia’s markedly few historic districts–the lack of regulatory apparatus allows for invention.)

S. Chadwick St. between Pine and Cypress | Photo: Peter Woodall

This book is the culmination of years of exploring certain city neighborhoods, from Bella Vista to Mount Airy. The authors walked a great deal, often down small alleys, they paid attention, and they reflected on what they saw. After noticing a pattern of architectural individuality and creativity, they attempted to link the 200 houses (paired down significantly for publication) on their original list of special finds, finally pulling them under the somewhat cloudy rubric of “hip and hidden.” The houses–each illustrated by a few photographs and a short, well-researched and well-crafted essay–are grouped under broad categories (that unfortunately don’t quite cohere): classics, adaptive reuse, incorporated past, facelift, pioneers, etc.

Fulton St. between 6th and 7th | Photo: Peter Woodall

“One great hope,” they write, “is that the book will cause readers to reevaluate or discover, and, in either event, to give proper honor to some of the great architects who have worked in…Philadelphia.” Thus our attention is directed to Hans Egli’s 1981 deconstructed graphic twin (to a Paul Cret original) in West Philadelphia, to Christopher Beardsley’s 2000 Bella Vista tin box, to a Louis Kahn masterwork in Chestnut Hill, and Frank Weise’s Zen modernism in Roxborough.

But the book is much more about personal style than about modern–as opposed to traditional–architecture. In making their case for an alternative narrative of Philadelphia urbanism, Restemeyer and Weiner sought subversion over doctrine; they so often therefore landed on small gestures, adaptations, decorations, and applications of style. This is both the great strength and the weakness of the book–in its subject and its approach. Lacking editorial rigor, the book is above all personal exploration.

Photo: Rob Lybeck

The approach of course points up the limitations of the authors’ range. Restemeyer and Weiner insist they weren’t interested in creating a guidebook (there is no map or addresses given though the houses are indexed by neighborhood), a good thing because so much of the city is left out. Missing particularly are immigrant architectural expressions–the Mediterranean balconies and terracotta tile roofs of South Philly, for example, or the Caribbean colors of Norris Square–meant to subvert the uncomfortable reality of Philadelphia altogether.

In some sense the personal scale of Hip and Hidden Philadelphia feels like the right lens for evaluating this intimate city. But what about so much of Northwest Philadelphia, miles of West Philly, and huge chunks of the Lower Northeast? Here is subversion of the stolid rowhouse on a grand scale, a convincing narrative of diverse, often elegant, sometimes exuberant residential architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries, quite a different narrative we’d be smart to fully embrace.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.



No Comments


Trackbacks

  1. Book explores Philadelphia rowhouse architecture innovation, more variation than theme « TownhouseCenter.org
Recent Posts
Exhibit To Resuscitate Shuttered Fairhill Classroom

Exhibit To Resuscitate Shuttered Fairhill Classroom

April 27, 2015  |  Morning Blend

The restoration of a classroom in North Philly, the DRWC anticipates a full summer of work on reconnecting Philly to the Delaware, the economic draw of the Mall, and vetting regional hotel rooms for the 2016 DNC > more

A Slim And Sturdy Survivor On Race Street

A Slim And Sturdy Survivor On Race Street

April 27, 2015  |  The Shadow Knows

The attractively slender, condo-converted factory at Race and Orianna Streets is a testament to resilience. Multiple industrial renovations, fire, and prolonged vacancy has kept the former Saxe Paper Company building on its toes for over a century. The Shadow gives us a nickel tour inside this brick beauty's history > more

Illegally Built Apartments Point To Another Failure From L&I

Illegally Built Apartments Point To Another Failure From L&I

April 24, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Off-campus Temple apartments raise yet more questions as to the purview of L&I, highlights from the Indego launch, derelict East Falls home being demolished, Japanese culture on display on the Hill, and Postgreen to celebrate at open house for new South Kensington project > more

Photography Exhibition Captures The Spirit Of Kensington's Sacred Places

Photography Exhibition Captures The Spirit Of Kensington’s Sacred Places

April 23, 2015  |  Buzz

Nineteenth century neighborhood churches share the spotlight this Friday in Joseph B. Elliott's photography exhibition, "Preserving the Story: An Event to Celebrate Kensington’s Sacred Places" > more

Toward An Inclusive Revival Of Mayfair’s Frankford Ave

Toward An Inclusive Revival Of Mayfair’s Frankford Ave

April 23, 2015  |  Morning Blend

A bottom-top approach toward a BID, developers to explain their Spruce Hill mixed-use to residents, PHL expansion deal reached with neighbors, and life on Elfreth’s Alley > more

With Council Introducing Gallery Redevelopment Bills, We Examine PREIT's Plan

With Council Introducing Gallery Redevelopment Bills, We Examine PREIT’s Plan

April 23, 2015  |  News

What's the economics behind the outlet mall concept? Will the Gallery remain a public place? Is PREIT offering transformative architecture? Nathaniel Popkin examines the project and files this report > more