Exploring Row House Elements and Styles
The row house is by far the most common building type in Philadelphia, yet it is rarely given much thought. This shouldn’t be surprising. Most people tend to focus on monumental structures–museums, skyscrapers, churches–rather what they see every day, which tends to fade into the background like wallpaper. As well ask folks to be interested in squirrels and pigeons rather than lions, whales and elephants, the charismatic megafauna of the animal world, but that’s what we’re doing with our Field Guide to New Row House Construction series.
Traditionally, the Philadelphia row house is notable for its relatively plain, flat face, but in the last 15 years tastes, technologies, and domestic patterns have changed. New row houses are larger, bolder, and more visually incoherent than those built before World War II. Even so, architects and developers still have a limited palette with which to work, especially on infill projects where the small lot size is a constraint on form. This makes details such as as lintels, stoops, cornices and bay windows all the more important, yet they are often given short shrift. Meanwhile, new design problems such as integrating first floor garages and gas meters have made creating a coherent design a greater challenge than before.
We’ve organized our “field guide” based on these elements, focusing on the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, which has become a proving ground for these new urban vernaculars in Philadelphia. You can read the first installment on how to disguise the gas meters now mandated on exterior facades HERE. We continue today with Garages, to be followed by Front Doors and Stoops, Bay Windows and Balconies, and Materials.
The Garage Door
No single factor changed the use and the look of row house facades more than when the City mandated off street parking for new row house construction decades ago. A garage means losing much of the stoop, as well as the first floor window. It also effectively deadens the interplay between pedestrian and building, giving a passer-by nothing to look at or into. The garage also alters the traditional proportions and rhythm of the row house, making it seem top-heavy (a traditional row house was designed to feel as though it was smaller at the top). It takes some truly inspired architecture to achieve even a modicum of harmony on a row house with a first floor garage.
A. We start with an example of a facade that does next to nothing to improve the garage door. Instead of a lintel over the door, there is a row of vertical bricks.
B. These houses achieve some visual success by matching the color of the garage to the front door.
C. This garage door has a valance window to let in natural light, which also shrinks the door’s size and disguises its presence. Like the rest of the facade, the door is clean and simple, forgoing even a handle.
D. The two car garage: Once a rarity, now becoming common at the highest end of the market. Usually these garages are placed in an alley on the side of the building, but this one faces 15th Street. Street parking has already become scarce in this area, so any additional curb cut means that much less street parking for the neighborhood.
E. These three row houses get many of the little details right: well-proportioned bays with a attractive color pattern, small windows next to and over the doors, and even a detailed wooden cornice. Yet the low-end vinyl garage doors and lack of a stoop create a flat, unattractive and most of all uninviting view at street level.
F. When we compare the above examples to a traditional treatment of the first floor on this new construction, it really highlights what was lost when we decided that garages would be the norm.
G. The best solution to the garage door problem is to get rid of them entirely by putting parking spaces behind the building, as is the case with many developments with five or more units. Something similar was done from the 1920s-1950s in places like Oxford Circle and Cedarbrook in East Mt. Airy. Rear alley parking also allows builders to place a deck on top of the parking area.
About the author
I'm interested in the urban form, and the way we change it. I look at architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city. With a B.A. in Geography and Urban Studies from Temple University, I find myself interested in a full-time position. If you are interested in my work, just let me know!