Field Guide to New Row House Construction, Part 3

October 11, 2012 | by Hidden City Staff


For Part One, “Garages,” and Part Two, “Front Doors and Stoops,” click HERE and HERE.

Bays and Balconies

Rounded bay on a corner property in Brewerytown | Photo: Hidden City Daily

In the search for more square footage and light, many architects and builders of new row houses in Graduate Hospital have turned to the bay window. Beyond its functionality, though, the bay window provides the most obvious way to differentiate one row from another,  and developers have run wild with this relative freedom, experimenting with new shapes, colors, materials and proportions.

Along with their appearance, what’s new and different about this profusion of bay windows is their placement on the second and third floor. Traditionally, architects used bay windows to punctuate larger and more ornate corner buildings, above storefronts, or in conjunction with porches (see the 4600 block of Hazel Avenue in West Philly). When they were used for mid-block facades, the bay took up a single story at street level, (Coulter Street in Germantown), or extended from the third floor down to street level,(the 1400 block of West Girard Avenue). Very few purely residential mid-block facades featured a second-and-third floor bay, although a few examples can be seen in South Philly (see 13th between Tasker and Dickinson).

Stores underneath beveled bay windows on Germantown Ave. in Fairhill | Photo: Hidden City Daily

The problem with the new second-and-third floor facades is that they tend to make the buildings appear top-heavy. In the past, beveling the bays helped mitigate this problem, however nearly all the new bays are rectangular, compounding the problems of proportion, and often giving the impression of a box that’s been glued onto the facade.

Taking cues from turn-of-the-century South Philly row houses, builders and architects are also frequently incorporating balconies, sometimes within or on top of the bay window. Most of the balconies are flush with the rest of the facade or nearly so; their purpose is to allow windows to function as doors that either slide or open inward and bring the street into the house. Other balconies are wide enough to stand on, yet not wide enough to accommodate a chair, diminishing their functionality.

The Specimens

Let’s start with one of the few examples in Grad Hospital of a contemporary beveled bay, which was the norm for nearly all bay windows built before World War II. Here the beveled form with decorative insets, contrasting color scheme and detailed millwork adds up to a very handsome interpretation of the traditional bay window. Unfortunately, the buildings still feel top-heavy, with the bare-bones first floor providing little in the way of balance.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Here’s a similar treatment that’s rectangular rather than beveled. It feels clumsy by comparison.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

How about a little razzle dazzle with that traditional bevel, plus a balcony on top? Or not. For our money, consistency is the key to making the traditional look work.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Capping the bay with a pitched “roof” and a half-moon window is becoming more common and appears to be derived from suburban house design. The pitched “roof” emphasizes the size of the bays, which dwarf the first floor entrances. It looks like someone dropped a King of Prussia townhouse on top of a row house.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

The model?

Stock photo of a suburban house

Here’s another taste of the suburbs–or the shore–albeit considerably less coherent than the house pictured above. The bays have the same house-dropped-on-top-of-house quality, which is magnified by what looks to be vinyl siding. At least the balcony is deep enough to sit on.

Yet a bay with a triangular top can still be an effective design element. Here, the bay is shallow, relatively thin, and the triangular top is at a wide angle minimizing its profile above the roofline. It feels like a reference to a toy house, and has a touch of postmodern playfulness.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Now this is a big boy. The bays are especially wide here, giving the building a rather plump appearance. The entrances are puny in comparison, however the presence of a fourth floor helps balance the proportions, as does the contrasting tan banding.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Dun-colored brick contrasted with…dun-colored stucco. Maybe they were into matching–all of the windows are the same size, too, which is fine for the first floor but too small in proportion to the size of the bumpouts. On the plus side, the overhang of the bay does provide some protection for the elements.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Here’s a nearby example of what can be done with square bays on a corner property (if you ignore the first floor, which was butchered at a later date.)  The bays on this pre-WWII structure are relatively shallow and proportional to the height of the first floor, the detailing is simple yet effective, and the abbreviated pitched roof with decorative korbelling provides balance.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Here’s another big, corner property with a lot to like. The bays are relatively narrow and shallow, which gives the building a fighting chance at being proportional. Matching the bays’ color with the doors is a nice touch, although the material looks too much like vinyl siding.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

As long as we’re talking materials, here’s a sampler: stucco, metal and–good grief!–copper. The variety of color and material is nice to see, and doesn’t become an overwhelming motley because the row houses on either side are plain brick. The two on the left opt for the Juliet balcony in the middle of the bay. This feature actually helps minimize the apparent size of the bays since they take up more space than regular windows.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Materials may be all over the map but one thing that almost never varies in the placement of the windows: right down the middle. Here’s one of the few exceptions. The outline of the bay is interrupted by the window, which makes it look smaller and hence more proportional. A surprisingly effective technique, and one it would be nice to see more builders utilize.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Balconies are rarely used as a prominent design element in their own right. Here they take center stage in a facade that’s minimal bordering on plain. The lack of any depth adds to to the facade’s generally flat appearance. The garages seem to stand out more here–perhaps oversized bays help distract the eye from their presence.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Here’s a balcony that manages to do three things at once: it provides enough space to sit, shelter over the doorway, and breaks up what is otherwise a flat, monolithic facade.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

We’ll finish up with a mystery. What is this masked bay window? Did someone measure wrong? We’ll probably never know what they were thinking, but feel free to chime in with theories…

Photo: Hidden City Daily



  1. Richard says:

    I really wish there were an address with the pictures , that way I could get a better look if I wanted. If the purpose
    Of this website is to get people see what’s hidden , than a address would be a plus.. I really like this site.

    1. We chose purposely to not give addresses–just to depersonalize it a little. But all the examples in all three articles so far are in G-Ho, north of Wash Ave to South St, Broad to “Naval Square.”

  2. Joe K. says:

    What a great series. Keep ’em coming!

    One interesting spin-off that I didn’t see here is angled bays, such as the Francisville East complex and the new Loonstyn development at 19th and Poplar. Is that a neighborhood-specific adaptation, as they reference the irregular street grid in that area? They seem to offer a slightly gentler contrast between modern materials and traditional masonry.

    Also, the use of sliding doors on Juliet balconies is understandable for spacial reasons, but aesthetically bothersome. My vote is for French doors, all the way. As prevalent as the Juliets have become in this city, someone needs to manufacture a design that uses quarter panels with either accordion doors or sliders with a centered opening.

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