Architecture

Symposium Shines a Light on the Philadelphia Rowhouse

October 5, 2022 | by Kimberly Haas

Rowhouse City: History and Adaptation in Philadelphia will explore the city’s most prevalent dwelling design. | Photo: Michael Bixler

“Rowhouses are hidden in plain sight,” said Frank G. Matero, director of The Center for Architectural Conservation and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They are so ubiquitous here, we take them for granted.”

According to the Healthy Rowhouse Project (HRP), 70 percent of all residential units in the city are rowhouses. It’s one of the reasons that Philadelphia, despite having a lower per capita income among the 10 largest cities in the United States, has a higher rate of home ownership than most. The HRP also points out that in 2012, 38 percent of owner-occupied homes were households earning less than $35,000 per year.

An aerial view from 63rd Street of rowhouse development. Date unknown. | Image courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Rowhouses date back to Philadelphia’s origins. The Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, published in 2008 by the City’s Department of Planning and Development, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development, noted that “While William Penn’s surveyor envisioned gracious detached homes on green blocks and squares in 1682, speculators quickly divided those blocks near the Delaware River with narrow streets and erected on them the city’s first rowhouses: tiny, more affordable ‘Trinity’ or band-box houses that served people working in the city’s burgeoning port.”

Philadelphia’s expansion beyond Penn’s original grid brought about new versions of the rowhouse. They grew larger as development moved west across the Schuylkill River in the 19th century and the addition of garages sprang up in neighborhoods in the northeast and southwest of the city during the 20th century.

In South Philadelphia, rowhouse awnings as far as the eye can see. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, the rowhouse dominated Philadelphia, unheralded and often unappreciated, as the city lost population to the single family homes of the suburbs.

Now, the rowhouse is the star of a symposium on October 7 and 8. Rowhouse City: History and Adaptation in Philadelphia is organized by the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the Weitzman School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology.

Three stages of rowhouses in transition in Strawberry Mansion. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The symposium’s presentations and discussions will examine the history and development of the rowhouse in Philadelphia, assess its current conditions, and look at the advantages and challenges associated with its preservation today.

Each day will have a different focus. The first includes presentations on the history and typology of the rowhouse, including a discussion of why Philadelphia and other rowhouse cities in the United States are more like Amsterdam and London than newer American cities. There will also be familiar topics such as the creation of Elfreth’s Alley, and how, during the urban renewal movement of the 1960s, Society Hill was given a different fate than the frequently used wrecking ball.

A midcentury take on an old theme in Society Hill. | Photo: Michael Bixler

On the second day, presentations will focus on the preservation and adaptation of the rowhouse to 21st century standards, including passive rowhouse design, the carbon free rowhouse, and the challenges posed by structures that share walls, but have different owners.

According to the HRP, 75 percent of Philadelphia’s rowhouses are over 50 years old. Therefore, practical information for owners, designers, and developers will be included, reviewing programs that support the maintenance and preservation of rowhouses, such as the Pennsylvania Senate’s Whole-Home Repairs Act of 2022 and Philadelphia’s Restore Repair Renew home preservation low-interest loan program.

Old and new converge in North Philadelphia. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The symposium brings together representatives of a range of disciplines: architects, historians, preservationists, city planners, developers, civil engineers, and curators. “Rowhouses are a good vehicle to talk about many topics that tend to be siloed: architectural, social, political, technical,” said Matero. “It’s a locus to talk about so many facets of Philadelphia as a city and a community.”

He believes issues of climate change and housing affordability will continue to drive interest in rowhouse preservation and development. “What’s interesting is the adaptability of the rowhouse. There are creative ways you can vary them,” said Matero, noting a trend in suburban communities where clustering is being done to preserve land and maximize resources.

Matero cites new urban construction as well. “You see a lot of infill that doesn’t quite look like a rowhouse. But because they’re constricted by the lot, they’re examples of rethinking the rowhouse.” In all these incarnations, rowhouses “fit the mold of sustainable development and living.”



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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

5 Comments:

  1. James says:

    Living in a row house off Oxford Circle, it was built in 1928 along with many built in the 1950s as people used the GI BILL to finance their first home. I saw many rowhouses built in the 1960s on Roosevelt Blvd. When my mother died, her house needed a lot of work and we sold it to a real estate investor.

    Bottom line, rowhouses need work to make them viable places to live in. Philadelphia has literally thousands of row houses you can see from all quadrants of the city when riding the Frankford El. Even abandoned factories are being converted to apartments

  2. Jim Clark says:

    I lived in three row homes when I was a kid. One was a rental at 2706 N Reese Street. It was very small house. Parents purchased a house at 916 Auburn Street (been torn down now). House was right across street from school I attended. I am amazed to this day how quiet they were! We could not hear the next door neighbors. I have lived in several other areas in the country,but none where the houses were so very well built! I enjoyed my time living in good old Philly. Thank you for the article Kimberly.

  3. Robert Haws says:

    Nice to see my Penn classmate Kimberly Haas writing these informative articles!

  4. Merle Day says:

    I grew up in Philly and as I moved to different cities was surprised to see fewer row homes. Then, here in Indianapolis, there was a renewed interest in living in the downtown area and as large sections of rundown properties were razed what was built are multistory ‘townhouses’.

  5. Meg Salinger says:

    A few years ago, I read a research paper on housing in Philadelphia in The PHS Journal which answered the question I’d wondered about since I was a kid, growing up in South Philly and later across from the Art Museum- where rowhouses become townhouses. The idea to build rowhouses rather than copying NYC’s tenements was based on a London model with the belief that renters would benefit from the sense of community, taking care of their small home, and perhaps purchase that home or one nearby – which is exactly what happened for over 100 years.

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