Originally published in spring 2007.
The development of row homes in America goes hand in hand with the evolution of its urban areas. In cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Boston, you can find many examples of 18th and 19th century rows if you venture into the older sections. But only one block can claim to be the “oldest continuously occupied residential street in America.” Welcome to Elfreth’s Alley, a National Historic Landmark, where generations of working class residents in Philadelphia have been going home to for over 300 years.
It’s not hard to find well-preserved historic homes in America but these usually belong to the wealthy and/or famous. Many of the small common homes of the 18th century have been torn down either because the residents didn’t have the money to maintain the buildings or to make room for newer, larger homes and tenements. Urban development often does not favor the old and small home and indeed Elfreth’s Alley has had a few close calls with industrial concerns, interstate highways and careless planning over the decades. But perhaps it is because of the constant habitation that most of the homes never reached a point of dilapidation meriting demolition. And when confronted with forces, political or other, that would have annihilated the alley, the residents and several prominent citizens of Philadelphia, including Dolly Ottey and Florence Greer, fought back for the street and raised funds to protect the alley.
It was Ms. Ottey and Ms. Greer who helped form the Elfreth’s Alley Association which has been advocating the restoration and protection of the street since the 1934. In the years following, the Association has taken great strides in gathering demographic information about the residents and increasing public knowledge of the lives of working class residents of Philadelphia. Beyond just a place where people dwell, Elfreth’s Alley is a living classroom.
Our Visit to Elfreth’s Alley
On a very cold January afternoon, Cory Kegerise, Executive Director of the Elfreth’s Alley Association, took us for a tour of the block and explained the rich history of both the homes and the previous residents.
The land owners of Elfreth’s Alley, named for Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith who was the largest land owner, began to develop the plots as private homes for the people who supported the shipping industry in the early 18th century. The generations of owners and tenants since have represented almost every trade including, merchants, dressmakers, carpenters, masons, bakers, distillers, dock workers, sea captains, privateers, sail makers, police officers, landlords, and ministers. Later, during the industrial revolution, many area factory workers lived in the alley. Many residents were immigrants who later let rooms to other people from their home countries. And, of course, the current residents will make their own impressions on the alley.
According to Mr Kegerise, when William Penn designed Philadelphia he decided the city would be made of brick structures and that the plots would be wide enough to avoid the over crowding that had made fires in European cities, especially London, so devastating. However, the demand for housing close to the Delaware River outweighed the initial plans and without enforcement, people subdivided the plots and built smaller attached homes.
The first homes on Elfreth’s Alley were built in the Georgian style, mimicking what was popular in England. Key architectural characteristics include heavy moldings, pent eaves and Flemish bond brickwork. The homes built during the 19th century in the Federal and Greek Revival styles have more simple facades with less ornamentation, semi-circular fanlights, and delicate cornices. Despite changes over the years including additions and subtractions of outbuildings, ells, and windows, due to careful preservation, most of the homes retain historic artifacts from various points in their history including moldings, fireplace surrounds, windows, and doors. Consistencies in their construction like all brick exteriors, one small, centrally located gable with a dormer window, and a height of between two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half stories, contribute to the block’s continuity. On Elfreth’s Alley the result, whether intentional or not, are two nearly continuous rows where all the homes seem quite at ease with each other aesthetically. It’s quite amazing since the homes were built during different periods, piecemeal, and not as a singular development.
Beyond architecture, each home has a story to tell. At times, there were entire families living in the small, one to three bedroom homes. More typical than not, there were several children and extended family members as well. Some owners built additions so they could take in borders to make ends meet. Other homes functioned as shops with residential quarters above the store. About this diversity of residents and how it affected the block’s development, Kegerise says “architecture is a product of necessity and culture.” If the residents needed space, they simply adapted. It is a testament to the resilience of the row house that so many changes were accommodated without compromising the design of most of the homes.
Aside from houses no. 124 and no. 126, which currently house the museum, and no. 128 that was a loading dock for a stove factory built after the original home was demolished in the 1870s, all the homes are privately owned. The Alley’s homes were among the first 100 buildings listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places when it was created in 1955 and alterations to the exteriors of the homes are subject to the approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The Association holds easements that protect the exteriors and some interior elements like historic moldings, woodwork, and doors on four properties. The Association is also available to provide homeowners with technical assistance and advice when repairing their homes. I asked Kegerise is this was a problem and he indicated that everyone understands the importance of preserving the block.
Over 250,000 people visit Elfreth’s Alley annually. The museum, restored in the 1960s by a team led by Penelope Hartshorne Batchelor, an architect and historian with the National Park Service, offers a tour of the block and exteriors of the homes as well as a tour of the restored and period furnished home at no.126. Twice a year, the residents open their homes to the public. Kegerise says these and other events help the Association promote the idea that “historic buildings are completely relevant and habitable for contemporary living.”
What is a Trinity?
Most homes on Elfreth’s Alley are L shaped with small yards. However there is one true Trinity, a bit of an architectural phenomenon in Philadelphia, located in a smaller alley off Elfreth’s called Bladen’s Court.
The definition of a Trinity is a little debated. It’s rumored that it’s one of a row of three homes, built anywhere from 1700 to 1850 in either the Georgian or Federal styles. According to Kegerise, whose field of study is vernacular domestic architecture including row houses, a Trinity is a small house, not necessarily attached, that has three floors, one room on each floor with a flat roof and no attic.