The row house is the most plentiful domestic dwelling throughout the world. We don’t always get to see the row houses we’d like to in person so thankfully, we have Pinterest. Visit us any time at http://www.pinterest.com/bklynwebgrrl/the-urban-row-house/ where we share all the neat row houses we’ve seen on the internet. Many of our photos are included and many from other row house admirers.
It is not always easy to find out how old your row house is, especially if it was built before 1900, and even more so if it was a dwelling for the working-class. However, it helps to have someone put the date the row was built right on the side of the house.
I intended this to be an article about cute little row houses, situated in lovely gardens, in the middle of blocks, providing an urban oasis for those who don’t mind living with a little less space but I have discovered that the little homes of Bell’s Court tell a captivating story.
Alan Heavens, Inquirer Real Estate Writer, wrote about Bell’s Court last year (http://articles.philly.com/2013-07-29/business/40850220_1_bell-society-hill-trinities). Heavens writes that originally, the land the row homes sit on, was part of the garden of a very wealthy local Philadelphian named William Bingham, who, among other things, represented Pennsylvania as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788. However, Bingham didn’t build the homes. That was wallpaper designer/manufacturer Thomas Hurley, who built not only the four present row homes but also an additional row of four row houses so that the two rows faced each other. Thanks to the little masonry note, we know the homes were completed in 1815.
Philly History is a wonderful archival website and I discovered the following photo that shows the remaining row in 1961. Surprisingly, there are cars parked in front and behind! You’ll see in photos below that it’s completely different today thanks to an urban revitilization of Society Hill, beginning in the 1960s, that saved many historic homes from demolision, including these, and restored the greenspaces.
The row homes of Bell’s Court are indicative of the typical “Trinity” style houses that were built throughout Philadelphia during the population boom of the 19th Century. Many of this type of home were expanded in later renovations but, as indicated in the historic photo, it appears that the row was surrounded by streets. Therefore, with no room to expand, we are left with the original footprint and an intact glimpse into 19th Century working class domestic life. Inside, the homes feature two bedrooms, one bathroom, and likely have at least one working fireplace. Other distictions include the ever challenging, or intimidating, spiral “pie slice” stairs and classic Federal six-over-nine/eight-over-twelve windows. There is one room on each floor, with the kitchen located in the basement. Altogether, the homes are just slightly over 650 square feet, which is on the generous size for houses like these which range (originally) from 400 to 550 square feet. A unique feature is the loft over the top floor, seen in the historic photo above. Normally, you don’t get the extra space and it’s a nice feature on a very small house.
Today, Bell’s Court is assessable via pedestrial walk-way and the streets and cars have been replaced with a beautiful garden. It’s one of those charming secret rows that we absolutely love discovering in Philadelphia.
To read more about how the current residents live in their homes, see Heaven’s article – http://articles.philly.com/2013-07-29/business/40850220_1_bell-society-hill-trinities.
You just never know what’s going to happen during your long training run for the Philadelphia half marathon!
Philadelphia is one of the great row house cities in the United States, and maybe the world (we like to imagine it so, lol!). Certainly, there is a great diversity of row homes here, representing centuries of architectural styles. So, it’s easy to find great row homes while you’re out and about.
Still, it’s always a nice surprise when you not only find a superb example but also have the owners invite you in, even though you’re sweaty and they have a party to prepare for.
Meet Joe and Steve’s very elegant Greek Revival row house! Here, Joe is tending to his garden; just before inviting me in!
What caught my eye in particular are the lush window boxes and the iron work around the parlor floor and entrance. A house from this period doesn’t have to have small-pane windows but it’s just a lovely touch, referencing the city’s rich Federal architectural past. I walked closer to get a better look and saw the door which is just beautiful! The iron work on the door is very cohesive with the railings around the window box.
Joe said that the house used to be gray, pretty much inside and out. They decided to paint the 1896 Greek Revival row house a crisp white. Against the white, the green shutters contrast and punctuate the facade nicely. Most of the garden in the front is also green, giving a very coordinated face to the street.
It’s a typical feature of Greek Revival row homes to have a small foyer leading into the hall. Like many houses in this style, the hall and stairs go along the side of the home. These entryways always have wonderful tile or wallpaper and this is no exception. Look at that molding! The window above the door would have opened, allowing for heat to escape. It’s always hard to capture the scale of a space but those are quite high ceilings.
Here is the first look into the house. The owners have maintained the original layout of the home. Joe told me that when they bought the home in 1987, the owner had requested they keep the home a single dwelling and it remains as such to this day. He also mentioned that throughout the home, the molding is largely original.
Turning around before moving on, you can see the foyer and doors from the inside looking out. One thing to notice is that the interior light is very muted. Although the house does have electrical lights (naturally!) and can be perfectly bright, the owners have plenty of indirect lighting options which creates a very period feel to the lighting in the home.
After walking into the hall, to the right is the doorway into the parlor. Although having the door and the stairs on the left of the house leaves the house asymmetrical, once you enter the formal rooms, the elements, such as these windows, are symmetrically placed. Unfortunately, my iPhone doesn’t take the best photos when the room is dark and the windows are bright and sunny, so some of the details are lost.
One thing to note is that when you have a parlor floor, or when the first floor of a home starts a few feet above street level, you can have lovely full-height windows without losing too much privacy to sidewalk traffic, except for curious runners.
The back half of the parlor contains a grand piano which illustrates the scale of the room. Despite having plenty of space, you can see that this room multitasks as a formal parlor, library, and music room in true row house style.
I’ve got better light in this photo so you can see the molding and plaster work on the ceiling. The red wallpaper fits appropriately with the original period of the home. Victorians were very keen on wallpaper, which was the fashion on both sides of the pond. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask if the wallpaper was based on an original design.
Through the door is a small passage Joe that calls the gallery. The art displayed through the home is really an incredible collection and every small area holds a treasure. The home practically frames the art.
Continuing on, the next room is the formal dining room. Again, the wallpaper is really on-target for the period. Joe said that when they purchased the home, all the walls were gray and all the trim was white. Although they agreed not to alter the layout, they did liven up the walls.
Another really nice touch is the black and white marble floor. This is a very classic look found in many grand historic homes.
Often, in a row house that hasn’t been overly renovated, you will see fireplaces. Joe says that there are two remaining working fireplaces in the house. Originally, this row house would have had two on each of the main floors and one in the kitchen for cooking. Below is the mantle of the dining room fireplace. The white and blue pottery is very complimentary of the wallpaper.
There is nothing like built-in storage!
Past the dining room is the kitchen which is quite lovely. However, Joe and Steve were getting ready to entertain and were bustling about so no photos. There was a finish on the window that, when the light and colors from the garden shone through, looked like the watery stained glass of a Tiffany window.
Just outside the back door is an oasis of a backyard garden. These personal green spaces never cease to amaze me. Often, although not on this block, the streets don’t have any trees on them and look quite bleak. What happens behind the row homes often more than compensate.
After visiting the garden, it was back through the house to progress upstairs to view the remaining public rooms.
If I had a bathroom like this, I would never leave it. Thanks to all the reflective surfaces, this room practically glows – even without a light on. The windows are leaded stained glass and the light fixture, also glass, is just tremendous. Inadvertently, I’ve taken a selfie in my running gear.
More of the fantastic bathroom. I have to say, I spent a good deal of time in the house going “oooh” and “aaaah.” My hosts were very patient and entirely gracious. Here, with the light on, you can get an idea of the reflective surfaces of the mirrored tile and the glazed subway tile. Dazzling would be the best way to describe it.
Past the office area was originally a walled off area that served as a closet. There was paneling on the walls. One day, Joe shared, he drank a lot of coffee and, with a friend, pulled all of the paneling, as well as the wall, down. When they were done, they were left with a small room, overlooking the roof over the kitchen. His friend built wooden stairs, visible in the lower right corner of the photo, that lead up to french doors and out onto a roof deck. Here is another example of how the house frames the art.
Here are the doors opened and leading out to the roof deck.
Finally, I asked if this medallion was original to the house. Joe told me that it was salvaged from the home he grew up in, also an older home painted Quaker gray with white trim, that had been demolished due to fire. It is a touching tribute from one house to another.
Walking through the house was like taking a journey. Everything has a story, from the house itself to all the carefully curated things within. Considering the Victorians themselves were master collectors, it seems quite fitting that Joe and Steve carry on that tradition.
I can’t thank Joe and Steve enough for sharing their beautiful row home with us!
A few weeks ago, I posted a photo of a rather interesting row of homes that were angled instead of facing the street head-on. This isn’t the typical type of row people think of but if you’ve got angled streets, this is exactly what sort of row houses you’ll see since it allows for rectangular homes within the plots.
The stepped appearance of the row somewhat resembles the edges of a fan so when I was introduced to the Fan District in Richmond, Virginia by our Facebook follower Jeremie B., I thought it was very fitting that the neighborhood moniker fit the appearance of the elevations of the row houses. He provided the photos for this post (thank you!) to show some of these beautiful homes.
The Fan District, or simply “The Fan,” is situated in the West End section of Richmond. The border to the north is Broad Street and to the south, VA 195. Notable areas of interest within the neighborhood include Monument Avenue and VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. The area is predominantly residential and is a protected national historic district.
The Fan is known for its Victorian homes, and is considered to be the most intact Victorian row house neighborhood in the United States. However, The Fan has homes that represent a much wider variety of styles from the late 19th to early 20th Centuries, including:
- Queen Anne
- Colonial Revival
- Tudor Revival
- Second Empire
- Art Deco
- Gothic Revival
- American Arts and Crafts Movement
- James River Georgian
- Southern Colonial
- Jacobethan (Jacobean Revival)
With so many options, there is something for everyone! As the photos show, The Fan offers one beautiful row house after another. If you happen to have a row house in any of those styles, you can get some great ideas for color and style from these shown here.
I was immediately enchanted by the prevalence of porches and front yards which create a garden oasis feel; very elegant and beautiful. However, the homes are also very true to their row house roots; mostly brick, and mostly uniform and consistent.
Historic row houses in The Fan can be somewhat pricey; $500K and upwards on average, for an entire house. Generally, the homes are very well maintained, historically certified, offer mature gardens, and have more than 2,000 square feet of living space. Here is an example of a current home for sale that is similar to those in our photos. There are a few smaller homes that are naturally less expensive and, if you don’t mind sharing your row house, some of the larger homes have been divided into apartments.
The local schools include Fox Elementary School, Binford Jr. High School, and Thomas Jefferson High School. To learn more about The Fan, please visit The Fan District Association website.
The black and white color scheme is elegant and we always love when working shutters are used. Our own row house originally had shutters but they disappeared before we moved in. One day, once we finish an unending list of very important things to fix, we’d love to add them back on.
Another thing we love about this is that the window box has just gone wild and exploded. We see a lot of designed window boxes where clearly a professional or really accomplished amateur had a go at it and although the results are beautiful, you can see the formula and planning. This flower box caught our eye because it’s just all over the place and blooming in a big way.
And finally, we love the light above the door. What a nice way to not only illuminate your stoop but also bring a little light indoors as well. Of course, that’s the only place for it with the shutters taking up the space where it would normally go.
Often, it’s the small things that make row houses special. Take away the architectural accents and you probably find yourself in a fairly basic, brick box which is why row houses have such a bad reputation for being boring. Well, we don’t like boring! Additionally, summer is the perfect time to add a little charm to your row house.
If you’re lucky enough to have a front yard there’s a lot you can do. If you mix the types of plants and flowers you have, you can transition from season to season without ever having the front of your house look bare. Small ornamental trees like the Japanese Maple, Cascade Falls Bald Cypress, and Forest Pansy Redbud are perfectly scaled for smaller homes. A nicely pruned Holly or other evergreen will provide foliage year round. Just make sure today’s perfect little tree doesn’t turn into a monster that will fall on your house in future years.
Many row house dwellers have street facing homes with nothing but a stoop and concrete sidewalk. You can still can add some nature to your facade with window boxes and container gardens. Window boxes can range from inexpensive wire baskets to elaborate wooden boxes. Because they’re small, you can experiment with different plants and flowers. If you have a black thumb don’t be discouraged, there are very hardy plants that require minimal attention, such as a Hosta. Minimal attention will keep it fairly lush and Hostas come in a variety of colors. Ivy is another nice choice as long as you watch that it doesn’t attach itself to your walls and cause damage to your masonry. As a former plant-killer, I have found that if you take the little stakes that come with the plants and use them to make a watering schedule, it works out fairly well. I use a calendar and make notes on which days I need to water which plants. The process takes about 10 minutes, once a month, but I’ve been able to keep more plants alive this year than any year previous. It helps to hang the calendar in an inconspicuous place and buy a perky watering can that you will look forward to using.
Container gardens are equally nice if you have a little more room to work with. Usually you can stash a pot or two next to your stoop without getting a summons from the city for obstructing the sidewalk. A good rule of thumb is to take a look at what your neighbors have done and devise what you can get away with. Ask your local garden store what sort of plants work best in containers. To avoid people from walking off with your plants and to promote drainage, put a nice layer of heavy rocks in the bottom before you add the dirt and your plant. If you can fit a very large pot, you may even be able to grow some of the smaller ornamental trees and shrubberies.
If you’re ambitious and have a decent budget, shutters can add lots of charm. All About Shutters provides a decent repertoire of information for people looking for interior and exterior shutters. Before windows had glass, shutters would offer privacy and protection from the elements. Once glass windows began to be widely used, shutters still provided protection from storms and harsh weather. Today, most people don’t have functional shutters.
There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to install shutters on your house. If you are using functional shutters, which are especially nice if you have historic windows with glass panes that may be over 100 years old that need protecting, make sure you measure several times to make sure they’ll fit correctly. If you opt for decorative shutters, make sure you hang them close enough to your windows so that you don’t see a wide gap. They’ll look better if they look like functioning shutters instead of a random attachment.
Finally, summer is a great time to make sure the facade of your house is in good condition. No sense making it pretty if it’s falling apart. Inspect your masonry or siding for any evidence of wear or damage. Check your gutters to make sure water flows smoothly. Water can cause quite a bit of damage so you want to make sure it’s going where it needs to.
Even if the weather is a little cooler than we’d like, row house gardeners have been out, working their magic. They might not have a lot of space but these arrangements are testament to their creativity and prove you don’t need a lot of space to make a big impact. I thought I’d share some of the beautiful container gardens I’ve seen during my daily commute.
The nice thing about container gardens is that you can saturate your pots with color. No need to be thrifty when filling the pot. The arrangement below will transition nicely into summer with greenery that lasts the entire season.
We noticed some lovely container gardens during a recent walk around Philadelphia.
I thought I would outsmart the gardening gods by planting perennials in my flower box this year. Alas, they looked great for about 3 days and haven’t bloomed since. I would be really bummed out if it wasn’t for the success I am having on my balcony with a few hardy herbs, some random things that started growing unintended in a pair of vacant pots, and a geranium that I have successfully brought back from the brink of death.
Meanwhile, the new plants in the flower box look growth-challenged. Not dead but not vibrant. Very blah and ho-hum. What doesn’t look ho-hum are several flower boxes I pass during my daily commute-walk. They’re colorful and lush and… upon closer inspection, completely fake.
You have to understand that I have a black thumb. Until I moved into my row house, I never had a garden. My relationship with plants was a long, drawn-out cycle of vegetative doom. If anyone understands the attraction of fake plants, it’s me. However, during the past few years I have bravely started to garden with some success. So, because I won’t criticize without offering an alternative, here are my two favorite plants that have survived several years of my gardening skills, or despite them:
- Hosta – I have a hosta that’s on its third season. What a trooper! The nice thing about hostas is that they come in a variety of colors, which can be combined to give the illusion of a diverse garden. Some hostas flower, which is a bonus. As long as you don’t uproot it and water it once in a while, it’ll last forever. Hostas also spread when they’re happy so you can end up with a big garden with minimal work.
- Ivy – When we bought our row house four years ago, we planted ivy in the flower box because we liked the way it hangs over the side. That same ivy is still in our flower box today. It absolutely refuses to die and keeps getting bigger. We’ve uprooted, separated and migrated chunks of it to several other pots and now we have more ivy than we know what to do with. The only concern is that you need to keep ivy from growing on your home since it can damage masonry.
Other plants that have worked well include geraniums and marigolds but I do water those regularly and give them plant food so they require more work than the ivy and hostas which I all but ignore. We also had dusty miller plants that survived with minimal supervision until we put them on our balcony and ignored them for an entire winter.
So, be brave and try an actual plant. You just might surprise yourself!
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