City of Brotherly Love, and the Philadelphia Row

by Rana WaxmanNovember 3, 2017

If you are buying or selling a house in Philadelphia, chances are it is a row house. Row houses are everywhere, from old city to Roxborough. They come in various shapes and sizes from the smallest that measure in at 400 square feet to the more modern styles that are graced with one car garages. To know their history and look beyond the (sometimes) homogeneous facade, offers some great insight into what you might look to own or, market to sell.

City of Brotherly Love, and the Philadelphia Row

Philadelphians have lived in row homes since the colonial days. They are so intrinsic to the city that the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia proclaims that the “row house defines the vernacular architecture of the city.” Compared to single detached units, the single attached unit, a.k.a. the row house also makes up over half of all building types in the city itself.
Shared-Walls
But that isn’t all. As recently as 2015, the Washington Post cited Philadelphia as a leader over other US cities for the most shared stoops and walls. That’s right – ahead of New York City, Washington, Baltimore, and Chicago.

What is a Row House?

A row house is, as the name suggests, is a row of many homes that often have the same facade. As architect Rachel Simmons Schade, author of the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual so eloquently explains, the Philadelphia row house “most simply is a one to four story house occupying a narrow street frontage and attached to adjacent houses on both sides.”

Layout

There is no ‘one layout’ for row houses per se. What you do find is that neighborhoods sometimes have mostly one style but the layout for a 19th century Center City ‘workingman’s house’ differs from an East Falls ‘porch front.’ That said, most row homes are built up (like towers) rather than wide. They suit a single family, or have been sold and split up into multiple units, such as the ‘urban mansion’ homes around Rittenhouse Square.
Rittenhouse-Square-
Of course, by their very definition, row houses share their outer walls with – you guessed it – other row homes – unless you have a corner. Many are like other free-standing homes in that there is a front door that opens into a living room and dining room. Often the kitchen is towards the back, with some also opening to a back patio or small garden, but no lawn. Basements might be full or partial, renovated or not. The hallway is often on the side of a row house and generally leads to the second floor and bedrooms.

Row House vs. Townhouse

The differences between a row house and a townhouse are minimal. The terms “row house” and “townhouse” are often used interchangeably. Schade notes that one of the earlier styles of row houses are called ‘Federal’ or ‘Georgian’ townhouses. These are typically three to four stories, narrow and deep. Others define townhouses as a dwelling that generally have about two floors or more, attached via party walls which sounds like a row house.

However, townhouses are often used in a planned unit or condominium developments where there is often some common open space. This, as Grace Ingravallo of Provident Legacy Real Estate Services puts it, might offer both “convenience and modern style” where you might get some extras such as a pool or gym which could contribute to a “luxurious lifestyle.” Here in Center City, those ‘extras’ often boil down to your own parking spot – nothing to scoff at for sure.
Rowhomes

Practical Solution to Living in a City

In some neighborhoods, especially densely populated ones, this style of home building sprang up because space is and was, limited. Row homes allowed developers to purchase one plot of land and then split it up to attract multiple buyers. It also enabled builders to easily create homes, using the same or similar materials.

For many of us, a row home is as practical to live in as it is to build. As Schade writes, a row home is a “sensible solution to living in a town” that provides us with the chance not just to own and maintain a home, but also to leave a “much smaller footprint on the environment.”

And smaller is sometimes accurate. Says Sherrie Boyer, a PA Realtor with Coldwell Banker, it is all about thinking about what you do and “relating those activities to spaces that can do double-duty.” For her, this means a round extending table in an 11 by 11 kitchen which she and her husband open when kids and partners and friends come for a meal. So, there are ‘lotsa’ elbows, it makes for great fun!

Looking Beyond the Facade

If words like ‘sensible’ and ‘small’ don’t cut it for you, there are a few other things to consider. As Grace states, “Row homes offer a historical charm that is highly sought after.” She says that the buyers she works with love the unique details, like beautiful pocket doors, stain glass and moldings that can’t be replicated in newer construction. For her, these are the details that make these row houses “true diamonds!”

In other words, if you are marketing a row house, play up what makes it unique. Whether it is a heritage banister, the chillaxing you do with your neighbors, or the fact that it is walkable to work or public transport. Ultimately, you want to make sure to make what might, to an outsider, seem like every other house on the block stand out.
Fitler-Square-

Buyer Be Aware

From the prospective buyer side, it may be easy to prejudge from the outside rather than looking deeper to see what unique features makes a row home the icon it is today. It is always smart to do some research ahead of time to see what style of row house might interest you. Then, be aware of any potential problems that might arise with it.

Here are four things to consider when buying a row house.

  1. Start Outside: Most row house maintenance problems start on the outside, so being aware of potential trouble areas is important. Things like masonry, drainage, roof insulation are things to check out.
  2. Don’t Litter: Look at how neatly stored trash is (or isn’t). Is the street well maintained or a potential public health fiasco?
  3. Windows: The eyes are the windows of the soul, and your windows speak volumes about your rowhome. It isn’t about how they look. Check for things such as light, sound, energy efficiency, and insulation.
  4. Measurements Matter: Narrow entryways and stairways are not issues unless you are moving in with bulky furniture. Take measurements ahead of time!

Perhaps the beauty of a row house lies in the opportunity it provides to live a more streamlined life where we pay careful attention to what our real space needs are. Or, maybe the fact that it asks not to ‘judge a book by its cover.’ Whether you are buying or selling a row house in Philadelphia, you are part of this rich architectural tapestry that weaves throughout the city of brotherly love.

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About The Author
Rana Waxman
Rana Waxman parlays years of work experience in several fields into web content creation aligned with client needs. Rana's versatile voice is supported by a zest for research, a passion for photography, and desire to provide clients with a purposeful presence online. In her non-writing hours, Rana is a happy yogini, constant walker, avid reader, and sometimes swimmer.
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