The Rise and Resurgence of the Great American Row House

The Rise and Resurgence of the Great American Row House

By Juan Sebastián Pinto
Throughout U.S. history, the row house has endured and adapted as an under-appreciated model for accessible urban housing.

There is a strange magic to the neighborhood of Spring Garden in Philadelphia. Walking eastward on Fairmount Avenue, you might encounter groups of Greek men smoking cigarettes and drinking frappé, contemporary coffee shops packed with students and remote workers, and a succession of Mexican, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Italian restaurants. Take a turn and you might pass a Puerto Rican bodega as well as the last parishioners emerging from the Lithuanian church on Wallace Street. At the community gardens, a queer rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is performed before an audience of neighbors seated on lawn chairs. 

Yet, despite the many kinds of people and cultures to be found in Spring Garden, there is one unifying element that cuts across every street: endless row houses standing shoulder to shoulder, from corner to corner in each block.

A gateway into the Spring Garden neighborhood in Philadelphia, where row houses face the wall of the Eastern State Penitentiary.

In Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., row houses are an iconic part of neighborhood identity—but examples can be found as far west as Saint Louis and San Francisco. They are generally defined by their two to four-story height and compact and contiguous construction, where units often share party walls and narrow, mid-block alleyway access. Their architectural styles can range from Federal to Georgian and Gothic to Victorian, and their appeal has befitted a full range of urban social classes throughout history within relatively similar physical boundaries.

Today, pre-war row houses, also called town houses, give parts of East Coast cities a European scale and density that is rare in the rest of the United States. But the American row house, as opposed to the more universal type inherited from the old world, represents the unique demographic history of this country. 

During the industrial revolution, row houses met the housing needs of a growing immigrant population, as well as that of an enterprising middle class looking for direct access to the commercial life of cities. With their replicable forms and "kit-of-parts" designs, many row houses were built as massive speculative developments, and foreshadowed the efficient prefab architecture of today. 

A row of renovated and repurposed row houses in Pittsburgh.

In the Bronx, row-house neighborhoods are among the few that survived the devastating arsons and demolitions that consumed the borough in the 1970s and ’80s. Some of these, such as the Mott Haven Historic District, even saw real-estate booms as surrounding neighborhoods burned to rubble. "This is the only way for the middle class to survive in the city," a  row house buyer in the neighborhood is quoted as saying in a 1978 New York Times article. Nearly 100 years before, the neighborhood had been described as having the most "healthful, cheerful, economical and easily accessible homes that have ever been known."

In our time, these homes can provide an efficient, accessible, and egalitarian form of housing—one which satisfies a much needed "missing middle" category of mid-density urban residential architecture. There’s a case to be made that the tight-knit diversity of neighborhoods like Spring Garden is indebted to the compact form and adaptability of these row houses—but it’s enough to acknowledge the great variety of people who have made homes out of these old buildings.

For young families in cities where row houses are common, buying and renovating old units has become a popular alternative to the ritual suburban escape from the city. For architects and developers today, the row house is a model for dense and economical housing that deserves more attention and study as a typology. 

As an homage to the row house, here are 10 great renovations and new builds that breathe new life to this uniquely American housing phenomenon.

Renovations

Today, row houses in major urban centers are often subdivided into apartment units to meet market demand, but some lucky homeowners are privy to a unique perk of living in a private row house: owning such a discrete unit of the city can inspire a sense of responsibility and stewardship of history. 

Rehabilitating these old and often dilapidated homes can be a challenge, but one which can uncover new opportunities for modern households, and solutions to the setbacks of old designs.

A Resuscitated Row House in Philadelphia

Wooden paneling framing the windows complements the home’s custom-built front door.

There are central points for expression available in the renovation of a row house, where simple changes can make a big difference. In this renovation in Philadelphia, the white-painted brick exterior and custom wood paneling of the windows and doors distinguish the row house from its neighbors.  

In historic districts where row houses are prevalent, it’s both the uniformity of homes and the stark variations between them that build a harmonious and individually expressive atmosphere.

Featuring exposed beams, the kitchen has custom white-oak cabinetry built by Philadelphia Woodworking Co. An oversize picture window overlooks the backyard garden.

The team removed walls to create an airy, open-plan layout. Here, the dining room enjoys access to natural light from both the front and back sides of the house.

Because of the narrow and attached nature of row houses, natural lighting can often be limited to front and rear rooms. To solve this problem, the architects behind this austere renovation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, removed several walls to create a continuous flow of light from the street to the small patio in the back. As in the previous home, some of the ceiling beams are exposed to give the house a more spacious feel. 

To give the interior a more open and spacious feel, the team exposed the ceiling beams. 

Architect Allison Reeves was renovating a townhome in Red Hook when she discovered that the existing redbrick facade was falling apart. With contractor John Fasano, she put in a new exterior of dark bricks, punctuated by a slanted pane of glass by Bieber Windows. A new roof supports a deck as well as the home's mechanicals, which the residents opted to move out of harm's way after Hurricane Sandy flooded other homes in the area.

In this row house, a large angled box window replaced two third-story windows in order to flood the interior with light—but this was not the only surprising intervention. Inside, the architect installed the weighty wooden beams of an abandoned barn, and an open staircase, in order to raise the ceiling of the front of the house by 12 feet.

The original crumbling bricks of the façade were replaced with a new exterior of black bricks, but traditional star bolts—a common feature in row house renovations which reinforce exterior walls by connecting them to floor and ceiling joists — keep the home sturdy and the renovation vernacular. 

The residents furnished the interior themselves, even hand-picking the exposed reclaimed beams from a barn in Pennsylvania. The dining table and shelving unit are 1970s vintage and the sofa is from Design Within Reach. The height of the top level varies from around nine to 12 feet. 

The exterior of the 1853 row houses.

Located in Charleston’s picturesque Bee’s Row, this tall and stately row house was built in 1853 in the Italianate style and has been home to many colorful figures in its past. Its current owners honor this history by integrating contemporary decor with local artistic heritage, a look they dub "Southern Modernism." 

This room houses a Lawson Fenning Moreno sofa and lounge chairs, an antique mosaic-horn coffee table, and Workstead Signal globe and sconce lights.

The backyard sports a sequence of raised flower and vegetable beds and two green roofs—one atop the workshop and other atop the back entrance.

Renovated by an architect and carpenter, this Boston row house is not only modern on the inside, but sustainable on the outside—with two green roofs and a greenhouse to grow shrubs, vegetables, and seasonal flowers. 

Inside, the stairs were moved against the party wall, where the lower stair reaches out to form the arm of a custom lounge. 

In the living room, the stair’s lower step reaches out to form an arm, while the ascending stairs create a natural incline for cushions.

New Builds and Additions

Row house developments around the country have faced many challenges throughout history, including mass abandonment over the course of the last century due to urban flight. This has opened the doors for demolitions that often allow invasive and poorly-built developments to rise in their ruins. 

However, some new designs and additions are paving a path forward for the row house typology. These examples extend and sometimes go far beyond the technical definition of row houses, but they demonstrate tasteful and original designs that work in concert with their historic neighbors. 

Carriage House Addition in Brooklyn

On a tree-lined street in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, a former carriage house from the 1930s is now a colorful modern home that boasts bright orange shipping containers.

While not technically row houses, carriage houses are complementary to the same neighborhoods where they stand, often backing up against narrow alleyways from which carriages would once emerge onto streets. 

An addition made of stacked shipping containers evokes the industrial past of the neighborhood in this renovation of a 1930s carriage house in Brooklyn—with a modern, bright orange twist. 

The architecture is now organized around a polychromatic core volume that extends from the ground floor to the roof terrace. 

The HardiePanel siding on the adjacent 100K and 120K houses is a dramatic break from East Kensington’s mostly brick facades. The simple, well insulated box and the absence of a third floor keep each house affordable, sustainable, and within the reach of young families.

Cheap metal cladding is often to blame for the lack of cohesiveness in contemporary row houses, usually making for discordant additions to historic districts. But a brave application of color variation works well in this project by Interface Studio Architects in Philadelphia. 

The playful design fits within Kensington, a neighborhood where long-lasting urban decay has given way to experimentation rather than preservation. More impressively, the home was built within a tight budget of approximately $200,000 and achieved LEED Platinum certification, as well as a 2010 Homes Project of the Year award from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Concrete floors and an Ikea kitchen and spice rack make for an affordable, cleanly geometric aesthetic at the back of the bottom floor. The appliances are by Frigidaire, and the black countertops are sealed with Eco Tuff by Eco Procote.

When new row houses are built in historic districts with strict design guidelines, the resulting projects can also end up looking unnatural or out of place besides the weathered and elaborate façades of neighboring homes. 

This row house design manages to fit within the context of its old neighborhood through sleek, classically symmetrical, and rectilinear forms. The design embraces the proportions of both modern and traditional architecture, which allows it to be evaluated for its own merits. 

Sited on a typical 25-by-100-foot corner lot in Brooklyn, this 5,000-square-foot residence was built with 21 stacked shipping containers cut diagonally along the top and bottom to create a step-like structure with four tiered levels and a small pool between the two lower levels.

A more exaggerated deployment of shipping containers in Brooklyn, this home is a radical departure from the borough’s traditional row houses: it is spacious, tall, and modern. 

Nonetheless, it could be seen as an evolution of the row house in the way in which it modulates its relationship with the street. A setback in the front and cascading terraces in the back create private spaces that float above the street-level, while the interior is well-lit by a mix of wide windows upfront and thin strips of glazing on the corner wall. 

The diagonal cut of the containers maximizes the built-in floor area and hides the rear terraces from the curious eyes of pedestrians passing by—both valuable elements considering its corner location. 

The series of pitched white buildings was inspired by the work of architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. "The shell of the house is a very simple form," says Matthew Ford, "no turns or intersecting roof sections. This allowed me to use solid but inexpensive framing and roofing crews. We are always looking for the point where simplicity and luxury meet."

This series of affordable homes in Houston works with the same economies of scale that made industrial-age row houses affordable places to live. They also offer homeowners space and privacy with large windows and open floor plans, while accommodating the density needed to create more sustainable and livable cities.

To find the future of the row house, we will have to extend its definition while keeping to the same principles that make it work—because through customizability, replicability, density and privacy, the row house balances the communal and individualistic realities of city life like no other form of housing. 

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