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The Struggles & Joys of Living In A Philadelphia Rowhouse

Growing up in suburban Texas, a home was "old" to me if it was built in the 1970s. Wall to wall carpet, drop ceilings, odd bathroom tile choices, and laminate countertops were what I associated with homes that weren't cookie-cutter new builds. Essentially, I believed that "dated" and "old" were synonymous, interchangeable terms. And while everyone's idea of dating a house as aged or decreipt might differ, mine was completely altered upon moving to Philadelphia. While San Antonio is certainly an old city, the amount of remaining and intact architecture, both commercial and residential, is sparse and nearly nonexistent outside of the downtown historical area. Philadelphia, on the other hand, became the United States' first UNESCO-designed World Heritage City, joining the likes of Quebec City and freaking Jerusalem, for the exact opposite reason- a breathtaking amount of architecture remains, is in-use, and inhabited. (Coincidentally enough, San Antonio has since joined Philadelphia in this designation, and is now the second World Heritage City in the United States for its Spanish Missions. Read: the Alamo).

(Dupont Street in Manayunk.)

However, what now dominates the architectural landscape of our city is far more utilitarian and everyday than any notable structures like Independence Hall or the Philadelphia Museum of Art: the thousands and thousands of rowhomes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia further experimented with its housing stock. Rival cities like New York, whose population was exploding, built large-scale, tenement-style buildings to house its citizens. In a contrasting move, Philadelphia went for a smaller, human scaled home for its endless supply of factory and mill workers. In the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in the city, these rowhomes were called "the Philadelphia Home", and the city was lauded for its ability to allow any citizen to afford a home. If you walk the streets of Philadelphia in virtually any neighborhood, from Rittenhouse to Old City to Manayunk, you're destined to come across row after row of these two to four story homes, some quaint, others more grandiose. Compared to the rest of the United States, Philadelphia still has the highest percentage of its population living in these nineteenth and early twentieth century homes. Fast-forward all the way to the cluster that is 2020, Hugh and myself are lucky enough to live in one of these historic, working-class homes. For now, I'll skip the rest of the history lesson. If you'd like to read further, try here, or here, or here. Below, I've compiled a list of some of the pros and cons of living in a Philadelphia rowhouse.

(Conarroe Street in Manayunk.)

Yes, Size Can Be An Issue

This is probably a surprise to exactly no one. If you've been lucky enough to visit virtually any historic site or home, whether in the Americas or overseas, you possibly quickly realized that people just weren't very tall back then. Add in the fact that many modern necessities, even bathrooms, were reserved for only the wealthy- well, things might get tight. Doorways, ceilings, hallways, bedrooms- you name it, they're generally shorter and narrower. But smaller isn't always worse, just like bigger isn't always better. When moving into a row home, we definitely had to consider what was important to us, both regarding furniture and "stuff" in general. It's a challenging, but rewarding, task to create a functional and aesthetic layout.

Stairs Are Troublesome

In Philadelphia, we have an even more peculiar version of the tiny home called a Trinity House. An even smaller version of a standard rowhome, a trinity house consists of three (like the name suggests) floors, where every floor is solely one room. And that's not it! They're all also connected by a spiral staircase (pictured below) from the basement to the third floor that is sure to cause many a headache when you move in or out. Usually kitchens were located in the basement, and these homes totaled less than 1000 square feet. Our city's quintessential, cobbled alleyways and side streets are stuffed to the brim with these adorable and tiny trinity homes. Still, I would say no amount of cute truly makes up for the pain you'll suffer during the moving process- but that's just my opinion (for your consideration: in my first Philadelphia apartment, I purchased and returned three separate couches until I gave up on squeezing one through the stairwell and had had to assemble one in the living room). Assembling furniture in-room is really your best option for most larger pieces, and escaping the dreaded madness of IKEA can be another challenge altogether. Our home is slightly larger than a standard trinity and we're luckily afforded a decent amount of space, but we still have had to work around the winding, tight spaces that these stairs have ~blessed~ us with. This leads perfectly into the next point.

(Our "spiral" trinity staircase.)

Windows Are Your Friend

When dealing with larger furniture as mentioned above, consider windows. They're often larger than you think, and in cities like Philadelphia where we're accustomed to the struggle of older homes, many moving companies will hoist furniture into second and third floors through aforementioned windows. It's an often-missed bypass to the issue of minuscule stairs, especially if you've never lived or moved into a home that was tight on space. An added bonus for us, and many others in homes like ours, is that we have especially deep window sills, which has created a great situation for our growing collection of houseplants. And, since these homes mostly have plenty of windows with less of a footprint, natural bright light is abound. Since outdoor space might also be limited, these window sills often become eclectic indoor gardens.

Character, Character, Character

Yes, this is what everyone mentions when talking about older homes, and rowhomes are no exception: you just don't find the same amount of character in new construction. We're not saying everyone's taste should skew towards the old and antique, but nevertheless, there's something to be said for a home that's stood for 150 plus years, evolving with the times for generations. The original hardwood, worn but smooth, aged with a full range of tones. The exposed brick walls exuding a grounding, solid sturdiness and eye-catching texture. The robust wood crossbeams and rafters securing the ceiling with might. Below are a few photos that show some of the intact, nifty and neat features that have lasted from the nineteenth century until now.

You're A Caretaker Now

I think about this often, what it means to be a "caretaker" of an old house, and how we can do justice by our home. Not necessarily historically-accurate justice (we like electricity and plumbing, thank you), but doing right in creating a functional and modernized home while retaining all of the original features, however quirky, as best we can. Protecting our floors and the original baseboard trim, among other things, are important to us. Plenty of rowhome renovations are complete gut-jobs, and while the outer shell usually keeps its brick or stone appearance, the insides are unrecognizable. This definitely has benefits in the likes of larger bathrooms, more closet space, and so on, but can very easily feel inauthentic. It's easy to forget just how old these homes are. They're older than our grandparents, our great grandparents even, and many in Society Hill and Old City date back to the Revolutionary War and prior. These homes have lives that will eclipse even our own, becoming a shared space for many a family across generations. It's always interesting to think about who has scaled these spiral stairs before us- what were their lives like? What did the home look like then? In summary: a rowhome is like a living, breathing time capsule, harboring bits and pieces of different decades and centuries. To me, that's pretty cool.

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