Perhaps one of the things Philadelphia is famous for is its abundance of rowhouses. In fact, rowhomes are the single most numerous type of housing in the city. From small, utilitarian houses in the older sections of Philadelphia such as Queen Village to the large rows complete with porches, bay windows, and gingerbread trim in West Philadelphia, the row home provided Philadelphians with a space efficient and cost efficient means of housing in a rapidly expanding and industrializing city.
In envisioning Philadelphia, William Penn had planned a “greene country towne” where homes would occupy big open lots. However, Penn’s first purchasers quickly divided and sold parts of their plots to new arrivals who wanted to live close to the business and industrial areas by the Delaware River. The area towards the Schuylkill River remained undeveloped however. At a time when most people got around by foot, living even this short distance from the main areas of activity was akin to living virtually disconnected from the city. As plots near the Delaware River were divided and further subdivided, Penn’s green country town quickly began to resemble the crowded cities of Europe that he had hoped Philadelphia would stand in stark contrast to. Houses and shops were erected right next to each other, often sharing a wall on one or both sides. Indeed, this type of “terraced housing” was the most common type of housing in European cities.
Philadelphia’s Elfreth’s Alley is hailed as the longest continually occupied street in the country. It would therefore be easy to assume that the attached houses on Elfreth’s Alley are the oldest rowhouses in Philadelphia. However, on closer inspection, the different facades and rooflines of the Elfreth homes show us that they were built at various times and by different builders. This can also be applied to other colonial-era housing in Philadelphia. The homes may share walls, but this was done more so out of necessity rather than planning.
The first planned row of look-alike housing to be built at one time was Carstairs Row at South 7th and Sansom Streets. Begun circa 1799, Carstairs Row was the brainchild of developer William Sansom. Sansom purchased the property at Walnut Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets at a sheriff’s sale. The land had previously belonged to Robert Morris, and the sale included Morris’ unfinished mansion designed by L’Enfant (and sometimes referred to as Morris’ Folly). Since this area was still undeveloped and a bit off the beaten track at the time, Sansom’s purchase and development of the land was the first speculative housing development in the United States. Sansom then bisected the property with his namesake street. In order to attract potential tenants, Sansom used his own money to pave the Sansom Street at a time when most other Philadelphia streets were little more than dirt roads. Sansom then hired architect Thomas Carstairs to design a row of twenty-two look-alike houses on the south side of Sansom Street. The rowhouses were the first to be purposely designed to have uniform facades and share walls.
Today, Carstairs Row is a part of Philadelphia’s famous Jeweler’s Row. The continuous flat facades of Carstairs Row meant easy conversion into commercial properties. Though Carstairs Row still exists, it has been heavily modified and updated over the centuries to fit changing business needs and requirements. Numbers 730 and 732 Sansom Street have retained some elements of their original design but raised entrances and other changes fundamentally alter their facades. However, 700 Sansom Street, one of the corner properties, remains remarkably unchanged since it was originally built. It stands as yet another example of the Philadelphia of the present coexisting with elements of the rich history of Philadelphia’s past.
Ames, Kenneth. “Robert Mills and the Philadelphia Row House,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 1968): 140.
Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/index.cfm.
Schade, Rachel Simmons. “Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners,” Philadelphia City Planning Commission and The National Trust for Historic Preservation, www.philaplanning.org/pubinfo/rowhousemanual.pdf.
Wolf, Edwin. Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Camino Books/The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1990), 129.