“The Quintessential Object of Industrial Philadelphia”

Looking East on McKean Street from South Second Street, July 20, 1901. Photo from PhillyHistory,org

Philadelphia’s most effective tool in its industrial transformation during the late 19th century wasn’t a tool at all, although it could be considered a machine for living. As architectural historian George Thomas put it, the rowhouse was “the quintessential object of Industrial Philadelphia.”

But the Philadelphia rowhouse had far older roots. In 1800, Scottish-born “architect and house-carpenter” Thomas Carstairs took the idea of a row and stretched it out for a full city block on Sansom between 7th and 8th Street, turning real estate into revenue and meeting the city’s ever-growing appetite for housing. Over the next several decades, as the city grew across its 17th-century grid, the rowhouse evolved into an upscale solution for urban living. Architects John Haviland and Thomas U. Walter demonstrated how the repeated form could also become something chic and generous. But as the city’s population soared past one million in 1890, the rowhouse was effectively reclaimed for the working class. By the end of the century, Thomas writes, “as far as the eye could see, there were some fifty square miles of row houses and factories, most of which had been built in the previous generation.”

The two-and three-story rowhouse had become part the city’s successful mix of immigration, employment, coal, real estate and banking. Between 1887 and 1893, no fewer than 50,288 rowhouses were built, enough for a quarter million people. Rowhouse construction had seen a boom before, with more than 50,000 built between 1863 and 1876. But now, in the last decade of the 19th century, the Philadelphia rowhouse had grown more compact, more simplified and even more adapted to the lives of  the working family. With the help Philadelphia’s 450 savings and loan associations, a two-story  “Workingman’s House,” as it became known, could be had for about $3,000 and paid off in about a decade.

Sure, other cities—New York, Boston, Brooklyn and Baltimore—had rowhouses, but Philadelphia’s were more efficient, plentiful and affordable. More than anything else, the late-19th century Philadelphia rowhouse propelled Philadelphia to become the Workshop of the World.

2801 Brown Street, January 6, 1932. Andrew D. Warden, photographer.

In 1893 the world took notice. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago exhibited a single specimen, a two-story “Workingmen’s House” designed by Philadelphia architect E. Allen Wilson. Other models of American housing on display included an Eskimo house and a logger’s cabin. The Philadelphia exhibit in Chicago was so popular, legend has it, that curious visitors wore out the floorboards.

The Philadelphia model was more than a mere solution to a housing problem; it became an effective tool for a modern society. “The two-story dwellings of this city are, beyond all question, the best, as a system, not only owing to the single family ideas they represent, but because their cost is within the reach of all who desire to own their own homes,” glowed a rowhouse proponent in the early 1890s. “They have done more to elevate and to make a better home life than any other known influence. They typify a higher civilization, as well as a truer idea of American home life, and are better, purer, sweeter than any tenement house systems that ever existed. They are what make Philadelphia a city of homes, and command the attention of visitors from every quarter of the globe.”

Between 1890 and 1910 Philadelphia grew from a city of a million to 1.5 million and added miles more rowhouses with ever greater repetition and monotony. Variations of one sort or another added to the city’s grammar of forms. Over time, some rows would be demolished to make way for new schools, while others would have their brick facade veneered with permastone, a literal interpretation of the romantic idea that even in a modern industrialized city, home is castle.