How Rowhouses Shaped Our Neighborhoods
The rowhouse blocks of early-nineteenth-century American cities were indeed neat and homogeneous in their public appearance. Behind their repetitive facades, however, both the social uses of interior space and the physical development of private backyards were more varied.
Wealthy families distributed their activities among the vertically organized rooms of an entire three-story townhouse in much the same way that they might have used a large detached house of the time.
Kitchens were either in the basement or a rear single-story extension, especially when there was a back service alley. Other rooms were differentiated by use but tended to be similar to one another in size, shape, and interior finish, like those in freestanding homes of the same era.
Rowhouses typically were built on or close to the front property line and were only 30 or 40 feet deep, leaving at least half the lot for backyards. The yards served a number of crucial functions, housing cisterns for fresh water as well as privies, which were set directly above a cesspool and frequently were connected to the house by a covered walkway. Deep yards also included vegetable gardens and often livestock, perhaps chickens or a pig.
Similar houses of the same size or smaller were used much more intensively by the households of less affluent artisans or laborers. The basic rowhouse layout, with its long side corridors, made it easy to rent individual rooms to boarders, and when neighborhoods grew crowded, basements were also commonly leased out.
In cities where blocks were laid out with rear access, separate houses were sometimes built behind the privies, facing the alleys and creating almost invisible low rent districts. Sanitary conditions were poor in these areas of overuse but, aside from fire laws, few regulations pertained to dwelling design.
In this era, long before zoning laws separated homes from commercial or industrial building uses, all neighborhoods included an assortment of small workshops and stores. Many of these were housed on the first story of typical rowhouses, most often the homes of their proprietors.
Thus, at the street level, signs and display windows enlivened long blocks of similar houses. Because the exterior front walls did not carry structural loads, they were relatively easy to alter, so shop windows as well as separate entrance doors could be installed or removed as necessary.
As technological change and rapid immigration transformed cities over the first half of the 19th century, the homes of urban families became less consistent, reflecting growing social stratification.
While conditions for the poor worsened with growing congestion, many increasingly affluent and established Americans focused on building new, more elaborate homes, in keeping with changing social and design standards.
Throughout the nineteenth century rows of attached middle- and upper-class houses continued to be built in large numbers. Their front facades and interior detailing followed a succession of changing fashions related to those of freestanding houses.
In most cases, however, the brick, carved stone, or terra-cotta ornament would survive far longer than decoration executed in wood. Many pattern books included, usually toward the end of the volume, schemes for so-called city houses. During the last third of the century, commercial builders as well as wealthy individuals also hired architects for the custom design of elegant rowhouses.
By the 1860s the spatial expectations for all middle-class and expensive homes in the United States had grown substantially. In addition to requiring twin parlors, formal dining rooms, and spacious entrance halls, Victorian morality and notions of family life now dictated that each child, ideally, have a separate bedroom, not a common practice fifty years earlier.
As building lot sizes were generally restricted by street layouts and rising land values, rowhouses built for the upper end of the market had to grow both longer and taller to accommodate these new standards. Some went as high as five stories, the top floor usually containing servants' rooms.
With the new emphasis on individuality and creative expression in the design of homes, front facades became much less uniform. Carefully designed and ornate rows of incredible beauty were built during this era, but there were also awkward juxtapositions where houses of wildly different styles adjoined one another without any coordination.
Late 19th Century
As Victorian rowhouses got deeper, their footprints were no longer simple rectangles but included light wells or side yards along rear extensions to brighten and ventilate dark central rooms.
The backyards of these houses, in consequence, became smaller and more irregular, frequently in shadow for most of the day. Many cities now had reliable water supply systems with underground piping, and new middle-class homes began to include interior plumbing, making rear yards less necessary for cisterns and privies.
Unfortunately, once private outdoor space was no longer needed for mundane sanitary purposes, the pressure of ever-rising city land values caused it to erode rapidly. The interior courts of new rowhouse blocks in the 1880s no longer provided as much light or as extensive a private outdoor realm, distinct from public city streets and parks.
Turn of the Century
After about 1900, though many rowhouses continued to rise, they were more likely to be in outlying sections of a city. This was the same point at which builders, because of the rising cost and complexity of construction, were starting to reduce the overall size and simplify the layouts of freestanding houses for middle-class families.
The design of rowhouses followed much the same pattern. A single living room replaced double parlors, kitchens became smaller but more efficient, and entry foyers shrank or disappeared completely.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, new rowhouses continued to reflect many of the same popular concerns that underlay the design and marketing of their detached counterparts.
At the same time that the bungalow craze was sweeping the country, for example, rows of small homes known as porch houses or daylighters were built along the trolley lines now extending outward into new sections of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington.
Providing modern amenities for families often moving from older homes without electrical wiring or even indoor bathrooms, the rooms were finished simply in accordance with the current image of a modern, hygienic home.
They were set farther back from the street than earlier rowhouses, so that narrow gardens or raised planting beds could separate the public sidewalk from a comfortable front porch spanning the facade. Like many bungalows on narrow lots, they emphasized "nature" while actually forming part of a broad expansion of the city.
Early 20th Century
A wide variety of moderately sized rowhouses were built between 1900 and the mid-1930s, a time when experimental efforts in neighborhood design were taking place all over the United States.
As the typical scale of construction increased, the old pattern of lot-by-lot development was sometimes replaced by more comprehensive neighborhood planning. In a variety of new developments, attached houses formed the basic building blocks or were included in a range of home types.
They were put up by private developers for individual sale or rent, by large industrial enterprises for employee housing, by the federal government for shipyard workers during World War I, and by socially motivated limited-dividend housing companies, whose aim was to provide high-quality homes for middle- or working-class Americans while realizing a modest profit.
Like the porch houses popular in the mid-Atlantic region, most incorporated a small area of planted front yard. In addition to streets and individual yards, larger complexes now included a variety of public or semiprivate open spaces: small parks, squares, or common courtyards defined by building walls.
Overall, the economies and land-conserving benefits of rowhouses were combined with suburban ideals of greenery and open space in newly sophisticated ways.
Christine Hunter is an architect who lives in New York City.
"Ranches, Rowhouses, and Railroad Flats. American Homes: How They Shape Our Landscapes and Neighborhoods," by Christine Hunter, is available at W.W. Norton & Company and at Amazon.com.