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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

How I got to be OK with Philly’s ugly new rowhomes (commentary)

Sometimes, while on a leisurely stroll, I’ll stop, look up and think: Now why did they do that to that house? 

You know the houses I’m talking about. The ✨✨ modern✨✨ rowhouses that are proliferating in Fishtown and Point Breeze, Queen Village and Kensington. Maybe they’ll have metal panelling or stucco. Quite often, they’ll have those gargantuan, rectangular, protruding bay windows that overhang a building’s ground level. I don’t find all of the newer fashions hideous, no. But many of these are flat-out ugly.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

I mean, look at this mess: Here, we had the makings of a perfectly normal brick rowhome. And then two thingamabobs (they are not proportional enough to get a more specific word) got slapped on it. The windows look affordably basic. And… Communion wafer is simply not a flattering color.

Greater Center City is in the middle of a housing boom that’s brought fears of a housing bubble. Billy Penn reported in February that the area, which goes from Girard to Tasker, got more than 6,500 new housing units in the first half of this decade, with another 5,800 getting built right now, and another 8,000 proposed.

Now, these bays serve noble purposes: a) they maximize the square footage and b) they allow more light. Light is cute! Space is awesome. Does it have to look… awful?

Brian Phillips, the founding principal at Interface Studio Architects, designs modern rowhouses that trend toward the trippy. His most recognizable project might be the panel-bonanza ReNewbold. “I think there is a bit of hangover on, sadly, badly executed non-brick façades,” he says.

Reinvention in a rowhouse city

Philadelphians have long sensed that this is the rowhouse city of rowhouse cities, and a Washington Post analysis of Census data all but proved it. Fifty-nine percent of locals dwell in rowhouses. Fifty-three percent of Baltimoreans do. Other major American cities don’t come close.

“The rowhouse is a machine for living,” Patrick Grossi, advocacy director over at the Preservation Alliance, told me last year. While rowhouses have been built across the city’s history, the late 19th century saw building booms that distinguished Philly from the pack. These homes, Grossi said, were “built primarily to house workers who were working in a city that at one time was one the greatest industrial powerhouses in the Western world.”

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

The plain, simple two-story-with-a-stoop rowhouse reflected a certain ideal: Even a working class family can own a house here. Multiple critics have noted that so much of the rowhouse stock is monotonous. They are right. For all the romance to it, for all the magic around Filter Square, in Headhouse, in whole stretches of Cedar Park, there’s also no shortage of run-of-the-mill, unremarkable units. That underscores another noble pursuit behind the new construction, Phillips explains.

“In 2005, when we started our practice we were almost offended by the city’s appetite for red brick. So many neighborhoods were crumbling under disinvestment. We were really interested in a fresh vocabulary of this new rowhouse,” he says.

Phillips put the trends he sees in a nutshell. First floors now have a stronger focus on the kitchen; bathrooms have gotten larger. Roof decks “are the new yard.” Because, when you’re out of Center City but still on the grid, the skyscrapers dissipate and the rooftop views get wavy.

His firm has worked on projects where they’ve wondered: “How do you do create some relief and some texture and some sort of visual movement in the language with how we build today rather than mimicking the past?”

But, from the desire to mix things up sires a tension that comes with sharp departure. Because, yeah, yeah, this is America and your home is your castle or whatever, but a modern rowhouse pitched in a sea of simple brick can look discordantly different.

Consider this block. I actually think there’s an appealing cleanliness to the aesthetic. But it makes me think of dorm complexes.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

No, not those towers and quads that freshmen get relegated to, but the nicer units reserved for lucky upperclassmen and graduate students that convey that just-off campus feel without actually being so. I don’t associate this look with South Philly, or Philly at-large for that matter. But here it is, with tangerine balconies not solely for jello-shot consumption but chillaxing in the sun when you need a break from working world adulting. What a time to be alive.

Suzanne Dreitlein, the blogger behind The Urban Rowhouse, doesn’t really mind blocks like these. “Not my personal preference, but since the whole block matches, they can get away with it,” she says. What Dreitlein does mind are homes that look like aberrations. “If you stick one of these things on a historic block full of 18th century homes, you really should just be shot.”

She says, laughing: “If you’re a developer, go to a neighborhood that already has a diverse representation of [houses], don’t mess with a homogeneous or nearly homogeneous block. It looks bad.”

A mixed block.

A mixed block.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

“You have to think about, ‘how does it look with my neighbors, not just me,’” she continues, speaking of residents now. “That’s the point of a rowhouse.”

She wants to be clear, though: Modernism ain’t really her thing. She believes these houses “lack cozy.” She’s not alone.

“People’s perceptions of domestic architecture come from popular media, such as books, films and magazine photographs dating back to the 19th century. Popular images of homeownership have asserted traditional forms and styles, which look more accessible and universal,” Michael Allen, an architectural historian and the director of the Preservation Research Office, explains in an email. He’s a lecturer in Washington University’s American Culture Studies department who’s written about modernist gems meeting the wrecking ball. There are examples of modernist ranches certainly in the Mid-West and West Coast. Still, “[i]mages of modernist houses often are encountered in magazines like Dwell, and carry connotations of cultural exclusivity and even elitism.”

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Pretty costs

The Inquirer’s Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic Inga Saffron has lauded some modern rowhomes, but in January, she wrote newer real estate in Roxborough showed signs of a “suburbanizing tide.”

“Developers have been clear-cutting older homes and replacing them with alien McTownhouses decked out with vinyl siding and gabled roofs. Instead of gardens and porches, the newcomers greet their neighbors with front-loaded garages and concrete parking pads,” she wrote.

And now we get to the reason for the aesthetic (or lack thereof). The idea behind holding back the pretty in the latest wave of building is a simple one, says Re:Vision Architecture founding principal Scott Kelly: $$$.

“Here in the Philadelphia market, our housing costs are low, our labor and materials costs are relatively high. Therefore, the architecture and the building… tend to get less budget to do a good job,” he says. Kelly and Re:Vision were behind PECO’s 45,000-ft. green roof, and are basically a big deal when it comes to sustainable building in this city. But back to the money. “That’s driving what a good designer can do much further down. If I have 10 or 15 percent more to spend on a house than the bare minimum, I can do a lot better job— a lot better job environmentally, and a lot better job for beauty.”

Phillips also pointed to the challenge of buildings costs. “When you ask modern day laborers to [build with vintage-style detailing] it’s either very expensive or very badly done.”

Damn, it’s expensive to be an aesthete, huh? I would love to believe that when I buy my first house, I could walk in like money ain’t a thing. But no, that’s not what I’m going to do. I’d try to lowball, but wind up paying more than I want, but I’d still fiercely protect the glee that’ll be unlocked when I sign that damn contract, and know that Zillow said one thing, but in my heart, I knew better. Goodness, my modern rowhome would be so barebones and unsightly. And even knowing this, I’d celebrate the hell out of that purchase. I’d just figure out the right angles of the house for the gram. 

There’s a house in Queen Village that strikes Dreitlein. It’s a corner property with trapezoidal shape, which makes the hunk of a bay, which she calls a cantilever, “clever.”

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Suzanne Dreitlein

It’s different and interesting to her and doesn’t feel as incongruous on its street. I think it looks like a repurposed truck.

But I know that I’m not above that truck. That vehicle speaks to me. It reminds me that few seemed to give a single rat’s booty maybe 25 years ago about too many neighborhoods that were easily walkable from downtown. But not today, honey. We got cute bars, and bike advocacy and these clunky, misshapen homes sprouting in vacant lots… and making them active.

So bless them. Bless them all. 

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