Rowhomes on the 1500 block of North 33rd Street in Strawberry Mansion Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

The difference between the words “rowhouse” and “rowhome” might appear insignificant, but this is Philly, and discussions about the slight distinction can get testy.

A review of local media and city government usage shows both overwhelmingly choose “rowhouse” these days, and plenty of Philadelphians join them. But conversational use of “rowhome” abounds — and some feel very strongly about their chosen term.

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

Further up and down the Mid-Atlantic, there are other terms. Words like “townhome,” “townhouse,” and even “brownstone” are used to refer to similar, if not identical buildings. So is it just a matter of taste? Sometimes, but not always.

To help sort things out, we put together a brief glossary on the origins of these varying descriptors and their usage today.

The Philadelphia row

By the 1800s, the term “Philadelphia row” was already in use, referring to connected houses lining streets and alleys. The style varied from block to block, as the model could be adapted for smaller and cheaper or bigger, pricier iterations. Versions included:

  • The bandbox — This smallest option, sometimes called a “trinity home” due to its three levels, has a winding staircase connecting rooms that typically are “no larger than sixteen feet on any side,” according to an entry in the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by historian Amanda Casper. They were originally built for working-class residents who served Philadelphians in nearby connected homes of their own.
  • The London house — These are also multifloor residencies, but two rooms deep as opposed to a stack of single rooms. The rooms are usually larger than bandbox homes.
  • The city house — This expands on the bandbox design, with an extra ancillary room adjoined to the main room.
  • The town house — This expands on the London house, though is usually more ornate, with the ancillary rooms also added on.

In the Philadelphia press, whether through advertising or articles, the term “rowhouse” is used to refer to the range of these homes.

That said, the term “rowhome” caught on in the 20th century, and has become at least as popular — if not predominant — in common conversation.

Rowhomes in Spring Garden Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

What about ‘townhouse’ (and ‘townhome’)?

“Townhouse” and “rowhouse” are often used interchangeably, but if there is a structural distinction, it might be that the former is used to describe houses that do not line a city block, but are in a less urban or nonurban setting. They tend to be more spacious than rowhouses, too.

Townhouses could be considered to be buildings that share a wall with adjacent homes, but are part of a wider development — such as a gated community or one with a shared parking lot and homeowners association.

So is it townhouse or townhome? It seems like these terms are used to refer to the exact same thing, with the version that ends in “home” also being the informal choice.

Ok, now what about ‘brownstone’?

Some neighborhoods in New York City are world-famous for their brownstones. This form of connected housing has particular design features — like a deeply recessed doorway — that may be familiar to anyone who’s watched a Spike Lee joint.

The irony of it all is that while brownstones got their name from the material of their stairs and facades — the soft sandstone known as brownstone — the official terminology of the city where they’re famous is still the inescapable “rowhouse,” as a style guide from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission attests.

Brownstones are much less common in Philly, even though there are some locations that fit the bill, like the fancy houses in Rittenhouse Square or parts of Fairmount.

A fancy rowhome — a brownstone? Townhome? — in Fairmount Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

To close the door on this…

So, rowhouses are rowhomes, which can be townhouses in some cases and brownstones in others. Got it?

The name of the building aside, they are all an American spin on European construction practices. Versions vary across socioeconomic status, but all contribute to a certain connective essence of urban life, especially in major East Coast cities.

The foreward to a rowhouse manual published by Philadelphia in 2008 says their “constant revitalization and adaptation illustrates the viability of the city.”

In Philly, rowhouses “became synonymous with the city … held up as an exemplar for egalitarian housing for all,” per Casper’s encyclopedia entry.

In 2015, The Washington Post listed the most prominent housing styles in major U.S. cities, concluding that Philadelphia is the rowhouse (erm, rowhome?) capital of America — only Baltimore comes close.

The city’s manual to our quintessential form of housing describes how rowhouses connect the Philly of decades and centuries past to our contemporary moment.

“We don’t cook in basement fireplaces or use backyard privies as the earliest rowhouse residents did,” the manual reads, “but the houses have proven to be so adaptable that we’ve been able to make them congenial to the 21st century.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...