Several US cities take their urban form mostly from one particular form of housing, from the rowhouse. This is especially true in the northeast and mid Atlantic where Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington all have their share of those long rows of attached houses. Although the rowhouse has long been reincarnated in the suburbs under the new name townhouse, it is in its original urban habitat that its image has suffered.
As income stratified and segregated as we typically live, most Americans have never set foot in the really distressed urban neighborhoods derided as ghettos or no-go zones where rowhouses reign. At best the better to-do folks know these neighborhoods from a look through the windows of an Amtrak coach with a display of seemingly endless amounts of decrepit and apparently abandoned rowhouses on both sides of the tracks, whether one travels through Philadelphia or through Baltimore. But everyone has seen "the hood" on TV. TV crime series like Homicide or the Wire, both playing in Baltimore's distressed rowhouse neighborhoods have burnt unfavorable images of decay, disinvestment and neglect into our collective memory Thus, next to the highrises of the "projects", the rowhouse has the lowest status of all housing types.
This may be the reason that realtors call them townhouses when they appear in their suburban form along parking lots and cul de sacs in the exurbs of the very same cities, that gave the rowhouses their bad name.
|East Baltimore rowhouses as seen from an Amtrak train|
|Once stately homes which ArchPlan painstakenly restored to historic standards|
The bad name is undeserved for many reasons, one of them the disastrous performance of other forms of urban dwellings, especially in the context of low income housing, namely the apartment, regardless if located in a garden apartment complex or in a elevator tower, both forms of housing quite unsuitable for families with children. (New York seems to make an exception here).
The rowhouse offers direct access from the ground and direct access to a yard, however small. Nobody walks over anybody else's head in a rowhoue, there are no public hallways, stairways or elevators to take care of and still densities can be as high as 45 units to the acre. Only two walls are exposed, the roof area is minimized and the footprint is small. This makes the rowhouse quite sustainable, especially compared to the freestanding single houses in the burbs.
In all the images of abandoned and boarded rowhouses it is often overlooked how the rowhouse has also been successfully adopted by yuppies and urbanistas of all colors. From Georgetown to Federal Hill to Society Hill the rowhouse has been the backbone of the gentrification of these neighborhoods, even where there were mostly modest cousins of the always stately brownstones available.
My architecture firm has surveyed several hundred rowhouses and designed their re-birth as low income rental homes, as starter homes for first time buyers and as burgs for new young urban upstart dwellers. We have designed new infill rowhouses as upscale condominium properties and we have transformed two side by side homes into a puppet theatre. We have rehabbed homes from the ground up and we have connected skinny homes sideways as a live-work artist units.
25 years of work on this particular housing type have provided many insights and have told a large part of Baltimore's history. As told in Pietila's book "Not in my Neighborhood" it becomes obvious, that it can't be the rowhouse that is at fault when a neighborhood declines. It can't be, because it may have been built by the upper crust and then changed hands over time until it became a place of last resort before it was abandoned. It may have been built as a working class production home and serves this purpose to this day. It may have been a modest production home in the beginning and became a yuppy burg in recent years. In short, all kinds of histories have happened in these places regardless how modest or rich their "bones". Rather than being the culprit, the rowhouses has proven itself as resilient enough to weather all kinds of trends and flexible enough to accomodate all kinds of needs.
Good books have been written about the rowhouse, but more needs to be told. When the Baltimore Design Center decided to put on a House Show about the rowhouse, I signed up for a contribution and started digging in our archives.
As material is getting unearthed and narratives become clearer I will report here in more detail what can be learned and how the rowhouse can remain the backbone of the urban renaissance.
To be continued. If you care leave your own stories here as comments.