|The Baltimore rowhouse defines whole parts of the City|
|Disinvested parts of East Baltimore with downtown skyline beyond|
Street-grid with alleys to serve the rears of rowhouses
|Three story rowhouses with varied front facades about 16' wide|
What is a Rowhouse?
Everybody knows what a rowhouse is: a house against which other houses are pushed so close that they share the party wall and only the front and back are exposed. Right? We learned as kids playing monopoly how this works. If you have too many of the little green houses on a street you push them together. Once you have more than four, even this won't work anymore and you have to trade the rowhouses for the larger red building, the "hotel", an apartment building.
We know some cities are famous for their rowhouses. London comes to mind, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Cities that were built after the British model, it would seem, although the British elevated their rowhouses to the term "terraces". Paris, Berlin or New York are associated with apartment buildings and more density, but they, too, have a good share of rowhouses ("Brownstones" in New York). In fact, the very first rowhouses were built in Paris. Montreal is made a good bit of rowhouses, so is New Orleans, both cities, naturally, exhibiting the French style architecture.
The efficiency of the rowhouse (saving two walls, building them right at the edge of the street) made them ideal for the first speculative cheap worker housing in the United States, constructed in Philadelphia. Cheaply built and mass produced, it gave the rowhouse a bad name and is typically associated with slums, crime and grime throughout history; from Marx-Engels' descriptions of slums in England to al Jazeera's series about the war on drugs in Baltimore today.
But the rowhouse also comes in deluxe versions with elaborate facades, porches, balconies, turrets, gables and bays. In some famous London "terraces" a group of rowhouses was made to look like a palace (with each house carrying certain elements of the greater ensemble).
Narrow rowhouse less than 12' wide in Little Italy, Baltimore, gable roof
Why does the rowhouse matter today?
In a world where now over half of all people live in cities (or more accurately: in urban metro areas), the question how that many people can live sustainably, becomes ever more pressing. What building type provides comfort, urbanity and sustainability? We all know how the love affair with the single family home, which is largely the result of the love affair with the automobile, has led to sprawl and low density. Already in 1961 the term "megalopolis" was coined by Jean Gottman, a French cartographer, when he looked down from his airplane window and saw a sea of lights from Washington DC to Boston and subsequently wrote a book about it.
I was eleven or twelve when an informed teacher told my class about this megalopolis and 500 miles of continuous urban settlement. This impressed me very much in my small German town of just 50,000 with sheep grazing outside the sharply defined urban boundaries. (Little did I know, that some 50 years later I would actually live in this very stretch).
I was equally impressed by the historic descriptions of squalor in densely populated rowhouse slums of Liverpool and London that initially fueled suburbanization. I didn't quite have a first hand association with a slum. The German, French, Austrian, Swiss or Danish towns and cities which I knew, didn't have anything fitting the description. But in 1975 when I worked in the Greater London Council's Central Area Planning Team, I soon saw with my own eyes what a slum was. It was then and in London, that I also saw my first really massive amount of rowhouses and equally massive amounts of abandonment. Rows and rows of empty houses, many burnt-out ruins. "Derelict" was the term the planning office for them. To boot, in London I lived in a rowhouse in working class Fulham and kept being afraid that returning at night after one too many beers, I might not enter the correct door.
After moving into the Boston to Richmond megalopolis, for a while the Baltimore rowhouse was for me just the image of the facades seen from the street almost anywhere in Baltimore City; until I founded my own architecture firm in 1992 and was listed in the yellow pages. Soon a guy called me up to rehab a rowhouse on Fulton Street . This was right in the inner city on the westside where later "the Wire" would be filmed. It was then, I discovered and the anatomy of the rowhouse. Since that fateful first rowhouse my firm has designed hundreds more all across the city. The "bones" are what gives the rowhouse its specific design, so let's see what they are.
Boarded vacant rowhouses in Baltimore as seen on "the Wire"
(see also my earlier blog Vacants to Value)
What is the Anatomy of the Rowhouse?
The standard American rowhouse is made from brick and timber. Bearing brick walls on the sides (4" for each party wall adding up to two rows of brick separating the two "dwelling units"), bricks also in the front but often times just leaning against wood framing (veneer wall), sometimes, here too, two rows of brick making a bearing wall. (Supporting mostly itself since the timber frames get supported by the side walls). Oh, and here we need to mention a Baltimore specialty: "Formstone". The front brick covered with a thick cement stucco which is artfully molded to look like stone veneer including mortar "joints". This treatment was fashionable right before and after WW II when many original brick facades needed their first repairs. A sure fire sign of "gentrification" today is the removal of formstone in favor of the historically correct exposed brick. (Of course, gentrification also loves to expose the brick inside, a practice that preservationists frown upon as unhistoric).
The compendium to the walls are, of course, the wood beams which bear on the walls. The party walls carry the timber beams (joists) that span the entire width of the building and sit in little pockets on the brick. Only the roof rafters span front to back to allow a simple slope. They, too, sit on cross beams, ultimately transferring the roof load also into the side walls. Since regular lumber cannot span much beyond 16' or so, most rowhouses max out around that width, just enough for a good bedroom or a living room, not really enough to comfortably place two rooms side by side. But there is no structural limit to the depth of the rowhouse. This simple fact pretty much determines the layout of the rowhouse: One room in the front right behind the entry door is the living room or parlor, behind it there must be a stair to get up and down (Baltimore rowhouses all have a basement), an area to eat and the kitchen. True, some of the older and grander rowhouses had a kitchen in the basement and personnel that brought it up into a grand dining area, but most normal houses had a kitchen in back on the first floor with a door to the rear yard and to the alley. Upstairs you can then fit two bedrooms, one in the front and one in the back with a bathroom somewhere in the middle or side by side with the rear room, to line the pipes up with the kitchen below. If the rowhouse has a third floor, that would allow two more bedrooms there. This simple layout, based on the joists, works down to a minimum width of some where around 10' wide for a really humble abode (often called an "alley" house and being inhabited by the servants and poor who can't afford to face the streets).
Most rowhouses in Baltimore, though are not rectangular two or three story boxes but have more complicated shapes. How so and why? Enter the issue of daylight and ventilation. It is easy to see that a house that is between 10" and 16" wide and often up to 50' deep would have serious problems with daylight. All rooms somewhere in the middle would have no light at all except for the occasional skylight. Even for dining rooms or bathrooms, that would be an unattainable situation, especially back before mechanical ventilation or before electricity was used for lighting. To avoid this problem, almost all rowhouses have a rear area that is 2' to 3' skinnier than the front, allowing for space between it and the neighbor. If the neighbor does the same thing mirrored on the property line, you get a four to six foot distance. This space is enough to allow side windows in addition to the rear windows. If the rowhouse is 3 stories tall, such a shaft would still be totally ineffective in getting light and air in. To address this problem, the upper floors step down from the three floors at the full width front and two levels for the reduced width "tail". And sometimes, the two story tail is also stepped, with the first floor reaching further back into the yard than the second.
Small two story rowhouse plan and basement
wider three story rowhouse with narrow rear and slot for daylight
typical section three story rowhouse
Some of the grander rowhouses that would not tolerate narrow rooms in a skinny back would have air shafts of quite small dimensions going down the center allowing for, at least, bathrooms to have some light and ventilation plus some middle rooms for servants with minimal daylight. Those bigger rowhouses, designed for the rich, had plenty of tall windows front and back bringing light pretty far back into the center. Harvesting light and air even more efficiently, those grander houses also had pretty large glazed and operable transom windows above highly decorated doors, allowing a breeze to go through the house from front to back.
An important element in a narrow, long and stacked house configuration is the stair. (Making the rowhouse a pretty bad candidate for accessibility under ADA). Depending on the status of its original intended inhabitants, the stairs would be narrow straight shots up from the equally narrow entry hallway or they would be intricate curved affairs that wind their way into what would become in the upper regions a "switch back stair" with intermittent landings against one party wall. The curved start on the main level was not just ornamentation but the elegant solution for the extra high first floor rooms allowing some extra steps. The big rowhouses had two sets of stairs, one inviting grand stair in the front and a servant stair in the back.
narrow straight stair in small house rowhouse (left), elaborate curved stair in
a bigger house
a bigger house
Initially rowhouses were heated like any other house with open fireplaces and later with radiators and hot steam from a coal or oil fired boiler in the basement. Today's standard American "split air" HVAC system poses great difficulties for the rowhouse and its tight spaces for lack of good ways to run the ducts. In the ceilings the joists prevent the front to back runs to get diffusers near the windows and "bulkheads" dropping down from ceilings conflict with crown moldings and sometimes delicate ceiling plasterwork or they can't get around the stairs. Bulkheads almost always conflict with the windows. Many rowhouses in Baltimore's poorer areas still have no AC and many others work with AC window units as a compromise fix. More recent "mini duct" systems run air in small pipe like ducts that fit into existing wall cavities.
The rowhouse roof is also very particular to this building type. The oldest rowhouses had gabled roofs just like freestanding houses, the eaves facing the street and the rear. But soon the desire to make impressive facades took over and brought about the "flat" roofs with some slope front to back, thus making the front tall and much more visible. The tallness was further accentuated by a parapet wall that often exceeded the actual roof level by several feet and was decorated with wide copings and a large bracketed cornices stabilizing the unbraced parapet wall. Between the brackets scrolled plywood with intricate patterns provided additional ornament and at the same time ventilation openings for the space between ceiling and roof.
cornice and parapet wall with brackets and scrolls
The "flat" roof with its quite low slopes required a departure from the shingles and slate roofs that worked well on the early gable roofs. Rowhouses in Baltimore have asphalt "felt" roofs and nurture a whole cottage industry since they are especially prone to leaks. On the traditional felt roof layers of fabric get saturated with hot melted asphalt carried onto the roof in buckets. Skylights often placed atop the stairs to bring daylight into the center of the house, or flues and pipes represent the roofing challenges. Often the asphalt is simply turned up and roofing "cement" is smeared around in abandon to seal the whole affair up. But hot sun and cold winters are not kind to asphalt and will make it eventually brittle. It will fail and the whole installation has to start over. (Modern single ply technologies like TPO with high "albedo", essentially a white roof, are safer applications but often not mastered by the small roofing contractors that fix rowhouse roofs).
rear part of the house with space between houses and drop from three to two stories
Let's conclude the anatomy of the rowhouse with a key issue: How the rowhouse meets the street or, more generally, the ground. We mentioned already that the rowhouse sits pretty much at the edge of the sidewalk, in better neighborhoods it may have a small planting bed that is maybe as wide as the stair projects forward from the front door. And with this stair we finally come to the all defining element of the Baltimore rowhouse, its marble "stoops". Any good rowhouse has its main floor elevated above the sidewalk. In the back (with terrain typically sloping from the street to the alley) the drop is even bigger, often allowing an elevated porch or deck and possibly a door from the basement to the rear yard, an important advantage for coal delivery!
Rowhouse materials: Brick facade, marble stoops and base, formstone
Unlike many of its brethren in Boston, New York or Washington, the Baltimore rowhouse has no "English basement" i.e. is less elevated above the sidewalk, allowing just a standard low basement and not too much excavation. Instead of jamming in another tenement below the main level with steps going down from the sidewalk (the "English" basement), the Baltimore rowhouse is content to remove the front parlor only slightly from the curious passers-by by elevating it about 1-3' above the sidewalk. This requires somewhere between 3 to 5 risers formed from big solid marble slabs stacked up to form a stair. There normally would be a landing in front of the door. At a better house the landing may have a small porch. The entry door would have an outer double door and a second door forming a vestibule which acts as an air lock. Those vestibules would have intricate mosaic tile floors, marble wainscots and sometimes lanterns hanging from a ceiling medallion.
life on the stoop
As noted, many times the rear terrain would be somewhat lower than the street and slope down to an alley. The rear yard, as wide as the rowhouse, was historically the place to dispose of waste and wastewater as well as the access for deliveries. Today the alley accommodates the sewer lines (with water and gas typically being the street or under the sidewalk) and often times the overhead electric lines. Thus, the yard continued to be a place devoted to service function, not a show piece as in the suburbs. Social life happens up front with the stoops as a place to sit and watch what was going on. With modern life bringing new concepts of privacy to the home, back-yards today are often neatly decorated gardens allowing outdoor enjoyment even in dense urban quarters.
The rowhouse as a housing type is by far not "done". Many creative applications are possible. It gets reinvented in the streets of Denver, San Diego and London. Its main concept, stacked floors and a direct entrance from a sidewalk, can be replicated at the bottom of larger structures or on top of them. At my firm's Printers Square project in Baltimore, we inserted two level units with stoops and front doors in a larger otherwise non descript former industrial building. My colleagues from Parameter Design built townhouses as penthouses on top of the large roof deck of the Silo Point project in Baltimore. The maybe most unusual application comes from the young Danish architect Bjarke Ingels who spliced two story townhomes as layers along the sloping walksways into his famous 10 story tall 8-house in Copenhagen.
The urban design that comes with the rowhouse, the matter of density, security, privacy and the issues of the alley as a place of grime and crime shall be the topic of another blog entry on the rowhouse. In it we will also explore if its is better to demolish vacant rowhouses or preserve them for future use.
Utilitarian back yard (much concrete, trash can, storage)
the backyard as garden
all photos: ArchPlan Inc. copyright
Related articles on this blog:
The Rowhouse and the City
Why the Rowhouse Today is as Good for Urban Living as Ever
Additional information: http://www.oldhouseonline.com/baltimores-varied-row-houses/
last updated 8/18/13
Rowhouse and urban design link added 10/22/12 20:08