|The rowhouse can easily follow the topography and forms the street edge|
(East Baltimore with Johns Hopkins in the background)
The year is 1959. The major event: the grand opening of Lexington Terrace: Over 700 new public housing units are completed on about 20 acres of land, concentrated in a group of five towers up to 11 stories tall, allowing light and air in all units. Gone are the squalid little slum houses stacked tightly along streets and alleys. The new towers are modern, though, from the get-go they lacked the stark clarity of Le Corbusier's "Unite D'Habitation" in Marseilles. Still, the new towers, owned and managed by the Baltimore Housing Authority (BHA), were Baltimore's response to the Congress Internationale D' Architecture Moderne (CIAM) of 1928, to a worldwide move towards slum clearance and urban renewal manifesting itself in large scale demolition of the urban fabric in favor of freestanding towers and expressways. (see inserted two items of the CIAM Charter of Athens).
16 Structures built along transportation routes and around their intersections are detrimental to habitation because of noise, dust, and noxious gases.
Once we are willing to take this factor into consideration we will assign habitation and traffic to independent zones. From then on, the house will never again be fused to the street by a sidewalk. It will rise in its own surroundings, in which it will enjoy sunshine, clear air, and silence. Traffic will be separated by means of a network of footpaths for the slow-moving pedestrian and a network of fast roads for automobiles. Together these networks will fulfill their function, coming close to housing only as occasion demands.
17 The traditional alignment of habitations on the edges of streets ensures sunlight only for a minimum number of dwellings.
Ironically, CIAM was disbanded the same year the ribbon was cut for Lexington Terrace. It would take two more years before Jane Jacobs would write her famous "Death and Life of Great American Cities", but the writing was already on the wall. By the time Baltimore got around to urban renewal it was already considered a failure.
By 1968 the failure of the towers was documented in a local study, in part due to the management failures of the underfunded BHA and the pervasive poverty concentrating in the high-rises, in part due to the wrong assumptions that modernists made about the city. Nearly thirty more years passed until in 1996 then Mayor Schmoke had secured federal money for the systematic removal of all four housing tower projects ringing downtown.
Why do I mention this urban renewal debacle here in an article about rowhouses? Because it has everything to do with rowhouses: Rowhouses once stood where freeways and towers forced their removal, and rowhouses were proposed again to replace the towers after implosions began in 1996.
|High Rise Terrace Implosion, Baltimore (stock photo)|
The irony was not lost on the New York Times who reported about the new Lexington Terrace development twelve years ago under the title In Baltimore, public housing comes full circle. A beaming Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told an emotional crowd at Lexington Terrace that the city wants to "tear down a project and build up a community." (SUN 9/26/1995)
How is that rowhouses make community and the urban renewal towers did not?
After we discussed the "Anatomy of the Rowhouse", this article is trying to discuss the fabric of the city that is made of rowhouses.
The major rowhouse cities, London, Philadelphia, Baltimore are laid out in a grid. Rowhouses line the streets in all directions, i.e. their fronts may face east, west, north or south, occasionally on diagonal streets, also non cardinal directions.
Close to downtown and in poorer neighborhoods, the rowhouses usually have their fronts placed right at the edge of the sidewalk. In "better" areas and further away from the city center houses have front setbacks used for the stoops, small balconies or planters, sometimes porches. The backs of houses are set back from the property line leaving small rear yards.
Rowhouses can be built cheaply and by unskilled labor. They do not require concrete nor steel or big equipment. They can be built incrementally and block by block, ideal for small investors, speculators and local builders. They were a perfect response for the rural influx overwhelming many cities during industrialization.
Since one cannot walk around a rowhouse, access to the rear requires a second public "right of way", the alley. In some cases the alleys are only small walkways, just wide enough for powerlines, but most of the time the alleys are wide enough for a horse and a cart or a small truck. (Baltimore City garbage trucks have to be extra small and narrow for this reason). The alley are the bowels of the neighborhood, sewage flows out here (historically in the alley, now under it), trash goes out here and electric power comes in here. Often the alley was also the place for horse stables (later for garages). Clearly, facing all this the rears of rowhouses don't need to show elaborate architecture. Things get a bit more complicated on larger blocks where the space between the rowhouses lining the major streets is large enough so that the alley, too, can be lined with houses. Those houses, small cousins of the front houses are called alley houses and were often inhabited by servants. Today these houses are, indeed very small by almost any measure, except maybe the New York apartment. Vacancy rates on alley houses are extra high and thus, those houses were early on the target for demolition. Many blocks in Harlem Park were cleared that way leaving overly large interior green spaces behind the remaining stately front buildings. Since the alley access remained public, these large green spaces turned from assets to a liability for the community after all kinds of illegal activities happened there, concealed from the police cruisers on the street.
The question what to do with the unsafe and unsightly alleys and surplus lots alongside of them remains an unresolved issue. My firm suggested an number of alternatives for alleys from non conventional housing types (duplexes, granny flats as accessory uses) to access controlled open spaces for pocket parks or playgrounds for just the surrounding houses, possibly in combination with secure parking. Important, at any rate, are gated alleys only open for residents of the block or emergency vehicles.(See diagram further down).
To sum it up, a rowhouse city lines rowhouses along streets and alleys and doesn't care about orientation of the dwellings to the sun. The streets are the extensions of the house while the alleys serve simply as lifelines.
It is this layout that defines older American cities and gives us the notion of what a street is from Philadelphia to Washington and from Carlisle to Frederick. It is this layout that the modernists thought to be functionally obsolete with perfectly good reasons. (see charter quotes above). It is this layout that the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) dusted off in the nineteen eighties and propagated as the formula how to design new towns in green fields. Even the much maligned alley,
declared obsolete, too, was rediscovered by the CNU and it now adorns places like the Kentlands, elegantly removing all the cars from sight.
This historic Sanborn map of a part of east Baltimore shows how streets are lined with nothing but rowhouses with alleys in the back. This map shows a diagonal street (Gay St) but no alley houses
This east Baltimore plan shows Hopkins Hospital in the institutional land use color surrounded by a sea of rowhouses (except to the southwest). The swerved line is the Amtrak track. One can also see the diagonal street from the upper block map. (Gay Street)
Urban blight: backs of vacant houses next to occupied houses in Druid Heights
Depending on whose numbers we use, Baltimore has up to 25000 vacant housing units, mostly rowhouses. A debate is raging, what to do with them. Many advocated demolition to rid the city of blight, drug dealer dens, fire hazards and rats. The same housing commissioner who rebuilt the highrises with most rowhouses (now called townhomes) was so demolition happy that he equipped his department with his own cranes and backhoes for quick and efficient demolition. Until on a Saturday morning a resident found himself staring out into the blue sky after his sidewall accidentally fell together with the neighboring rowhouse.
In the context of smart growth, many ask if rowhouses are not too "suburban" to allow sufficient density for transit and urbanity. At the same time, realtors and market strategists warn that the rowhouse does not meet current market demands and consider the rowhouse obsolete. What are we supposed to make of all this?
The truth is, that areas with preserved rowhouses (Federal Hill, Fells Point) are doing extremely well and can be called "gentrified" although their rowhouses are not large or especially remarkable while areas that saw large scale demolition (North Philadelphia) did not recover.
On the other hand, preservation is no guarantee: The large rowhouses in Bolton Hill form a stable and affluent community while the very same types of beautiful houses in Reservoir Hill are still part of a community that has been struggling struggling for decades to stabilize and become once again more similar to Bolton Hill. The small two story formstone clad narrow worker houses in Canton are snatched up for gentrification by the new young "urbanistas" while the very same houses placed further north in areas like McElderry Park linger.
All this shows, that it may not be the house type alone that decides if a community is successful or not. In fact, most of what represents impoverished West Baltimore today was once a very affluent and hip community (around the beautiful Lafayette Square, for example. (Link). (For a very insightful discussion about racial and social policy around Baltimore's rowhouse neighborhoods see Antero Pietila's book "Not In My Neighborhood").
Union Square, is one of many beautiful historic squares in West Baltimore
The traditional block structure filled with rowhouses allows a density of about 40 units per acre, sometimes more. This is a quite urban density that is not very different from many places with free standing mid size apartment buildings and easily supports retail, transit and urban vitality, albeit not at the scale of Manhattan. It is true that a rowhouse city like London occupies a lot more area to accommodate its residents than an apartment city like Paris or Berlin. But for a city like Baltimore that is struggling to keep its residents, this doesn't seem a particular concern. While I think that the Lexington Terrace and Heritage Crossing tower projects were rebuilt with too low a density (much of Heritage Crossing resorted to duplexes) given how close they are to downtown, the newer Albemarle Square development (replacing the Flag House towers) has density about right still with mostly rowhouses.
Albemarle Square, redevelopment of the Flag House towers with rowhouses
The massing model of the Otterbein community shows how a rowhouse community can be a mix of old and new rowhouses with a few apartment buildings and towers inserted right next to downtown. Otterbein was Baltimore's first successful near downtown re-investment "come back" neighborhood.
How about market demand? Yes, the suburbs are brimming with freestanding houses that orient themselves away from the street, sit on large lots and present themselves to the public space with three car garages. But there is so much of this now, that this prevailing post war housing type can itself be considered a problem. It, indeed, does not provide enough density to support retail, transit or walkability, all problems in a world where the standard family with children becomes rather the exception than the rule. The freestanding house surely provides light and air and proper sun orientation, but it does not provide "community".
For a demographic increasingly consisting of singles, empty nesters and young mobile "creatives" who were bored numb from growing up in the suburbs and are rediscovering the cities, the rowhouse is a perfect match. It works equally well as a starter home and as a retirement home. It works for children (direct access to a yard) and it can grow with a family (up and back). The only thing it has trouble with is accessibility; even for that some of our clients found a solution: A small person elevator strategically placed where there used to be a light shaft or a recess. Maybe it is for all those reasons that we see increasingly "townhomes" being built in suburbs, in rows of seven, strewn across the landscape in random fashion, clustered around parking lots instead of streets with facades painstakingly mimicking their urban brethren.
The rowhouse with its orientation to the street is an urban housing type and as such conducive to building "community". Baltimore's stoops are famous for the chat from neighbor to neighbor. The corner house can accommodate a store or a bar with no problem. It also can become a live-work unit for an artist or a professional offering public service at a small corner business.
Although many rowhouses were being built on the cheap, they can pretty easily be upgraded and made more sustainable. The very density that makes them good for "community" also makes them relatively energy efficient (at least after some insulation has been added to walls and roofs).
To sum it up: Streets filled with rowhouses can be part of lovely and safe neighborhoods or they can be part of a "ghetto" where shots ring out on a daily basis. The rowhouse per se is still a valid building block for a city and can be retrofitted to meet modern and future demands. For poor people and for the more affluent, for young and old, for families and singles. The challenge is not so much the house as a type but the social and economic ills that have befallen so many "legacy cities". Once a city can attract enough residents to once again fill its housing stock, rowhouse communities will revive and flourish. It is not the rowhouse that stands in the way of such a future.
Stoop sitting, a Baltimore past-time
Alley party in Sowebo
Various alternatives what can be done with the excess space of block interiors which had alley houses (ArchPlan)
Infill rowhouse development on a brownfield site (ArchPlan)
See also the compendium blog entry Anatomy of the Rowhouse
All photos copyrighted by ArchPlan unless otherwise noted.