The Philadelphia Rowhouse: American Dream Revisited

The American Dream? Data collected last year, and presented in the chart below from The Washington Post’s WongBlog, identifies a decisive answer: the single, detached house. It’s the way Americans live in half of the nation’s 40 largest cities—with two prominent exceptions. The majority of New Yorkers live in buildings with 20 or more units. And in Philadelphia, about 60% live in “single attached residences,” or what we know as rowhouses. Keeping in mind that New York is always the outlier, we ask: is Philadelphia’s habit of rowhouse living an un-American dream?

The most popular type of home in major American cities, charted (Washington Post)

The most popular type of home in major American cities, charted (Washington Post)

Earlier, we explored the evolution of the Philadelphia rowhouse, which culminated in the two-story “Workingmen’s House,” a machine for living that lined miles of streets and set off a frenzy of envy at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Then, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia walked us through the centuries-long evolution of our rowhouse genre. Now, with up-to-date housing typology data, we can see just how aberrant Philadelphia may have been, and apparently still is today. Thing is, the Philadelphia rowhouse wasn’t presented as an aberration during a massive period of growth at the end of the 19th century. Quite the opposite. Talcott Williams, and others, pitched it as nothing less than a manifestation of the American Dream. In an essay from 1893: “Philadelphia—A City of Homes” published in St. Nicholas, an Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, Williams explained:

“There are in Philadelphia about 500 [Building Associations] and 500 more in the state of Pennsylvania. The entire 1000, in 1889, were paying out $33,000,000 to be used in buying houses; and of this about $22,000,000 was being paid in Philadelphia. From 1849 to 1876, these associations bought 30,000 houses at a cost of $72,000,000. Since then, the associations have lent money to about 50,000 persons who were buying houses. In the last sixty years, about 80,000 houses have been bought this way. The average price of a house began at about $1000; it rose to $2000; and now most of the houses bought by men who work cost from $2500 to $3500.

“What kind of houses are they? There is a sample one which has been put up at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. When you go there, you must look at it. There is nothing more wonderful in all that marvelous Exposition than this proof that the laws, the habits, and the businesses of a city of one million people can be so arranged that even the day-laborer earning only $8 or $10 a week can own the roof over his head and call no man landlord.”

Southwest corner - 24th and Kimball Streets, May 11, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Southwest corner – 24th and Kimball Streets, May 11, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Williams goes on: “The result of all this is that Philadelphia is not a city of palaces for the few, but a city of homes for the many—which is better. It is not magnificent, but it is comfortable. In 1890, its 1,046,964 inhabitants were living in 187,052 dwellings. This means that with only two-thirds as many people, it had twice as many houses as New York. With just as many people as Chicago, it had half more houses. Of the 200,000 families in Philadelphia, seven out of eight had separate houses, and three-quarters of its families, or 150,000, owned the houses they lived in.  …  The number of families owning the house in which they live is from four to six times greater in Philadelphia than in any other great cities of the world. You cannot know, until years and life have taught you more than any boy or girl should know of this hard and bitter world, how much of comfort, peace, and happiness is summed up in that statement. It means room and air and health. It means that each family can have its own bath-tub, its own yard, its own staircase, and its own door step. These are simple daily blessings for most of us; but for tens and hundreds of thousands in all large cities, they are absent. …”

1014-1018 South 24th Street. Row Homes  (PhillyHistory.org)

1014-1018 South 24th Street. Row Homes (PhillyHistory.org)

“Street after street of small two-story brick houses looks rather mean and dingy,” admitted Williams. But “if the great mass of voters are men owning small houses and living in a small way, then all the work of the city will be done in a small way, too.”

“But it is better to spread a carpet on a poor man’s floor than spread an asphalt pavement under the carriage wheels of the rich. It is better to have bath-rooms by the ten thousand in small homes, than to have brilliant fountains playing in beautiful squares.” …

The rowhouse, concluded Williams— 150,000 of them—“owned by the families which live in them, are such a triumph of right living in a great city, as the world never saw before, and can see nowhere else but in Philadelphia, a city of homes.”

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