The Row House (Style Spotlight)

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By Bud Dietrich, AIA


From the early 19th century through the early 20th, America's cities grew at a rapid pace. Immigrants from other countries as well as a migration from farms to city centers fueled this growth. To accommodate the new urban population, block after block of a new type of urban dwelling, the row house, was constructed. This narrow and tall structure could be built quickly and efficiently and could be single or multifamily depending on neighborhood economics.

The distinguishing feature of these row houses was their narrowness. Typically 20 feet wide, row houses were multiple levels of living space sandwiched between masonry, typically brick, party (shared) walls that provided excellent fire resistance and sound control.

Though many of these houses were demolished for new development, there are several neighborhoods where these homes still reign supreme. In places like New York's Harlem, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope as well as neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and more there are many wonderful old and renovated 19th-century row houses.

In fact, it's the adaptability to our 21st-century lifestyles that makes these houses as relevant today as they were more than a century ago.

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American Home Style: The Row House
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The Row House (Style Spotlight)

Row house interiors are long and narrow spaces. Typically a stair hall at one side and living rooms to the other. Large openings between all the rooms allow natural light to permeate the interior.

Large windows and skylights are a must because natural light is available only from the front, back and above. And tall ceilings, often 10 feet or more, provide a spaciousness that compensates for the narrow floor plan.

These homes are blank canvases that can be what you want. Whether the renovation strives for historical accuracy, as above, or a sparer and more contemporary aesthetic, the choice is up to the owner.

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The roof is the other source of natural light in these homes. Typically, these houses were originally built with smaller skylights over the stairs so light could filter its way down into the home. Now, with new materials and technologies, there's no reason not to have large, expansive skylights to bathe the entire interior with light from above.

To keep the main level quieter and more secure, it was raised several feet above the sidewalk. The large flight of stairs that leads to the front door is often made of stone, making the lower level architecturally distinct from the upper levels.

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