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On the House: Rowhouse owner's manual

Got a phone call from a friend a couple of weeks ago, advising me to check out something new on the Philadelphia Planning Commission's Web site.

Got a phone call from a friend a couple of weeks ago, advising me to check out something new on the Philadelphia Planning Commission's Web site.

So I did, and there I found the long-awaited "Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners," available only online at

If you own a rowhouse, I suggest you download this and keep it close. If you're thinking of buying a rowhouse, read this before you do. If you find yourself in a rowhouse badly mauled by well-intentioned previous owners, mail them copies of this, so they don't do it again.

In case you haven't yet figured it out, Philadelphia is a city of rowhouse neighborhoods. Even West Philadelphia, Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, known primarily for their sprawling Victorian-era homes, are filled with streets lined with two- and three-story attached redbrick houses.

Rowhouses have been a part of Philadelphia since its 17th-century beginnings. The lion's share, primarily for industrial workers, were built between 1865 and 1920.

Gary J. Jastrab, the Planning Commission's acting executive director, believes that, after a test of three centuries, rowhouses provide "a great model for 21st-century urban living."

Though the basics of the rowhouse haven't changed in 300 years, the styles have, and you can easily tell when your house and your neighborhood came to be just by looking.

For example, in the beginning, people needed simple shelter, so the rowhouse was basic. In Elfreth's Alley, with some of the nation's earliest surviving rowhouses, the original parts were about the size of a coat closet.

Business was conducted on the first floor and, in the absence of electricity, in the daylight. The family slept on the top floor. The privy was in the rear courtyard. Cooking was done in the cellar.

As the years passed and wealth increased, rowhouses grew larger - as you can see if you walk south from Elfreth's Alley along Third and Fourth Streets, from Walnut to Pine.

Since Elfreth's first house was built in 1713 and the last in 1836, you can get a sense of the evolution of the rowhouse without even moving.

The earliest rowhouses were made of wood. But soon after the city was founded, there were at least two brickyards supplying material for the next, more fireproof, generation of dwellings.

Although rich and poor lived in close proximity in the colonial city, the homes of the wealthy were more ornate, often having marble steps and columns, three and four stories, on deep lots.

So deep, in fact, that many owners subdivided them for rentals called trinities - one room on top of another on top of a third, in violation of the original city plan.

Row after row of brick didn't make for a very flashy, New York kind of town. Thomas Paine once wrote, "If a Quaker had been consulted at creation, the world would have come out in shades of gray and brown."

The rowhouse was not a Quaker invention - it was an American frontier version of the English terrace house - but in the minds of 18th- and 19th-century observers, there was guilt by association.

Visitors generally have admired these neat brick houses pretty much since the start, even though having street after street of them caused New Englander Henry Cogswell Knight to suggest in 1814 that once you've walked one square, "you have seen the whole."

I've never been absolutely sure that the builders intended their houses to last. They were developers, speculators even, and assumed from the start that something better would come along.

In the meantime, succeeding generations have done everything possible to compromise their integrity - painting the brick, adding rickety wooden porches, and covering wood fascia with aluminum siding, to name three.

The rowhouse may or may not be the model for the 21st century, but its compactness and efficiency, and, best of all, its message of simpler living, are a welcome relief from the excesses of the suburban McMansion.