With all the attention that the anniversary of the United States entry into World War 1 has been getting, I thought it may be interesting to see how this affected the classic Philly row house.
By the time the war ended in 1918, Philadelphia was bursting at the seams with people who came into the city to work at the shipyards and other wartime industries that made Philadelphia an important part of what was called the “Arsenal of Democracy”. There was a great need for new housing and the undeveloped areas of the lower northeast and parts of West Philadelphia soon became home to thousands of new homes.
These new homes were built with modern living in mind. The formal world of the 19th century with it's separation of formal and informal space in the home was gone. The modern living room was born along with new styles of entertaining, cocktail parties became the rage. Yes, it was the era of Prohibition, but it seems that this did not stop Philadelphians from having a good time!
The automobile had gone from being a rich man’s luxury to something that even people of modest means could afford. So, one of the; biggest changes is the fact that you start to see rowhouses build with service alleys behind them to accommodate basement level garages. These garages were fairly small by today’s standards and rarely had doors connecting the garage with the basement. Early auto’s tended to leak oil and gasoline, so I suspect this was done to protect the rest of the house from fumes. Since the house was raised to give a back garage entrance, this frequently gave the builder a chance to make the front entry into a raised garden or yard separating the house from the street.
The next thing you will notice is that the front sunroom entry is seen in just about every row house of the period, from modest working class rows to the more elegant homes found in the Garden Court section of West Philadelphia. The sunroom was something that was very popular in the 1920’s, these spaces could be open and airy, but more private than the traditional open porch. The sunroom could be used as an additional warm season living or dining room, sitting room, playroom or even spare bedroom. Decorating magazines of the period frequently discussed what could be done with this new space.
Floor plans became more compact and took on a modern feel. Women started to enter the workforce and this meant that domestic help became more expensive. Modern electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and all manner of kitchen appliances made it possible for the housewife of the period to amange a household single handedly. Kitchens became efficient modern places for food preparation and this was the start of the concept of the “Work Triangle”. This was the start of the modern kitchen as we know it today. If you have been in some of the smaller rowhouses of the 20’s you will see that in some cases the space for the kitchen is very small.
Bathrooms were now a part of the house in all income levels, frequently placed in the center part of the second floor. This was to give bedrooms access to light and air. Since the bathroom was only used as needed, ventilation was done via a skylight. One noticeable thing is that often you would have both a tub and a separate shower in the bathroom along with a small linen cupboard for towels and other items.
The rowhouses of the 20’s were designed for smaller families and rarely were more than 2 or 3 floors. The long hallways and need for servant bedrooms were gone, so the house became smaller. The term Air-light became an important marketing hook. Airlights were designed to give as much air and light into the house as possible. Kitchens and back bedrooms looked out over the back service driveways instead of cramped back alleyways and passages. Bedrooms actually had closets that clothes could hang in. For families coming from traditional rowhomes, these new houses were a great improvement.
In terms of style, the byword was “anything goes”. Builders put up everything from very modest bedroom rows, complete with garages and tiny kitchens to larger rows and courtyard style compounds done in various styles from colonial to modern English, French provincial, Spanish revival and various combinations of design elements. It was the jazz age and Philadelphians were enjoying the party!
Today, these rowhouses can still be seen in many parts of the city. Some of my favorites can be seen in the Garden Court section of West Philadelphia. This was a development done in the early 1920’s by Clarence Segal. Prior to development, it had been a dairy farm and I remember being told be an elderly neighbor that she remembered walking through the farm as a child. What makes this such an interesting place to see is that it has everything from comfortable rowhomes and twins to elegant single homes and two large apartment buildings. The oldest is the Garden Court complex, now condminiums, with generously sized apartments designed for families who did not want to maintain a house. The biggest was to be Garden Court Plaza, one building exists now, but four were planned, one on each corner. The stock market crash of 1929 stopped construction and only one building and the parking garage were completed.
Below are some pictures I found from the period. As you can see, the garage space was fairly tight, room for the car and that was it! Next is the typical service alley, note the laundry lines. #3 is a typical front view, I think this is in the lower Northeast and probably looks very similar today and finally the modern kitchen of 1925 - note the up to date appliances, but no granite and stainless steel to be had!
Author:Steve Drabkowski Phone: 215-760-5825 Dated: April 13th 2017 Views: 812 About Steve: Steve has been a long term resident of Philadelphia, coming here in 1983 and being stationed at the ...
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