It’s said that architecture has become irrelevant. With the advent of globalization, air conditioning, and wireless technology, the same structure could theoretically function just as well in Scotland, Scottsdale, or Scarsdale. This is what makes local building traditions so important; they’re a reminder of an era when a building had to be tailored to its location. We already delved into the shotgun houses of Memphis, so now we’ll travel east to look at the homegrown housing types of Philadelphia and Charleston. Philly was the birthplace of the rowhouse, which spread to plenty of other Northeastern cities, while the Charleston Single house for the most part stayed in one place for its 200 year run. Here’s a quick look at how these two modes came to characterize their respective cities and still charm the pants off of visitors and residents alike.
The rowhouse first popped up in Philadelphia around the turn of the 18th century. Although William Penn desired a “greenie country town” of detached homes and plenty of greenspace, economics and the need to house a lot of people quickly displaced this ideal with rows of attached housing. There’s some controversy on which block holds the title as oldest in America. Some say its Elfreth’s Alley, while others will name Jewelers’ Row; it depends on whether one defines rowhouse is a speculative development, as was the case with Jewelers’ Row.
The most interesting thing about the rowhouse is how it can vary while still retaining the same one to four story, narrow and long configuration. The earliest examples tend to be plain but well built, while some that went up during the Victorian era completely deserve their “wedding cake” metaphor. Some may feature stoops or even porches and tiny yards, and others meet the sidewalk point blank. Beside style and features, rowhouses could be categorized by the social class they housed. The barely-getting-by to the pompous nouveau riche all occupied the same basic configuration. Unless it’s on the end, some creativity may be in order when it comes to maximizing the light in a rowhouse; also, storage is usually at a premium.
The Charleston Single house isn’t too different from a Philadelphia row house, in that they tend to both be long and narrow. However, there’s one huge difference. A Charleston Single features double porches perpendicular to the street; the front door is actually a door onto the porch. Make that “piazza.” The piazzas typically overlook some kind of garden space, which in the early days usually also served as a place to grow food. In some cases, the greenery has been replaced with a more utilitarian purpose indicative of our times: auto parking. In addition to being just plain beautiful and a great place to wile away the afternoon, the piazzas and the one room wide configuration of the Charleston Single lent itself well to air ventilation, which is serious business in a muggy place like the Lowncountry.
Rumors abound concerning the origin of the Charleston Single. Some say it’s derived from the architecture of Barbados, where many wealthy Charlestonians had sugar crop holdings. A more colorful explanation is that homes in 18th century Charleston were taxed on the width of their facades, which is also a tall tale. Even the typical porch ceiling color,a heavenly shade of sky blue, was said to repel ghosts and/or mosquitoes. You know how people in the South like to talk...