Avenue two: Developers and Designers


Speculative Development

Speculative development is the reason a majority of Philadelphia's row houses were built in the 19th century. In many cases a developer would buy several properties all around the city or just in a concentrated area and build row of houses there in hopes that he could afterwards subdivide and sell them individually. On this page we will look at a few ways developer and architect names can help us track down row houses around the city built by the same person or company. With this information, we may be able to see some trends among developers with regard to frontage width.

The Girard Estate

Stephen Girard was prominent politician philanthropist in Philadelphia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Girard's will bequeathed to the City of Philadelphia money alloted for a variety of purposes, one of which was $500,000 for the improvement of the streets and buildings. It is likely that this money was used to construct several row house developments throughout the city. (For a more complete biography of the life and work of Stephen Girard see Virtual American Biographies, a StanKlos site)

Philadelphia Architects and Buildings (PAB) lists five separate row house series built by the Girard Estate in Philadelphia. The PAB lists 1101-1131 Chestnut St. (one block over from the row pictured to the right in the Bromley map and likely the exact row pictured in the above right) as being built in 1832-37 (demolished in 1939). We know from the Bromley map that all the row houses in this series on Chestnut St. and Girard St. (now Ludlow St.) had frontages of 19.8'-20.6'.

The PAB also lists the following rows built by the Girard Estate and designed by architect John Torrey Windrim: Thirty houses at S. Colorado St. and S. 20th, S. Cleveland and S. 18th, and S. 19th and Shunk St. ca. early 20th century; eighteen houses at S. 17th, S. 18th and Porter St. built in 1906-1914; two row houses at 5673-5675 Lebanon Ave ca. early 20th century. The frontage value is not listed in the PAB, but could possibly be obtained from fire insurance surveys.

William Struthers designed houses at 326-334 Spruce St. for the Girard Estate in 1831-37. This row was better known as Girard Row and is listed by the PAB as being apart of the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places (1957). Again, the frontage vaules were not listed in the PAB but could possibly be obtained from fire insurance records or real estate maps.

After doing additional searches for "Girard Estate" row houses in the Fire Insurance Database one record showed one house (most likely once apart of a series of row houses) at 712 N. 6th St. with a 19' frontage insured in 1870.

Using this approach we can track the specific developments built by one client, in this case the Girard Estate. The information here does not provide frontage values for all the Girard properties found, but does show ways in which properties of a specific client can be traced. From what results we do have here, those Girard row houses constructed at 1101-1131 Chestnut, et al (see map photo) and the one constructed on N. 6th St. have similar frontage widths. One hypothesis would be that all properties built by the Girard Estate had similar frontage values. This could be easily proved or disproved by researching the properties further.

326-334 Spruce St. Girard Row. Photograph from the Historic American Buildings Survey "Detail View, from Northwest HABS PA< 51-PHILA, 687-2."

"Girard Row, Chestnut from 11th Street looking west."(Free Library of Philadelphia. Historical Images of Philadelphia: pdcl00135)


The Girard Estate between 11th and 12th on Girard Ave. (now Lombard St.) in the 1885 Bromley and Co. (Atlas of the city of Philadelphia. From actual surveys and official plans of the Survey Department, by Geo. W. & Walter S. Bromley . Philadelphia, G. W. Bromley, 1885-1894. Photographed at the Free Library of Philadelphia )


Individual Developers

Donna Rilling tapped into a great source for learning about individual developers when she researched bankruptancy records. In the final section of her book, Making Houses, Crafting Capitalism, she highlights one developer who was building on the nothern edges of Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. In 1849 Joseph Montgomery made a mark on the speculative row house market. Between the streets of Wood and Carlton in North Philadelphia, Montgomery built thirty two row house dwellings to house employees for the near-by Baldwin plant. Sixteen of the houses faced Wood and sixteen faced Carlton. Those that faced Wood St. were about twice as large as those facing Carlton. These two types of row houses were intentional on Montgomery's part, Rilling reports, to serve two levels of family incomes: "By building for the lower price ranges, Montgomery tapped two tiers in the house-buying market." The larger row houses had 15' frontages and the smaller, facing Carlton had a slightly smaller front and a depth half that of the larger houses. In other words, the decrease in size between the two houses was primarily accounted for in depth, not frontage.

After reading about Joseph Montgomery's row houses near the Baldwin plant, I looked him up under the "owner" field in the Fire Insurance Database. Several surveys for row houses owned by Joseph Montgomery came up. The first were on N. Broad street at 851 insured in 1844 and 823 insured in 1847 (Franklin Fire Insurance policy numbers 5393 and 8091 in books 34 and 58, respectively). The frontage of these row houses was not listed in the database but could be obtained from the fire insurance surveys at the Historical Society of Pennslyvania. The next grouping of Montgomery's houses came up in the 1500 block of Poplar with no date of insurance given (Franklin Fire Insurance policy numbers 5326-31. We can assume these houses were insured slightly before 851 N. Broad in 1844 because the policy numbers, which were chronilogical are so close). These eighteen houses have frontages of 22'. The tract of Montgomery row house that Donna Rilling reports on Wood and Carlton did not show up in the Fire Insurance Database. This means there could potentially be other developments by Montgomery that either were not insured or were not collected in the database.

By looking at the specific row house developments of men who made it their buisness to buy land, build houses and sell the houses, we can track and compare row houses across the city. In the case of Joseph Montgomery, his development on Poplar St. had frontages of 22' while his development on Wood and Carlton had frontages of 15' and smaller. This tells us that he did not uniformly build the same size row house in every city location. This information could also be compared to other developers who were building at the same time in the same locations to see if frontage trends were similar with respect to location.

Literary Source: Donna J. Rilling, Making houses, crafting capitalism: Builders in Philadelphia, 1790-1850 (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, c2001), pp.163-166.

Architects under Commission

Within this category of žDeveloperÓ it is appropriate to put those men who were architects by profession and designed row house developments for both individual clients and developers. One such man who designed row houses in Philadelphia in the early 19th century is Robert Mills. Mills is credited with at least two rows in Philadelphia: Franklin Row (west side of Ninth Street between Locust and Walnut) built in 1809 for Captain John Meany and Carolina Row (north side of Spruce St. between 9th and 10th St ) built between 1812 and 1815, client unknown.

The Joseph Sims house, number 228 on Franklin Row (S. 9th St.- the house has since been moved to 8th St.) is one of Mills' remaining row houses. In surviving plans of this house we see that the frontage width was 23' and divided into a front room and parlor. All eleven houses in Franklin Row had a 23' frontage subdivided into front room and entry like Sims' plan to the right illustrates.

Robert Mills also designed the Waterloo Row in Baltimore. When built between 1817 and 1819, they were the most expensive row houses in Baltimore priced at $8,000. The houses at Waterloo Row were nearly identical to the houses on Franklin Row, built just eight years earlier. The frontage width on the houses in both rows was approximately twenty three feet. The continuity between Franklin Row and Waterloo Row suggest that Mills designed his row houses, the architectural detailing and frontage width alike, not based solely on specific block location within a city.

Bringing architecturally designed row houses raises different questions about factors that influenced frontage width. From examples of Mills' Franklin and Waterloo Rows we see that frontage width was consistent among Mills' work. By following other architecturally designed row houses like those of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Thomas Carstairs and many others, it may be possible to hypothesize that architects used the similar frontage widths in all their row house projects.

The Joseph Sims House, 228 S. 9th Street, Franklin Row. East Elevation and First Floor Plan. Drawings by A. Craig Morrison for Historic American Buildings Survey. Literary Source: Kenneth Ames.žRobert Mills and the Philadelphia Row House.Ó Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 27, No.2. May, 1968, Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure, The Baltimore Row House (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1999).  


Architectural Studies

The drawing above shows the elevation of the north side of the 2400 block of Pine Street. Number 2419, at least, was built in 1820 as indicated on this drawing by Yuchu Y. Su. The frontage widths are approximately 16' (not including the different row houses at the far left). Because the row house facades, heights and widths are consistent across the row we can venture that this is an example of a speculative row house development. As in this case where no architect or developer is named it's not easy to track a builder for a given row, especially the less famous and prominently located rows in Philadelphia. The row house number 2419 in this block was drawn by Mr. Su as part of a student project by the first year architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania in 1979, entitled "A Comparative Study of Philadelphia Row Houses." In some cases the drawings done by students in this class include the date the row house was built, as in this row on Pine Street.

Sometimes the architect's name is included, if known, as in the drawing below by Kevin J. Simpson of 1818 Delancey Place built by Andrew Duggins in 1854. The frontage width on number 1818 is 19' as indicated by Mr. Simpson's scale.

I did a search for both of these properties in the Fire Insurance Database. Nothing turned up for the 2400 Block of Pine Street. But there was a record for numbers 1816-1818 Delancey Place. The record indicates that these two properties were insured at the same time (12/06/1854) and confirms that the frontages of both houses is 19'. Numbers 1816 and 1818 were built by the same builder at the same time and consequently have identical frontage size. The fire insurance records for numbers 1820-22 show that these two row houses were built at the same time with frontage of 22' and were insured in 1857. A fire insurance record for numbers 1824-36 indicates that these six houses (the last six on the right) were built at the same time with frontages of 22', also insured in 1857 (this record indicates an architect by the name of Eyre Latr in 1824).



Designers and Developers offer an approach to row house development that is specialized and unique to each individual studied. This research is especially fruitful when you study individuals who had significant impact on the row house market in Philadelphia, either building a great quantity of speculative developments or setting standards for architectural row house styles. Literary sources as well as the Fire Insurance Database can be great starting places for these studies of individuals.


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