Avenue one: Atlases of Philadelphia

Maps can be a great resource for visualizing row houses. The real estate atlases for Philadelphia beginning in 1858-1869 with the Hexamer and Locher series shows the foot print of all the buildings. These early real estate atlases did not include the street-front dimensions of the buildings but they were drawn to scale. The 1885 Bromley and Co. published a fire insurance atlas that did indicate diminsions of the individual buildings (excerpt shown below). Looking at this atlas it's possible to track groups of identical row houses block-by-block (indentical houses are indicated by ditto marks where there is a series of three or more). In the following section I studied Arch St. (between Front St. and 22nd) and 10th St. (between South St. and Race St.) and gathered block-by-block row house frontage averages. Arch St. and 10th St. were choosen as an east/west axis and a north/south axis; neither of these streets was the city's primary artery in 1885 yet they were not far from Market, Chestnust and Broad Streets, the city's main streets. The tables below deomonstrate that geographical trends in row house frontage width can be gathered from maps.

The north side of the 1200 block of Spruce 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 )

Arch St.

The table below shows the frontage size of row houses on the norht side of Arch Street that were in a series of at least three. Where there appear gaps (i.e. Front St- 4th St., etc.) there were no row houses present in those blocks.

Street Frontage Size (number of houses) Average

4th-5th

17' (3) 17'
5th-6th 16.8' (3) 16.8'
9th-10th 25' (6) 25'
10th-11th 25' (7), 26' (2 ), 24' (1) 25.1'
11th-12th 16' (5) 16'
12th-13th 21.7' (6), 22' (3), 21' (1) 21.72'
13th-Juniper 20.8' (9), 21' (1) 20.82'
Juniper-Broad 21.6 (7) 21.6'
Broad-15th 21' (4) 21'
15th-16th 24' (5), 22' (4) 23.66'
16th-17th 21.6 (7), 20' (4) 21'
17th-18th 20' (13), 19' (2) 19.86'
18th-19th 18' (5), 20' (3), 25' (2) 22.5'
19th-20th 20' (5) 20'
20th-21st 20' (16 ), 22' (6), 21.6' (2) 20.6'
21st-22nd 18' (13), 20' (4) 18.47'

 

"Arch Street. Looking Eastward from Twentieth Street: A typical Philadelphia thoroughfare; an old-fashioned Quaker street, all the way from Fourth Street meeting house westward to the Schuylkill. Two generations ago it was one of the choicest avenues of homes of substantial Philadelphians..." (King's Views of Philadelphia. Illustrated Monographs. Part 5 Image 61. Digitized on Places in Time)

 

10th St.

The table below shows the frontage size of row houses on the east and west sides of 10th Street that were in a series of at least three. Where there appear gaps (i.e. Lombard-Pine., etc.) there were no row houses present in those blocks.

Street Frontage Size (number of houses) Average
South-Lombard 18' (12) 18'
Pine-Spruce 20' (8), 32' (4) 24'
Spruce-Locust 16' (5), 17' (11) 16.68'
Locust-Walnut 15.8 1/2' (9), 19' (3) 16.6'
Walnust-Chestnut 19' (9) 18'
Market-Filbert 18' (5), 19' (4) 18.44'
Filbert-Arch 20' (4) 20'
Arch-Cherry 18' (5), 15' (3) 16.85'
Cherry-Race 20' (7), 19' (4) 19.63'

No. 47 Thomas Sully Esq. Residence. 11 S. 5th St. ca. 1869. (Brenner Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, digitized on Places in Time) This house on 5th St is of the same era as those averaged on 10th St. This house has one-room wide facade and is approximately 18'.


These averages provide just a snap shot of row house widths on Arch and 10th Streets in 1885. The widest houses on Arch St. appear to have been between 9th and 11th Streets with smaller climaxes at 15th St. and 18th St. On either edge the width size drops off. On 10th St. the widest houses were located between Pine and Spruce with smaller climaxes at Market and Cherry. The trends in these results are not clear cut. At this stage and with this limited data it is hard to account for the trends. Yet this research is a good way to quickly see trends in frontage width in a cross-section of the city.

This avenue of research has obvious setbacks to making any specific conclusions about why some blocks have wider frontages since as there is a lot of unknown information about the row houses themselves. When were each of these developments built? Were they on the edge of the city at their construction? Who were they built for? by? The four row houses built between Pine and Spruce on 10th Street with a frontage of 32' may have been built in the early 1800's when this area was still on the outskirts of the city by a developer who anticipated wealthy cliental who could afford a large row house. Where as the eight other row houses with frontages of 20' may have been built closer to the publication of this map when property values for this section of 10th street were higher.

These real estate maps, as well as more general maps of the city from the 19th century, can be used to track row house developments built specifically on the edge of the city. Another approach is to first look at a map like the one to the right made by the Society for Di to see where the edges of city development were. Then look at those edge streets in the 1858-1860 Hexamer and Locher real estate atlas to see if there were row house developments on the edge and what their frontage values were. Additionally this could be repeated with maps from 20 years later to compare the edge frontage values.

 

Another approach would be to combine the information that maps can give with the information other sources like the Fire Insurance Database can give. The following section breifly approaches the question of frontage widths using the Bromley 1885 atlas plus records from the Fire Inusurance Database to form a hytpothesis about one block's frontage widths.

 

Joseph Meyer, 1860. Map of Philadelphia. (Hildburghausen: Bibliographischen Instituts. Digitized by David Rumsey)

 


Combining avenues:

While I looked through the pages of the 1885 Bromley and Co. I found the block pictured below that appeared to have ten identical row houses on Spruce St. at 13th St. These houses have frontage widths of 25', which based on the averages found on 10th and Arch Streets is on the larger end. I looked up the 1300 block on the Fire Insurance Database, a searchable database which includes 28,000 (about half) of the fire insurance records in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania collection (from the Franklin Fire Insurance Co. and the Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Co.). The database came up with several insurance records from the 1300 block of Spruce. I expected all of the houses to be insured under one policy as developers would often do after they had just completed a row. Instead I found many different owners had insured different houses in the row in different years.

Owners and Dates at 13.. Spruce St.:

Oliver Parry and Nathaniel Randolph insured a row house at 1301 Spruce on 12/20/1844 that had dimensions of 25x48 feet. In the 1885 Bromley and Co. map of this block we can see that 1301 is on the northwest corner of 13 th st. and begins a row of 10 houses of the same dimensions with one exception being 1311 which had a longer ell.

Adam McElroy insured 1307 on 8/14/1844.

Robert Small insured 1309 on 6/15/1844.

Edmund Dutihl insured 1311 on 2/28/1848. This house had slightly different dimensions of 25x50 and has an old number of 417. Similarly 1315 with dimensions 25x50 was insured on 12/19/1848 by Benjamin Etting, although there is not an old number listed with this fire insurance record.

Adam McElroy, the same owner that insured 1307 in 1844 also insured numbers 1317-19 on 12/17/1849. The fire insurance record reports that the two row houses at this time at 1317-19 had dimensions of 25x51 feet.

 

The north side of the 1300 block of Spruce 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 ) Dates and details here gleaned from the Fire Insurance Database located on the Places in Time website.

After examining this row of houses in both the Fire Insurance Database and the Bromley 1885 map some interesting things pop out. The 1885 map of the block shows ten houses that have almost identical dimensions suggesting that they were built at the same time by the same person (with the exception of 1311). But the fire insurance records show that at least 1301, 1307 and 1309 with dimensions of 25x48 were insured in 1844. But four years later in 1848 when 1311, 1315 and 1317-19 were insured these buildings were all roughly 25x50. By 1885, though, these buildings had been torn down and replaced by 25x48 feet row houses, presumably matching 1301, 1307 and 1309 which were already there. This all suggests that the row houses on this block were not built at the same time. Becuase the visual cues on the map (the ditto marks, the identical foot print) strongly suggest that the houses were built at the same time by the same person we would need to check another resource like the property deeds. We may find that all ten houses were developed at one time but as each house was finished it was sold and insured right away.

Even with two or three sources determing the history of row house development is complicated! When one source, like the Philadelphia atlases, provides one kind of unique approach but not enough details, it is best to combine map research with additional resource tools. The next two avenues of approach could be complimented with map research and imaging.


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