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The City

The Quakers — or as they referred to themselves: Friends — were possibly the most persecuted of all “dissenter” groups in seventeenth century England. They were pacifists, did not hide their faith and try to blend in with the Anglicans, and kept their shops and places of work open on the Sabbath. They were very visible and very easy targets for persecution. William Penn (the son of Admiral Sir William Penn, the commander of the fleet that took Jamaica from the Spanish in the 1650s) was the most prominent of this sect of dissenters. Penn (the younger) was fervently Quaker in his beliefs and spent several stretches in jail, unwilling to pay the fines levied against him. How did this persecuted man and his sect get granted their own proprietary colony?

Penn was well liked by both King Charles II (who was sympathetic to Catholics), and his brother James, Duke of York and soon to be King James II (who was openly Catholic). It was believed they had reason to be nice to dissenters – it allowed an easing of recusant laws against Catholics. Penn asked for a grant of land in America (to settle a £16,000 debt the Crown owed the Penn family), and James granted Penn territory from his own holdings. These lands were west of the Quaker-friendly colony of West Jersey, between New York and the Catholic colony of Maryland. Thus was born the colony of Pennsylvania, and Penn set about designing his capitol city, Philadelphia.

Located on a peninsula between the navigable Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, Penn’s new rural capitol was laid out in a symmetrical grid. This grid consisted of very large lots, meant to avoid the cramped unhealthy conditions of London. Homes were to be built in the center of their lots to leave plenty of room between houses. The goal was a pretty, healthy, orderly town worthy of the disciplined, orderly, hardworking Quakers. So began Philadelphia, but the openness and rural quality of the young city would be short lived.

Map showing Philadelphia’s location between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. Penn’s original design for the city was only the small area labelled “City of Philadelphia.” Eventually, everything on this map would be consolidated into the city. Image from pageneology.net

By the year 1700, lots were beginning to have pieces and parts sold off, turning very large lots into increasingly smaller, urban-style lots. “Budd’s Long Row” was constructed about 1691 — a Medieval-style row house common in London at the time. This would be the first in what became Philadelphia’s architectural hallmark, the row house. Philadelphia’s row houses fall generally into one of four types: Bandbox, London, Town, and City houses.

The Bandbox was the most basic form, typically under sixteen feet in either width or depth, it was a single room to a story.

Bandbox floor plan. These would be 2-3 floors high. Plan drawn by William John Murtagh for “The Philadelphia Row House”.

The front of a two-story Bandbox row. Photo by William John Murtagh for “The Philadelphia Row House”.

The London style floor plan is very much like the Bandbox, but it is two rooms deep, yet still only one room wide with entry via a hall that runs from the front door to the dining room in the back of the house. Budd’s Long Row was similar in floor plan, being two rooms deep.

Three homes are visible here, with a partial fourth on the far right. Plan drawn by William John Murtagh for “The Philadelphia Row House” from a plan held by the Philadelphia branch of the National Parks Service.

Front of a London House row. Photo by William John Murtagh for “The Philadelphia Row House”.

The City house and Town house plans are simply enlargements of the previous two designs. Both the City and Town plans add a narrow wing at the back, with stairs in a “piazza”, followed by a series of small rooms. The only difference between them being that the City design is an extension off of the single room deep Bandbox, and the Town house (the most common design in Philadelphia) is an extension of the two room deep London style.

The City house plan is on the left and the Row house plan is on the right.  Note the extremely narrow yards this creates. Plans drawn by William John Murtagh for “The Philadelphia Row House” from a plan held by the Philadelphia branch of the National Parks Service (left) and Curtis-Wistar-Martin architectural measuring program of 1931-1932 (right).

There were also larger homes — homes on corner lots, and homes for the well to do on double lots, but even these plans had narrow yards were either connected to the neighboring houses or separated by narrow alleys.  The most common difference between these larger homes and the more common plans was that the corner and double lot houses often were two rooms wide, instead of the typical one room, with the corner plan being two rooms deep.

Double lot plan on the left, and a Corner plan on the right. Plans drawn by William John Murtagh for “The Philadelphia Row House” from a plan held by Curtis-Wistar-Martin architectural measuring program of 1931-1932.

All of these house plans were the result of the continuous selling off of pieces of the giant lots that Penn had originally designed into narrow strips of land accessed and sometimes divided by narrow alleys. Why did this happen?

The simple answer is spectacular population growth. In the span of nineteen years, from 1681 to 1701, the population grew from 500 colonists to 20,000. That is a forty-fold increase in two decades. Penn’s original one mile wide by two mile long city plan could only hold this massive population (the largest city in America until New York passed it near the end of the eighteenth century) if it sold of the large lots into increasingly smaller, more compact tracts of land, and built houses suited to this dense urban style of design.