Introduction to the Historic Residential Architecture

For the purposes herein, most of the surviving housing stock in older areas of West Philadelphia is historic. They are without a doubt, of the past. They were made with methods and materials no longer used or readily available. They incorporated styles, designs and spaces of a past society. They are a part of the story of these neighborhoods and the region. In all these ways these buildings are historic. One can argue that few are nationally significant. True enough. With a number of exceptions, no one nationally important lived or worked in them, were the location of historic events, or were in and of themselves significant examples of historic architecture. However, a place does not have to be nationally significant to be historic. If it tells about the past, it can offer meaning and understanding to the local area and its inhabitants, and therefore has local historic significance.

This section is intended to help residents and visitors understand and appreciate the architecture of these neighborhoods. It is not a preservationist's handbook or a field guide. It should however help in both areas; so one will begin to recognize how elements in building contribute to the design. Architecture is an art as well as a design science. The architect and builder chose materials, colors, ornamentation, and scale to create effects and make associations.

Some Key Design Concepts

Scale: By scale we refer to both the size of parts to each other as well as the building's relationship to its surroundings. For example, a common technique in older houses was to use different size doorways to suggest a room's importance. Or, the use of smaller windows on each higher floor keeps the building looking proportioned from both outside and in (when the ceiling heights get slightly lower in the upper stories). Similar rules of proportion were applied to fences, railings, tiles, slates, panels and almost every component of the building.

Color: Perhaps better described as finish. The textures and colors were used to emphasize certain features and create a visual unity among others. The most fundamental principle is that light colors tend to jump out at the viewer while dark colors emphasize depth. A common example of this from the 1880s was the use of thin black mortar to de-emphasize the brick joints. Color also can create associations. One of the most common is the white painted trim work and windows of the Colonial Revival, which recalled a nostalgic image of America's Colonial buildings (British, Spanish, and French).

Ornamentation: This covers the motifs and patterns applied as part of other elements or as separate items. For example, on most brick buildings, the bricks are laid in patterns. Sometimes specific patterns are added to indicate structural features, or to maintain proportion and to prevent monolithic, out of scale facades. Motifs can be very traditional, such as the "Greek key" used throughout the 30th Street Post Office; or representational, such as stylized flowers on a piece of hardware. As the machine age progressed, trim work frequently had reeds, beading and other patterns added in addition to the molding. The molding profiles, or lack of them, are very much dependent on the styles and the time of construction.

For Further Reading

Stewart Brand. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They Are Built. (NY: Penguin Books, 1994). This book is recommended for the homeowner, the architect, the tradesman, the designer. It is a perceptive and well illustrated look at what makes buildings work for the occupants and why. While it covers issues of preservation, survival, reuse, and design, its strength is providing an understanding as to why changes might work or might not.

Two books by Gail Winkler and Roger Moss, Victorian Exterior Decoration & Victorian Interior Decoration provide both conceptual and specific guidance to the inside and outsides houses from 1850-1900. Based on contemporary advice and guidebooks as well as documented historical examples. Do beware that sometimes architects had ideas outside the mainstream, and also that Philadelphia builders in general tended to be conservative in fashion, materials and methods.

Qualifications required for National Register eligibility are explained by the National Park Service who administers the list. The State of Pennsylvania has made an online database of National Register nominations since most nominations must go through the State Historic Preservation Office. For U.S. definitions of Preservation and Rehabilitation, the Secretary of the Interior Standards are most helpful.

Exhibit by Matthew Grubel, 2008