A rowhouse (or a row house) is a common sight in large cities in North America, and they can be identified by the way they line the street in a uniform row. Blocks of contiguous rowhouses are characteristic of older cities around the world, although a new generation of architects and urban planners in mid-density areas continue to use rowhouse architecture as inspiration.
What Is a Rowhouse?
Rowhouses are groupings of identical or nearly identical low-rise homes, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and sharing a roofline and one or both side walls. They're also known as terraced houses in the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere.
History of Rowhouses
Rowhouses first appeared in the Netherlands and Belgium in the 16th century. In the 17th century, the Place des Vosges in Paris’ fashionable Marais district was built by Henri IV between 1605 and 1612. This historic square is lined with elegant red brick and stone rowhouses, with storefronts on the ground floor and living spaces above. The rowhouses lend the square a pleasing symmetry and are a particularly glamorous example of this type of urban planning housing development, inspiring Haussmann's 19th century renovation of Paris and making a case for urban rowhouses the world over.
The rowhouses that proliferated in the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution were often speculative housing developments built to house a growing urban middle class. In New York City between 1800 and 1925, developers built rowhouses en masse as middle class housing for a booming population, one step up from the railroad apartment-style tenements built for immigrant workers, and far less luxurious than the opulent prewar mansions built for the wealthy who flocked to urban centers from the suburbs as the city became the center of modern life.
Urban rowhouses were primarily built as an accessible urban housing alternative to suburban family homes. As cities have gone increasingly vertical and super-tall residential buildings have become commonplace in cities, historic districts lined with rowhouses lend a human-scale, more European feel to older U.S. neighborhoods. This is particularly true on the East Coast, in places like NYC, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington DC.
Key Characteristics of Rowhouses
- Low-rise (typically 2 to 5 story), narrow buildings lined up side by side in rows and often spanning entire blocks or neighborhoods
- Share identical or similar design
- Share a roofline
- Often share one or both side walls with neighboring buildings
- Typically built for one or two families but many have been subdivided into smaller apartments as urban populations and demand for space has increased
- Rowhouses include a number of architectural styles from the Italianate brownstones of Brooklyn to the Victorian row houses of San Francisco
- May be painted in different colors for individual variation or rendered in all brick to give a cohesive feel, depending on the location and character of the neighborhood
- Because of their snug placement, windows are generally limited to the front and back of the structure, which can limit natural light
Interesting Facts About Rowhouses
The term rowhouse is sometimes used interchangeably with townhouse and brownstone. So what’s the difference? Technically a townhouse does not necessarily have to be built in the same style as a rowhouse, and is often occupied by a single family. While rowhouses were built for one or two families, they are often broken up into smaller apartments in the modern era. Rowhouses are generally considered lower-cost housing than townhouses. Brownstones refer to the brownish-red stone facing that was popularly used on townhouses in the 19th century in Brooklyn and beyond.
Well built and maintained blocks of rowhouses lend cohesiveness and an egalitarian feel to neighborhoods. When renovating existing rowhouses, today’s architects and homeowners often struggle to balance historic preservation with the desire to make them stand out from the neighbors, whether reconfiguring interior layouts or adding exterior cladding to give them individual personality. Newer housing projects often include innovative modular building practices and materials, such as blocks of identical shipping container homes with sustainable building features to create the rowhouse-inspired architecture for the 21st century and hopefully beyond.