Borderopolis: The Infrastructure of the Classic DC Row House

by September 14, 2011 at 11:00 am 6,917 3 Comments

Troy Urman, Borderstan, DC row houses

Vermont Avenue and R Street NW: The Borderstan area is full of classic DC row houses.  The vast majority in the city were built between 1890 and 1940. (Troy Urman)

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

You’ve seen it before — a gargantuan spaceship attacks the White House or the Empire State Building with a death ray and the aftershock ripples like a wave through the surrounding city, destroying everything in its path. Lights out. Gas explosions. Chaos in the streets. Then Will Smith or Bruce Willis shows up, punches an alien in the face and saves everyone…

The point is, when we imagine the post-apocalyptic United States, we think of a place without icons of culture or the fundamental mark of civilization: Infrastructure.

Where would we be without it? Our roads, power lines and water and sewer systems are connected in a web of support and necessary services. Pop culture has always had an eye on the post-apocalyptic, from Twilight Zone episodes during the cold war era, earth-shattering asteroid blockbusters and now the zombie craze. We’ve seen a mini-glimpse of this in 2011 — earthquakes and hurricanes knocking out power and flooding our streets. President Obama is again championing public works as a major focus of his jobs program.

Row Houses are Vital to Urban Infrastructure

I could go on about Pepco response times, DC Water pipeline bursts or ‘complications’ in construction permitting, but that’s a separate discussion altogether. I want to talk about a different kind of infrastructure, one that may not immediately come to mind, but is just as important as our interstates and plumbing — urban housing. More specifically, I want to talk about the row houses of DC and how they are an important urban infrastructure.

Find more information about this topic (and anything else imaginable!) online at the Library of Congress website. Find a fantastic overview of ‘Residential Architecture of Washington, D.C., and Its Suburbs’ by Pamela Scott, which references many publicly available resources in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room.

DC has myriad architectural assets — the White House, the Capitol building, historical monuments and museums — but when I first moved here (to the heart of Borderstan), I was blown away by the vast quantity and old vintage of the row houses.

These connected brick and stone buildings stretch through the streets, linking block after block and providing shelter for hundreds of thousands of people — a kind of man-made honeycomb. These are 100-year-old masonry walls and street facades that, with just a bit of upkeep, could last another 100 years. They are an impressive structural framework that adapts and changes over time.

Initially a British building type, row houses (alternatively known by many other names, such as terrace homes or brownstones) were fundamental to the urbanization of many American cities — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, to name a few. While Washington’s residential architecture varies from ‘urban villa’ to apartment high-rise, the fire-resistant masonry row house has been a staple of our housing stock since Washington’s 1791 decree.

Due to their many benefits and ease of construction, the row home became ubiquitous in Capitol Hill and other parts of DC by the end of the 19th century. The vast majority you see in our city today were constructed between 1890 and 1940, sheltering the working and middle classes during a period of explosive population growth.

A Plethora of Uses

Row houses are ingenious in their unassuming design. Simple in their narrow footprints and plan layouts, they are very structurally efficient — floor joists spanning just 12- to 20-foot widths. The masonry party walls can also create environmental efficiency — gaining and losing less heat through less exposed area. Additionally, only one side of a row house faces the street — making this building type amenable to any style or design and limiting the ‘finished’ faces to a small area (read: cost effective).

A single four-story row house can morph into four separate condos — or an art gallery, bike shop, bar, burlesque club, restaurant, pet boutique, gift shop or stationery shop — or back into a single four-story house. A group of homes might be combined to create overlapping interior spaces behind what were originally separate properties. The interiors of these buildings can vary from eclectic Victorian to white-washed contemporary. The possibilities are endless. All the while, from the sidewalk these solid buildings maintain their interesting, dense, and residential character. They define our streets.

So, take notice next time you walk up 15th or 18th Streets NW, Logan Circle, or any of the countless side streets in our area where row houses define the character of the street. How old do you think they are? What’s your favorite style, color or unexpected occupant? Or, when you’re in a more neglected part of DC, consider those centenarians that might one day shake off their peeling paint and unkempt yards and awaken to a vital, pulsating urban scene. The bones are there, just waiting for their second life.

Although our nation’s capital has its share of monumental architecture, row houses are an important urban infrastructure for DC and they will continue to be so for decades to come.


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