|Efreth's Alley. Image Wikipedia.|
The locals also call them Father, Son, and Holy Ghost houses.
Philadelphia of the mid-18th century was in an age of an economic boom. As noted on the website of the Independence Hall Association, "artisans and small manufacturers were needed to supply goods and services to a growing population. Those considered to be artisans included cabinetmakers, silversmiths, pewterers, glass blowers, and wagon builders. As the dwellings in center city were owned by prosperous merchants and land speculators, the artisan middle class congregated in enclaves to the north by the (Delaware) river. They prospered with the growth of the city."
Descriptions of the trinity's true form vary. They are generally known as city’s oldest houses, usually over 100 years old, cozy, often built off a pedestrian alley, and sometimes described as Georgian style, evidenced by gabled roofs and pedimented dormers, or in some instances, simple, thin, geometric 3-story designs with decorated cornices. Space was so compact that the kitchens were often located in the basement. They seemed suitable for a small single family, but not so much for the poor who often crowded into them. However, over time, additions were built onto the rear of many trinities.
These problems are virtually non-existent in our era, and trinity houses might appear to many as simply odd aspects of a bygone period in our architectural history. Yet something beneficial could come from studying the design and utility of such compartmentalized, small-space structures - both in terms of energy efficiency and aesthetics.
Author and urban planning specialist Rob Goodspeed wrote about this fact in his insightful, recent blog In Search of the Trinity Houses of Philadelphia:
"It is no small irony that the extremely dense urban fabric that constituted an urban problem in the 18th century is precisely the antidote to 21st century ones: sprawl, housing un-affordability, and auto dependence. Now may be the right time to learn from Philadelphia’s trinities, to study their dimensions and construction, as we seek to learn how to build more humane, resource-efficient urban homes and neighborhoods."
As we move further and further away from the copious, Romanesque age of McMansions and gas-guzzling SUVs, we may also discover that the key to our future lies in the examination of our innovative past.--D.A. DeMers.
Small space buildings in Philadelphia:
|Classic Philadelphia trinity house.|
|Classic brick trinity house.|
|Georgian style row-home.|
|Philadelphia larger "sandbox" row-homes.|
|Trinity interior stairwell.|