Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Tiny House of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Efreth's Alley. Image Wikipedia.
Being from a sprawling mid-western city, I had never seen anything quite like this before. It was as if I'd walked into a mini doll house. The ground floor had one tiny room. A steep, twisting staircase led up one floor to another tiny room and bathroom, and the staircase led up again to a bedroom. Metal pulls had been installed to help hoist oneself up to each level, as if aboard a submarine. "It's your basic trinity house,” the realtor said, apparently, a uniquely Philadelphia invention.

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."

Trinity house.
One area especially known for having examples of trinity style houses is called Elfreth's Alley, located near 2nd and Arch streets, with some homes dating back as far as 1720. In addition to artisans, the location was also residence to teachers, merchants, and clergy, who often conducted business out of their homes.

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.

Georgian style.
While the density factor of trinity houses did not rival the crowding issues of large-scale tenement housing in New York, and were advantageous in promoting home ownership and propriety, sanitation issues did lead to significant cases of diseases such as yellow fever, small pox, typhoid and tuberculosis. Some of these problems were alleviated by the waterworks and sanitation ingenuity of Philadelphia architect and urban planner Benjamin Latrobe, who later applied himself to magnificent but thankless design-work on the US Capital building as documented in our earlier post The Architecture of Democracy.

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.
Trinity house.
Trinity house.
Georgian style row-home.
Galley way.
Philadelphia larger "sandbox" row-homes.
Modern trinity?
Trinity interior stairwell.

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  1. Very interesting, Doug, I need to see if Baltimore has any of these...a good chunk of the city burned down in 1905, but I'll bet there are some of these Trinity houses in the Fells Point area. Love the flat iron one.


  2. I'd love to see the insides of one of these...

  3. I've added a few images of interiors. Perhaps not the most typical examples, but similar. Interior decoration and moving standard sized furniture in and out can be challenging.


  4. My great-grandmother and grandmother lived in one of these Trinity homes on the 2100 block of E. York Street in Phila. My mother moved our family in with them in the late 60's or early 70's for a short period of time. It had only 1 room on each of 3 floors, the second floor had the bathroom. The basement had a coal bin and furnace. Your pics of the spiral stairs look exactly like theirs did but there were no handrails that I can recall. Thanks for the memories!

  5. Elfreth's Alley only has one remaining trinity many of the homes do have three floor but are not true trinities.

    Trinities particularity date from the 19th century and are Philadelphia's version of tenement buildings.

  6. Thanks for the input. While researching for this post, I came across a range of descriptions, and chose to include the mix.

    Years back I was an appraiser in Chicago, and it seemed particularly important to indentify the true classic Chicago bungalow. While many did fit the criteria, there was also a plethora of variations that shared the same basic aesthetic and function.

    It appears similar in the case of Philadelphia's trinities.

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  8. It is very difficult to build a house in small space. In this post good use of space.

  9. I loved my trinity so much I purchased it again after a 12 year absence. ( of course my views may have something to do with it: an arched bridge and church steeple from the front/ 90 ft. plus rocky hillside in back). A modest mansion at it's best. All 800 sq. ft. Of it.

  10. Those pieces of PA real estate remind me of the ones in that Disney movie... with all those little puppy dogs.

  11. خدمات شركة بسمة الرياض من افضل الخدمات المميزة التى تعطى الى جميع عملاءنا الكرام وتحقق مصلحتهم اولا فاذا كنت فى اى مكان فى الرياض وتعانى من تنظيف منزلك فاعلم جيدا ان شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض هى افضل الشركات المميزة المتقدمه فى الاسواق والتى تساعد فى القيام باعمال التنظيف للمنازل فوق اى اعتار فلا داعى للقلق من شان التنظيف الان شركة تنظيف منازل تقدم افضل الكوادر البشرية المميزة التى تساعد فى انجاز مهام التنظيف بالاضافة الى التدريب المستمر حول القيام بالتنظيف من الداخل والخارج والحصول على افضل النتائج المميزة بالاضافة الى اننا نقوم باعمال التنظيف من الالف الى الياء على حسب رغبع واحتياج عملاءنا الكران فاذا ارد ان تشعر بكل ما تتمناه من التميز فعليك ان تتصل وتتواصل معنا على الفور فى القيام باعمال التنظيف للمنازل .
    لا تكتفى شركة نظافة منازل بالرياض بتقديم خدمة واحدة فقط فى اعمال التنظيف بل تقوم بالبحث داما عن كل ما هو متميز من اجل ان يتم انجاز مهام التنظيف الان فنعتمد على افضل الاجهزة المخصصه فى اعمال الجلى والتى تساعد فى القيام باعمال الجلى على افضل ما يرام وازاله الشقوق والفواصل والعيوب واى شىء غير مالوف وجوده فى الارضيات بالاضافة الى اننا نقوم بتنظيف المفروشات فى اقل وقت ممكن بالاعتماد على افضل الاجهزة التى تعمل بالبخار ومن اجل ان يتم تحقيق افضل النتائج المميزة بالاضافة الى اننا نعتمد على الاجهزة التى تعمل من خلال افضل الطرق المميزة فى تنظيف بالخارج فاذا اراد ان تقوم بكل ما تتمناه فى التنظيف فتاكد ان المعدات المميزه التى تساعد فى القيام بكل ما تتمناه هى الافضل من حيث التميز.
    اسعار شركة تنظيف المنازل بالرياض مميزه وفى مقابل جميع طبقات المجتمع بالاضافة الى ان الشركة تعتمد على عدد من الخدمات المميزة المتواجده فى الاسواق والتى تتم على حسب رغبه واحتياج عملاءنا الكرام وهناك عدد من الخدمات التى لابد من القيام بيها وهى التلميع والتعطير بجانب التنظيف لكى يتم الشعور بالتميز فاذا اراد ان تقوم بكل ما تتمناه فعليك ان تتصل وتتواصل معنا على الفور .