Townhouses Back in Vogue

After a brief decline in popularity, townhouses are attracting more homebuyers. Learn how this housing style emerged and why it's seeing a revival.

January 1, 2006

Townhouses gained popularity in the United States more than a century ago in urban areas where open land was sparse. But modern variations are sprouting today in cities and suburbs, proving that it's not just a lack of land that's driving their wide buyer appeal.

Exactly what is a townhouse? Built side-by-side and connected by common walls, townhouses are usually two or more stories tall. Owners typically share the cost of maintaining common areas, but hold title to the land beneath their unit.

In its 19th-century heyday, before apartment living became stylish, the townhouse was the norm for middle- and upper-class urban residents who wanted to live in a single-family home, says Kevin D. Murphy, an author and architectural historian.

However, the style was around long before. The roots of the townhouse go back to classical Greece and ancient Rome, where deep houses with narrow facades were built in places like Pompeii, Murphy says. In the United States, townhouse-like structures were found in early settlements, including in Jamestown, Va., he adds.

Townhouse Terms You Should Know

Although all townhouses share certain qualities, there are some important distinctions among them, Murphy writes in his book The American Townhouse (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2005). When speaking with customers about various styles of townhouses, use these terms:

  • Townhouse. The umbrella term for an urban house, whether freestanding or attached. Can be found in cities nationwide, from San Francisco to Boston.
  • Rowhouse. An attached home built in cookie-cutter fashion as part of a line-up of identical units, often found in less exclusive neighborhoods.
  • Brownstone. A house clad in brown sandstone. Fine examples were built throughout Brooklyn after the Civil War.
  • Greystone. A house built of masonry that may have originated in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 when light-colored limestone gained favor, says Murphy.

Many Variations Emerge

Over the span of U.S. history, many styles of townhouses proliferated, with details influenced by the climate, popular architects of the time, changing trends in home design, and availability of land.

In Charleston, S.C., for instance, a Federal version known as the "Charleston single" emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with a three-bay, multistory façade and a one-story side projection that contained an entrance to a piazza, says Murphy. The style encouraged natural ventilation, helpful because of the city's heat and humidity, says Victor Deupi, Arthur Ross Director of Education at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America in New York.

Boston was famous through most of the 19th century and into the 20th century for a different variation: bow-front rowhouses with prominent bay windows, Murphy says. Meanwhile, Franklin Row in Philadelphia and Waterloo Row in Baltimore consisted of Palladian-style rowhouses designed in the early 1800s, reflecting the styles made popular by the great republics of the past, Deupi says.

The columns and pediments associated with the later Gothic Revival style showed up in early 19th-century townhouses in cities such as Providence, R.I., and in neighborhoods such as New York's Washington Square. Queen Anne towers, dormers, windows, and porches turned up on San Francisco townhouses, Murphy says.

Despite regional variations, it was common for different townhouse styles to proliferate in the same area. This mingling of styles can be attributed to national architecture magazines like American Architect and Building News, which circulated townhouse designs in the late 1800s.

In and Out of Favor

As large gracious apartments gained favor at the turn of the 20th century, townhouses lost status in certain neighborhoods. The emergence of the suburban home after World War II and the popularity of large detached single-family homes furthered the townhouse's temporary decline.

But the lure of city living made urban townhouses popular again in the 1960s. The media piqued more interest by featuring townhouses in TV programs such as The Cosby Show, in which Bill Cosby and his TV family resided in a Brooklyn brownstone.

Today, there are new townhouses being built in cities and suburbs nationwide, coinciding with a rising demand for walkable communities and mixed-use developments. The newer versions may lack authentic details, but often compensate with more space—namely wider rooms, natural light, and amenities, including decks and sometimes garages.

Qualities to Look For

When helping a customer scout out the perfect townhouse, look for these qualities:

  • Location, location, location. The mantra still holds true, says Deupi. There are advantages of living on a beautiful street, by a bustling square, or within walking distance to a grocery store, restaurants, or place of work.
  • Ample space. Is there enough square footage to meet your customers' lifestyle? Older townhouses didn't include the modern amenity of a garage, Deupi says. If your customer loves the townhouse but wants more space, remember that renovation or an addition may be possible.
  • Natural light. Because early townhouses were narrow—sometimes only 8 feet wide—and had no side windows, rooms could be dark. Houses with front and back bays that catch light from different directions may appeal more to today's buyers, Murphy says. New versions with skylights and bigger windows may appeal even more.
  • Lots of character. The more original detailing that remains, the more character the house has, Deupi says. Some modern variations are more authentic and visually thoughtful than others, Murphy says.
  • Manageable maintenance. Certain building materials require more care than others. Brownstone, for example, is a soft material that can decay if not maintained properly, while brick requires tuck-pointing. Make sure your clients know what will be required.
Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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