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The history of Philadelphia’s trinity houses

Georgian architecture in a tiny package

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Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in March 2017 and has been updated with the most recent information.

With roots in the 17th century, when founder William Penn laid out its urban plan, Philadelphia is one of America’s oldest cities.

Penn—who grew up in England—hated London’s cramped streets, so he devised a gridded city with the help of land surveyor Thomas Holme.

The plan gave each house land and distance from its neighbors, creating what Penn called a “greene country towne.” Think the benefits of city life with the pastoral beauty of the country.

The layout, although idyllic, left swaths of unused land between houses. While that was the point, the plan didn’t accommodate Philadelphia in the 18th century, when its population rose.

To meet the new housing demands, the larger blocks were subdivided, adding alleyways and smaller streets running between the main avenues.

Townhouses went up in these spaces to maximize housing. Meanwhile, builders bought up the cheaper land along the inner alleyways to build modest townhouses for the city’s lower-income population. The houses were built out of brick in the Georgian style, which was popularized in England following the Great Fire of London in 1666, when wood construction was abandoned for fire-resistant brick.

These townhouses, which were generally three stories in height, came to be known as “trinity houses,” which both referred to the three-levels of the house as well as the holy Catholic trinity of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Trinity houses, characteristically, have one room per floor. The rooms joined by a small winding staircase to form a house that generally clocks in at 1,000 square feet or less.

While some trinity houses have been lost to modern development, a number of them still exist. In fact, many of Philadelphia’s most picturesque streets—like Old City’s Elfreth’s Alley—are almost entirely made up of trinity houses, which have gained new popularity thanks to the tiny house movement.

These houses aren’t just a part of American architectural history—some of them are for sale, too. Here are a few of our favorite trinity houses on the market right now.

308 S Iseminger Street (2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, $310,000)

Of course, there were variations on the trinity house. One such variation is the “bandbox,” the most modest version of the trinity.

Bandbox houses were generally constructed on the smaller alleyways tucked off the main streets. They are also generally no more than 16-feet wide. This charming fixer-upper is a typical example of one such house.

While small, the house retains much of its original character, with multiple fireplaces and wide-plank floors in the 819-square-foot townhouse. The house needs to be updated—we wouldn’t be surprised if the fireplaces need to be restored to working order, and the kitchen could use a refresh—but that just means it’s ripe for any old-house lover not afraid of a project!

221 S Sartain Street (2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, $325,000)

While we love the living room hearth and wide-plank floors of this classic trinity, there’s no denying that it’s in need of some love.

The wooden floors are covered in red paint, the fireplace doesn’t look like it works, and it seems like an air conditioner has replaced what was once a window over the front door. But all of those can be fixed with just a little paint stripper and elbow grease.

The 1850-built house is just a short walk from city hall and Rittenhouse Square. And if the fireplace gets repaired back to working order—could you imagine a cozier spot to spend the winter?

226 Spruce Street (3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, $795,000)

If you’re one for Colonial-era woodwork and cooking fireplaces, then we’ve saved the best for last.

This circa-1743 home carries loads of curb appeal with its wooden shutters, six-over-six windows, and little transom over the front door (which was probably sacrificed in the previous house for the air conditioner).

Inside, the living room features original wood paneling, wide-plank floors, and a fireplace. We’re big fans of the larger fireplace in the basement, which was likely where food was originally prepared. The flame-resistant brick floor provided an extra safety measure against fire should a log accidentally escape the firebox. You can check it out more over at Curbed Philly!