Orphans and Multiples

A photographic essay in the Huffington Post from a few days ago entitled “10 Orphan Row Houses So Lonely You’ll Want To Take Them Home With You” did indeed make me sad. A sampling of photographer Ben Marcin’s work, the photographs feature single surviving rowhouses (I prefer the one-word spelling) in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Camden, New Jersey, the heartland of mid-Atlantic urban architecture. I love rowhouses: I actually live in one, although it’s just a double, and I went to college in Baltimore and briefly lived in Washington, D.C., another great rowhouse city. You just know that these still-strident orphans were once part of a strong streetscape, and want to know the story behind their abandonment–and survival.

rowhouse  Ben Marcin Baltimore

Rowhouse Ben Marcin Baltimoreblue

Rowhouses Ben Marcin Philadelphia

Rowhouses in Baltimore and Philadelphia by photographer Ben Marcin, C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore.

I got happier when I started reading about some rowhouse renovations, and took a leisurely late-afternoon walk to see some of Salem’s rowhouses. We don’t really have rowhouse blocks like larger cities, but we do have several rows of triple and quadruple semi-detached houses just in my neighborhood,  and a few more around  town. Before the great fire of 1914, there was a “Tontine Block” of four houses in Salem built in 1805, no doubt inspired by Charles Bulfinch’s Tontine Crescent in Boston, one of the first American residential urban planning projects. The Boston Tontine was built in 1794-95 and unfortunately demolished in 1858, the victim of encroaching commercial construction.

Rowhouses Tontine Crescent

Rowhouses 1850s franklin tontine crescent bpl

Bulfinch’s Tontine Plan, 1794, and the Tontine Crescent shortly before its demolition in 1858, Library of Congress and Boston Public Library.

Here in Salem, the triple house on Chestnut Street, fortunately very much still standing, and the lost 1805 Tontine block on nearby Warren Street testified to Bulfinch’s influence; the latter was rebuilt after the fire with some charming Craftsman details, inside and out. The other Salem rowhouses are clearly not Federal in inspiration: dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, they are wooden structures built in a more vernacular Victorian style. Each and every one is enhanced by the presence of its neighbors.

Rowhouse Salem Chestnut

Rowhouses Salem 2

Rowhouses Salem 3

Rowhouses Salem 4

Salem rowhouses on Chestnut, Warren, North Pine, and Broad Streets.


6 responses to “Orphans and Multiples

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    An offshoot of the rowhouse is something that I see from time to time down South: structures called “shotgun shacks.” They were usually residences that were one-story in height, very narrow and went back the length of the block. Today, they tend to be in the decayed part of bigger cities, or in those areas that have recently been gentrified. Unlike the rowhouses, they’re almost always made of wood. I don’t know if they exist in other parts of the country, but I’ve seen them every where from the Florida Panhandle to Carolina tobacco country to the slums of New Orleans.

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  • daseger

    My ex-husband’s grandmother, a real Low Country lady, used that term, and I remember seeing several of these houses in New Orleans, in varying degrees of disrepair. I suppose the name comes from the plan–affording a straight shot from front to back?

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  • Matt

    Ginger men, Salem rowhouses. There’s a message in your blogs that I am trying to decipher…. Haven’t quite figured it out yet.

    We actually have a picture of the Salem Tontine block that sat on Warren Street until the Salem Fire. Beautiful places; bigger than what sits there today and somewhat more stately. Happy to share should you do a Tontine blog some time.

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  • markd60

    In the old days they called them Rowhouses, today they call them Townhouses.

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  • Sarah Peirce Nichols Takes the Walking Cure | New England Historical Society

    […] breakdown, George Nichols suffered a reversal of fortune. The family moved from the prestigious Tontine Block (burned down in 1904) to the home of a friend, then to a house owned by her paternal […]

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