A Touch Of History
The American Townhouse
By Don Rittner
The Townhouse is as much a part of American history as Mom’s Apple Pie. The American Townhouse evolved from European ancestors that provided urban quarters for nobility and wealth in densely populated areas such as London centuries ago. There is even evidence that townhouses go back to the ancient Romans.
The American version of the townhouse was one of the most popular house types in urban America during the 19th century. Examples can be found in most older American cities and throughout the Capital District in neighborhoods such as Albany’s Center Square or Hudson Park, Schenectady’s Stockade District, or Troy’s Historic Second Street. The earliest evidence of townhouses were found in archeological excavations at Jamestown and perhaps the first standing example is the former North American row of 10 buildings of Bud’s Long Row in Philadelphia, PA, built ca. 1691.
The advantage of the townhouse was its small footprint that allowed it to be within walking or mass transit distance of business and industrial areas of the city, yet luxurious enough for wealthy residents of the city. One could walk to almost any retail or commercial establishment, take a stroll to a playground, or just chat with neighbors in the village green. Townhouse owners on Madison Place in downtown Albany face a beautiful park out their windows, as does those found along State Street in the Washington Park neighborhood, for example.
The townhouse was built of quality materials along streets that were paved and alleys behind for the carriage house a place of repose for the horse and carriage, now replaced by garages and modern automobiles. Architecturally, the Townhouse utilized many different elements and construction material and mimicked the architectural styles that were fashionable at the time. The Townhouse is also less expensive to heat and cool due to close proximity of the buildings.
Today, people are looking to live in a community that embodies that sense of history and connection to the past but provides modern amenities. After all we no longer use cast iron stoves to heat nor travel in a horse and buggy anymore. We want to live in a community that feels like a neighborhood of neighbors. We want to be able to walk to the deli, grab a coffee and chat with friends, but still are able to be mobile and within a few minutes’ drive access all that a bustling region like the Capital District provides.
According to architectural historian Kevin D. Murphy, “the row house neighborhood was above all a community in which the architectural form ensured a certain degree of sociability.” In addition, the modern townhouse owner is also pleased they’re not responsible for property upkeep. Today it is possible to experience this taste of Americana.
Welcome to the Village at Shaker Creek. The best of old times in a modern setting.
Don Rittner is an American historian, archeologist, educator, and author living the Capital District. Don has 40 books published which includes 22 books on the history of the Capital District.