The Incredible Adaptable Rowhouse


20th Street The incredible adaptable rowhouses of 20th Street, Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. Image credit: Douglas Palladino


A rowhouse neighborhood is like a good chorus, a great diversity of individual parts contributing in harmony to something greater than the proverbial sum of parts. No divas here. They literally depend on one another, and can’t survive alone.

So why is it so hard to make a beautiful block of them today? All the good ones seem to be more than a hundred years old. Their ornamented fronts strike the perfect balance of civic presence with privacy, of similarity and variation. With varied stoops and steps, bays, bows, and balconies, the regularity of width and height lets rowhouses coexist happily. These old rowhouses continue to adapt: once homes for bourgeois families a century ago, this particular row now houses cafes, boutiques, offices, even a police supply store, a non-profit, and a law firm. The original builders never could have imagined such a future when this neighborhood—Dupont Circle—was developed as a better ‘burb for the growing nation’s capital.

Rowhouses possess a unique combination of elements. They’re defined by a combination of structure, scale, and spatial organization. Parallel load-bearing walls separate space, but join the houses in a row. They’re deep and thin, not too tall, and present formal fronts with informal backs. But the real magic is in the entrances. A single rowhouse might have three separate doors on the street: one to the basement, another to the main floor, and still another leading upstairs. All those doors bless the street with activity, many eyes and ears, gossip and exchange—in short, all the things that make a lively place.

The evolution seems so simple: old rowhouses gracefully adapting to radical social, cultural, technological and economic changes. Part of the secret to their success is that these charming buildings harbor a truly subversive architectural idea: form does not follow function. Modernism tried to convince us that it did, though, and generations of architects parroted the phrase. Houses were supposed to respond to contemporary family life; corporate headquarters should express the company’s mission; schools should be age-appropriate and tightly tuned to the prevailing educational philosophies. Each new building should fit its users like a tailored suit. That works fine, until they outgrow it.

We’ve wanted buildings and neighborhoods to suit us exactly right, right now, but maybe we should give ourselves a little room to grow into them. When form follows function too closely, obsolescence can’t be far behind. That’s because we’ve gradually reduced the meaning of “function” to mere practicality and efficiency, but there’s much more to it. Buildings also have to function as part of a larger form, like a street or a neighborhood, to do their part in making places. It’s not that we want to make inefficient buildings; we just have to give them more responsibilities. These adaptable rowhouses are still functioning beautifully after all these years, and dropping some obvious hints on how to make new neighborhoods that we’ll treasure 100 years from now.