Don't judge a row house by its cover

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Row houses are classic creatures of the 19th century, yet they are finding a home in the 21st.

David Shlapak, chairman of the development committee of the Central North Side Neighborhood Council, says row homes are popular for renovation because they offer a blend of the old and new. The group is responsible for the development of Federal Hill, a new group of homes that look traditional but are very new inside.

“What we have seen in new or redone row homes,” he says, “is that owners get to preserve the neighborhood look and the historic architecture, but have interiors of the 21st century.”

Row houses are being redone, re-created or reinterpreted, some at costs more than $300,000, way beyond their workingman past.

Architects Gerard Damiani and Deborah Battistone created a new South Side home for themselves that puts modern twists on the row home look.

The height and width and scale are the same as neighboring homes, but other features are centered around “interpreting the context,” Damiani says of the home and headquarters of Studio D'Arc. It has a Cortens steel front, but the dark color pulls it into the look of surrounding buildings.

They and others involved in neighborhood development or building, buying and designing homes say row homes have gained a popularity because they offer an extremely workable design.

“It is clear space from front to back,” says Gerald Lee Morosco, a South Side architect who lives in a row house he remodeled in that part of town. He says the narrowness of the row home — often only 16 feet — generally means no support beams are necessary inside, allowing the popular open form of design.

Row homes also are cost-efficient, says designer and developer Ernie Sota, president of Bellevue's Sota Construction which developed Riverside Mews in the South Side. Those homes are new and modern-looking, but are narrow and were built in an effort to “stay true to the look of the neighborhood.”

Because row homes generally have only an exposed front and a back — with the sides right against neighboring buildings or separated only by an alleyway — “you are not spending money on the exterior,” Sota says.

But life in a row house involves accepting a great many realties.

“You have to get that sweet spot,” says architect Ben Maguire, who recently completed a Lawrenceville project greatly influenced by row-home thinking.

The two homes Maguire designed are not exactly row homes because they do not have gravely encroaching houses on each side. But they are joined in the middle and are designed with the vertical nature endemic to the row house.

Maguire says one of the big design elements is that you only have windows in the front and back “so the big issue is how do you get light in the middle of the house.”

He did that with a skylight that illuminates the stairwell that leads to the bedrooms.

Damiani and Battistone have a large skylight over an open area on the second floor. It is above the kitchen and dining area, tumbling enough light downward that Damiani says they can go through most of the day without any artificial light in that area.

Both are new buildings, so the designers were able to deal with lighting upfront. Solving it can be more difficult on some renovations. Architect Justin Cipriani, for instance, took care of that issue in one South Side home by eliminating additions in the back of the house to create a yard. That space spills light through large glass doors which are complemented in the front by a large window over the sink.

Sota says his design uses the principal of Victiorian-era “daylighting,” which is building tall windows that then reflect light off the ceiling to add to the brightness. It is another old principle getting a modern twist.

“Redesign of a row house is not always easy,” Maguire says. “But the advantage is that there is a clear, simple nature to it.”

That simple nature makes modern design easy to accomplish while still preserving the classic look of a building, the North Side's Shlapak says. He says his group decided it wanted the row home style in Federal Hill to preserve the look of the community.

Morosco and Sota say row-home life generally is in a city with a small property that does not require great amounts of shoveling, grass-cutting or leaf pickup.

“People in the suburbs sometimes want those things,” Morosco says. “They don't mind having to drive everywhere. But in a row home, the infrastructure is in place. It is walkable to what you need.”

Sota agrees those elements are an important and real side of deciding to live in a row house.

Damiani and Battistone were living in a loft on South 20th Street when they bought the land on which they put their 21st century row house. They knew the area and decided it was the “sweet spot” that would make their decision.

But both had become convinced of the value of urban life through stays in Europe when they were in college.

“I like a place where I can walk to a shop or that is convenient to mass transit,” he says.

He admits there are household elements that can be missing in row home life. He says his small backyard gives him the suburban deck-like spot to have a cup of coffee and his roof garden allows a place to watch the sundown at the end of the day. He also added a garage to the front of the house, tipping his hat to the dominance of the car in modern culture.

“You look at those things and, check, you can get them done,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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