Pretty curves all in a row

The charcoal brick curve of the Split Level House, at Fourth and Poplar, echoes the century-old red bricks across the street.
The charcoal brick curve of the Split Level House, at Fourth and Poplar, echoes the century-old red bricks across the street. (Tony Fitts)

A voluptuous new Northern Liberties rowhouse salutes its round-cornered forebears - and bends all those right-angle rules.

Posted: March 12, 2010

Philadelphia is such a relentlessly right-angled city, a place so completely devoted to its colonial grid, that it's not surprising that some architectural dissidents would insist on flaunting their curves. The PSFS tower, now the Loews Hotel, is the city's best-known nonconformist, but plenty of modest rowhouses also break out of the box with similar hip-jutting moves.

Take the intersection of Fourth and Poplar Streets in Northern Liberties. For more than a century, a charming pair of well-rounded corner houses have gazed at each other across the narrow breach of Poplar Street.

The talented architects at QB3 were so taken with the pair that they decided to make it a threesome. They've just completed a voluptuous newcomer on the northeast corner that they call the Split Level House. That's a pretty modest name for the most innovative take on the traditional rowhouse that Philadelphia has seen in years.

The house is a gorgeous piece of construction, lovingly assembled brick-by-brick by South Philadelphia artisan Luigi DeLaureta and overseen by QB3's Tim Peters. But what makes it important architecture is the compare-and-contrast dialogue that QB3 set up with the neighbors. Their modern design abides by all the rowhouse rules of Philadelphia, even as it cleverly remixes them for the 21st century.

So, the house's curves are faced in brick, just like its 19th-century companions, but the architects used a rich charcoal variety flecked with oranges and browns to update the mood. QB3's house comes to the sidewalk and embraces the world with ground-floor windows, as all good rowhouses should.

Those windows, however, cut through the house's core like a seismic fault, opening up dramatic views into, out of, and through the structure. The bold, three-sided opening confounds our expectation of how a Philadelphia rowhouse is supposed to engage the street: There's too much glass to condemn the house as a fortress, yet its swaths of brick are too extensive to think of it as a transparent building. We're simultaneously invited in and held at bay by the arrangement of solids and voids.

QB3's marriage of traditional urban values and boundary-pushing architecture works so well that you have to wonder why similar fusions didn't emerge during the city's decade-long housing boom. After all, the enduring attraction of the rowhouse form is that it is infinitely malleable. And yet, too many designers were content to slap a metal bay window on a conventional box and call it modern.

Even the client who commissioned the Split Level House, a single man who has insisted on anonymity, wasn't prepared for quite so edgy a house. He gave QB3 three simple instructions: Design a three-bedroom house that fits the neighborhood. Acknowledge the unique corner. Use natural materials.

Then he handed the architects a $1 million check for construction and told them to get to work.

Such freedom was at once liberating and terrifying, recalled Stephen Mileto, one of QB3's three founders. Known for their minimalist aesthetic, Mileto and his partners, Kevin Angstadt and Patrycja Doniewski, have designed a series of finely crafted interiors, including Gallery 339 at 21st and Pine Streets, but never before had the chance to complete anything from scratch.

At first, they were anxious about the directive to build a contextual brick rowhouse. "When you build in brick, everyone assumes you're opting for a pastiche," Mileto said. "We decided to challenge ourselves to do something interesting."

The house's name implies that it has the organization of the suburban classic. It does, if you can imagine a split-level inside a rowhouse body. The 3,000-square-foot house, which sits on a double lot, also happens to be split vertically down the middle. On paper, the spatial complexity is enough to make you dizzy.

In person, it's all perfectly clear because the staggered levels enable you to see where you are in relation to the house's other rooms and the buildings outside. The central channel means you can stand in the kitchen and look through a window into the living room - or out to the Center City skyline. You don't get views like this in the average rowhouse.

Admittedly, there is something of the castle redoubt in the house's dark, rounded brick corner. So when you climb the seven steps to the entrance, it feels as if you're penetrating a forbidden citadel.

That changes as soon as you enter the brilliantly sunlit entry hall. Big enough for a small cocktail party, the space is dominated by a half-flight of concrete stairs that puddle down to form a mini-amphitheater. The bottom step widens to provide a ledge that is useful for removing shoes.

The stairs are the design's unifying feature, as they are in several QB3 projects. They unfurl through the central core like a ribbon, shifting from heavy concrete in the entry hall to a lightweight oak, bound in steel, on the upper floors.

As you move through the house, you come face to face with the house's split levels. Since the widest part of the house faces Fourth Street, the rooms are staggered on each side of the stairs. In a sense, each floor dead-ends into the adjacent room.

That means, when you're in the kitchen, the adjacent living-room floor is at table height. It's an arrangement that lets you cook and chat with your guests. Meanwhile, on the bedroom levels, the staggered levels encourage privacy, and even allow the guest room to be sectioned off with sliding pocket doors.

The final reward for taking the stairs to the top is a terrace with almost 360-degree city views. Because the house is slightly taller than its 35-foot neighbors, the architects punched openings in the brick parapet that surrounds the deck to make the house feel lighter at the top.

Now that the Split Level House is done, it's plain the architects needn't have feared using brick. There's nothing wrong with the earthy and enduring material. The problem is how it gets used in Philadelphia. In last week's column, I praised Fumihiko Maki for daring to insert a sheer glass building amid the red brick of the University of Pennsylvania campus. QB3's houses apply the opposite means to make peace with Philadelphia's favorite building material. Some day Philadelphia will move beyond the brick-or-modern debate.

Like the rounded PSFS building - or, for that matter, the rounded Reading Headhouse across Market Street from it - the grand curve of the Split Level House is an anomaly in tradition-loving Philadelphia. Cities dearly need such aberrations. They help remind us of the qualities that we value in our city, as well as the ones we wouldn't mind changing once in a while.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or

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