Society Hill trinities: Living history, in a tight squeeze

Posted: July 29, 2013

The real estate market is dominated by buyers looking for as much space as they can afford. One in which the average house size tops out at 2,400 square feet.

Still, there are those - namely, the residents of tiny Bell's Court in Society Hill - who believe smaller has its advantages.

In an almost 200-year-old brick structure about 50 feet wide and 14 feet deep, there are four 3½-story trinities, each 681 square feet, tucked into a courtyard along a pedestrian walkway starting from Spruce Street. The half-story is a loft that overlooks a third-floor bedroom and is accessible by a winding staircase that begins in the basement kitchen.

Part of the garden of William Bingham - at his death in 1804, he was thought to be the richest man in America - the land on which the trinities sit was behind his magnificent house (razed in 1850) at Third and Spruce Streets.

It was purchased in 1813 by wallpaper designer/manufacturer Thomas Hurley. Two sets of four trinities on either side of an alley leading from what was (until 1965) the 200 block of South Orianna Street were completed by 1815, as recorded in the facade of 1 Bell's Court.

The other set was demolished in the mid-1950s. The courtyard, a garden that is maintained by the owners, was the result.

Unlike thousands of others in Philadelphia, these trinities, restored and updated in 1961 by preservationist architect Robert T. Trump, have never been expanded. Thus, they offer a look at "working-class living" in the 19th century, said Paul Boni, who bought 3 Bell's Court in 1998 for $119,000.

Add the first half of the 20th century, as well. Boni, a lawyer whose office is nearby at Second and Chestnut, has a list of tenants from 1813 well into the 1940s in a folder of Bell's Court documents from a previous owner.

A man who once lived here told Carol Hutelmyer that tenants still used outhouses in the 1940s. She bought 5 Bell's Court in 1977 and said that when she investigated the chain of title, she found that five people lived in her house in 1865.

Five is the most she can get somewhat comfortably into her house for dinner, "but only if I fix the meal the day before and then reheat it."

Things get a bit tight when she opens up the kitchen table, said Hutelmyer, a retired nurse who paid $64,000 for her trinity. "I was working at Jefferson and was living in Roxborough," she said. "I saw the garden. I don't think I saw the house."

Michael Wass, an educator who bought 7 Bell's Court in 2001 for $235,000 while "looking for a small street to live on," said tight space makes you get rid of things.

"Living here is an evolutionary process," Wass said, adding that he was finding it difficult to part with a cedar chest inherited from his mother. "My father gave it to her as a wedding present."

Realizing space is at a premium, Wass has yet to bring the chest to the second floor. Eventually, he said, "I'll have to say no."

For dinner parties, he said, you ask people to a restaurant. When high school friends visited from out of town, they offered to go to a hotel rather than make Wass sleep on the couch.

Trump, the preservationist architect, bought the property from the city Redevelopment Authority, acquiring what were basically shells with woodwork, mantels, and original front doors in the style of working-class homes of the Federal period. He trained a crew of eight to restore the houses, at a cost of $12,000; added air-conditioning; updated plumbing and wiring; and made the fireplaces work again.

But each trinity remained true to the original form: an 11-by-14 living room over a basement kitchen, and a same-size second floor with a bed and bath, repeated on the third floor with a loft above it.

The trinities offered, as a 1963 Bulletin headline said, "A Heap of Livin' in a Very Small Space."

In his, Boni has replaced the air-conditioning, upgraded the kitchen, and converted one bedroom to a study. Recently, he pointed to a spot behind the stairs in the kitchen that had been opened up several times to allow a refrigerator and cabinets through.

"These are not houses meant for everyone," Boni said, noting that he, Hutelmyer, and Wass were single. One Bell's Court has two people who rent from a longtime owner who lives in the suburbs, he added, observing, "That one is a foot wider."

The four homeowners work together informally to make common repairs, such as putting on a new roof five years ago that met historic-district requirements.

"We all agree to share these expenses," Wass said, "but sometimes I think we should put money in a pot for bigger things."

Residents of Bell's Court, now and in the past, are a breed apart among homeowners.

"Small colonial spaces are not for everyone, and they typically sell at a discount," said Jeff Block of Prudential Fox & Roach, who grew up at Third and Spruce and sells in this neighborhood, where the median price was $375,000 in the second quarter.

"Any home with a basement kitchen, tight-turn stairs, or small, choppy rooms with low ceilings is going to need a special buyer, one who appreciates and is really looking for that special, historical home," Block said.

These houses aren't a poor investment, but consider buying at a discounted price, he said, because you "may end up selling it at a discounted price, compared to more modern homes on the market."

Boni recalled that when Wass bought his trinity, it had been on the market for a while.

"You can't fit a family in it," Boni said, though Hutelmyer said she once squeezed 40 relatives in for Christmas dinner. "It was buffet style."


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @alheavens.

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