On the House: An up-close look at a city trinity

Posted: September 01, 2013

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Bell's Court in Society Hill and how the owner-occupants of three 681-square-foot trinities cope with day-to-day living in spaces that are about one-quarter of the size of a typical modern-day new home.

A couple days later, I was in Burlington Township with Matthew Reilly, president and CEO of the Moorestown nonprofit MEND, which is carving 75 units of affordable housing out of the old Springside Elementary School on Mount Holly Road. He said he had read my piece and had one question:

What's a trinity?

The word stopped him, as it might have stopped me before I landed in Philadelphia 33 years ago, in the middle of Society Hill and Queen Village.

A trinity, as Philadelphians will tell you, is a three-story rowhouse with one room on each floor, one right above the other.

Bell's Court and Bladen's Court off Elfreth's Alley both offer examples of "as was" trinities, also known in the past as "bandbox" houses because they resembled the hat boxes in use at the time.

In my Queen Village neighborhood, old-timers called them "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" houses. I'm not sure what they were called originally, when people were much more religious.

Unlike the folks on Bell's Court, I lived in an "expanded" trinity, meaning the first floor had an L- shaped addition with a kitchen, a laundry room and a powder room that made it 53 feet deep from the sidewalk while still being just 111/2 feet wide.

A visit to the Pennsylvania Historical Society revealed that, according to the U.S. Census, nine people lived in my pre-expanded trinity back in 1880.

I don't know how they did it. We were two adults, a toddler, and a small dog of mixed origin, and we considered it a tight squeeze.

Tiny houses, as the Bell's Court owners emphasized, are not for everyone, and I agree.

When we were looking for our first house, we shopped around Society Hill, checking out rehabbed trinities. There was one on Addison Court, behind our Pine Street apartment, with a winding staircase. Every time I reached a landing, I whacked my head.

Believing that I'd be opening myself up to a concussion, my wife suggested we look for something bigger down the road.

The first-floor Pine Street apartment came with use of a garage, a basement and a courtyard for $600 a month in 1980-82. Though large, it, too, had its challenges.

Without measuring the basement opening, I ordered a washer and dryer from Sears that had to be returned and reordered because they wouldn't fit.

The expanded trinity we ended up buying had a dogleg staircase from the second to the third floor. We ordered a chest of drawers for the baby's third-floor room that wouldn't fit up it, so I hired movers from the old Acme Piano Co. to remove the front window and lift the dresser through.

When we moved five years later, I was able to get the dresser downstairs myself. If you removed the drawers first, I discovered, it would fit.


On the House: Town by Town

In this week's Sunday Business section, Alan J. Heavens takes a look at real estate and life throughout the region.  

This week's focus:

Laurel Springs.


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

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