Architecture Planning and Preservation Townhouses
Jeffrey E. Klee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0047


For as long as there have been towns, there have been townhouses. However, the modern study of the townhouse as a distinctive architectural type has largely focused on the relatively recent past, from the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries, a long era of urbanization throughout Europe and North America. In this era, the attached townhouse, sometimes referred to as a rowhouse, sometimes as a terraced house, became ubiquitous as intensive speculative development remade Western cities with street after street of high-density, multistory attached housing. Note that “townhouse” is used here to denote the broad range of housing that is sited in cities, whereas “rowhouse” is a particular subset of townhouse that shares its party walls with its neighbors and is most often built speculatively, in rows of three or more at a time. “Brownstone” is a further sub-category of the rowhouse, one that is built of masonry and most closely associated with New York City in the middle decades of the 19th century. Two principal problems have animated the scholarship on this period: first, identifying the range of options available to urban householders at the outset; and second, defining the causes of a widespread shift to a more regular streetscape and a smaller number of plan forms over the 18th and 19th centuries. In the Anglo-Atlantic world, this process is referred to as “Georgianization.” Despite the relative abundance of surviving housing in this period compared to earlier eras, there have been catastrophic losses: from fire, the depredations of war, and urban development policy. London has fallen victim to all three. Students of townhouses at the beginning of this period and earlier must therefore look to other disciplines, principally archaeology, for relevant literature, though some information about medieval housing is available in the sources collected here. Similarly, those interested in multifamily urban housing of the late 19th and 20th centuries, such as tenements and public housing, should consult sources in urban history and planning. Though the townhouse is commonplace in Western cities, this form has not received the same level of scholarly attention as other building types, such as churches, country houses, or farmhouses. The townhouse has seemed too cosmopolitan for the folklorists associated with vernacular architecture studies, while, at the same time, it is too commonplace and too uniform to warrant the attention of scholars of polite architecture. This pattern holds especially true for continental Europe, where there is very little English-language scholarship on urban housing, even in cities with significant inventories of premodern buildings like Amsterdam, Bruges, and the towns of the Hanseatic League. That said, a relatively rich literature is available on the cities of the English-speaking Atlantic world, especially in the Georgian era. Housing in London, Philadelphia, Bristol, and Boston is increasingly well documented thanks to long-standing efforts at survey and historical research. So, too, are the construction practices and development process for urban housing, especially concerning the speculative rows of London and its suburbs. Similarly well studied is the work of individual architects who are closely associated with urban housing, such as Robert Adam and John Nash.

General Overviews

There have been few comparative or synthetic transnational studies of the townhouse before the modern era. Most broad overviews treat a single country and no more. An exception is Binney 1998, which covers both the widest region and the broadest expanse of time of all the entries listed here. For students wishing for a broad introduction to urban houses, it covers expansive ground well. Similarly broad in geographic scope but much more constrained in chronology is Millon 2005. While touching only occasionally on townhouses, its several essays explore urban form and architecture from Naples to Lima. More typical of the studies that have a broader focus than a single city are those that contend with a culturally unified region. Muthesius 1982, while giving much attention to London, takes all of England as its subject, addressing the form and development of a particular type of townhouse, the uniform row, or terrace, from the 17th century to the early 20th century. Cruickshank 1985 is less focused, taking in Ireland as well as England, while also covering a broader range of building types, but the chapter on urban housing provides a concise and useful overview of all forms of urban housing for this period. Herman 2005 covers a much wider geography, from Charleston, South Carolina, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is also the most ambitious thematically, with a detailed treatment of servants’ quarters as well as a chapter on accommodations for widows. Unlike Millon 2005, in which essays on individual cities stand apart, Herman takes care to draw connections both between American house forms in different cities and to their European predecessors. Its interpretive daring and focus on ordinary houses not only sets it apart, but also makes it engage only indirectly with some of the broader scholarly themes addressed by others.

  • Binney, Marcus. Town Houses: Urban Houses from 1200 to the Present Day. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1998.

    The broadest overview of the subject in print and very well illustrated. A useful starting point for research in its comparative perspective over a long span of time.

  • Cruickshank, Dan. A Guide to the Georgian Buildings of Britain & Ireland. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.

    Though focused on a single key phase of architectural development in the British Isles, includes a useful section on urban housing and a gazetteer of key sites.

  • Herman, Bernard L. Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

    An ambitious account of an early phase of development of the American townhouse, addressing not only plan form, but also use and everyday experience of a wide range of occupants, from owners to guests to servants. Abundantly illustrated with period views, contemporary photographs, and floor plans.

  • Millon, Henry A., ed. Circa 1700: Architecture in Europe and the Americas. Studies in the History of Art 66. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2005.

    Though focused primarily on city form and civic architecture rather than housing, it nonetheless is a rare transatlantic treatment of cities in this period, with relevance to students of urban housing and urbanism in the major European and colonial capitals. Extensively illustrated with period views and maps.

  • Muthesius, Stefan. The English Terraced House. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

    Covering roughly three centuries, this volume provides a broad summary overview of the attached townhouse in England. Despite its broad reach, it includes useful details on plan form and demonstrates the wide range of quality of urban dwellings, from Victorian workers’ housing to Georgian-era mansions.

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