Uniquely Philadelphian, trinity homes offer residents charm, history and a lot of headaches

For the second time in a little more than a decade, Alison Towers needs a new refrigerator.

A nuisance? Certainly. An unexpected expense? Without a doubt. But the genesis of a full-on construction project?

For Towers and a subset of the Philadelphia population, absolutely.

Nestled amid a string of colorful rowhouses on Hancock Street in Queen Village, Towers, as well as her husband, daughter, and their giant Labrador retriever, live in a trinity, a style of house unique to Philadelphia. Standing typically at three stories and measuring no more than 16 feet wide, Philadelphia’s trinity homes — also called bandboxes or “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” houses — are known for their simple floor plans, winding spiral staircases, and cozy offerings on quiet blocks.

They are also the source of a lot of aggravation.

For all their charm and history, trinity homes present a host of problems for the uninitiated buyer. Ranging from 400 to well-under 1,000 square feet in size, the homes can seem cramped for a family of more than two or three. With just one room on each floor — and no doors leading to these rooms — trinities, owners say, often offer little privacy. And the steep and narrow winding “Betsy Ross” staircase that defines the trinity makes moving furniture in and out monumentally difficult.

Which is exactly why Towers’ refrigerator dilemma requires a bit of construction.

Camera icon ED HILLE / Staff photographer
Alison Towers and her husband, landscape architect John Collins, pictured in 2013, have lived in a trinity home in Queen Village for decades.

“I’m not going to get a refrigerator down into the kitchen [in the basement] without taking out the stairs, taking out the structural mid-column, and then talking some kind of delivery guy into getting it down there,” said Towers, 63, a partner in the architecture firm Towers & Miller. “Last time we did this, for months we lived with the bottom steps gone and with a ladder going down to the bottom.”

You get really good at climbing up and down the ladder to the basement, said Towers, who has lived in her trinity for more than three decades. “Now I’ll be back at it again because the darn refrigerator broke.”

Trinity owners and renters across the city are quick to joke about the circumstances of their homes, such as the times they had to saw their box-springs into half to fit them up the stairs, or the days that tall residents spent bowing their heads to fit under low-hanging ceilings. But in the same breath, they often expound upon the homes’ benefits: their character, their history, and the quiet streets where most of them sit. With most trinities tucked off of major streets, it’s not uncommon for residents to pull tables into the alleyways for dinners or for kids to blow up inflatable pools to swim in the streets during the city’s hot summers.

“They are cozy, nice little dollhouse homes,” said Pat Conway, a Realtor and a member of the Conway Team, a Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach real estate group that focuses on the Queen Village area. “And you can have a trinity next to a million-dollar house.”

“They are cute houses for a young, single person or a young couple wanting to get into a good neighborhood,” said Conway, who grew up in an “extended” trinity home — one only slightly larger than the original bandbox — with his two parents and three brothers. The four boys, Conway said, shared bunk beds on the upper floors, and found room to play by sliding up and down the spiral staircase on their sleeping bags.

“They are built so well, even if some might be a little uneven,” Conway said. “… I used to have a home inspector say a few years ago, ‘If you were 150 years old, you might be leaning, too.’ ”

Camera icon Kathy and Herbie Conway
Pat Conway, a Realtor based in Queen Village, (bottom right) and his three brothers share bunk beds in this decades-old photo. Conway grew up with his three siblings and two parents in a trinity.

With their origins dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, trinity homes are one of the earliest examples of Philadelphia housing. Constructed during the city’s budding growth, these bandbox homes were tucked behind or in between the city’s primary streets, as well as within residential courts, to house Philadelphia’s servants and working class.

“It was an efficient way to build a really nice house,” said Tim Kerner, a principal at the Philadelphia architecture firm Terra Studio, who is restoring a trinity on the 1000 block of East Moyamensing Avenue in Queen Village. Trinities, he continued, “are all about getting clever with really small spaces.”

For the most part, historians and real estate agents say, trinity homes were built in Georgian or Colonial brick style and are concentrated in areas including Queen Village, Old City, South Philadelphia, and the River Wards. While some have been renovated and expanded beyond the three or four stories (three floors plus a basement) that defined the originals, many of the earliest examples still remain today, accounting for a piece of the nearly 400,000 rowhouses citywide.

Today, these century-old trinity homes are especially in vogue. Across the globe, more and more residents have embraced the “tiny home” lifestyle, downsizing their homes — and their lives — in favor of minimalism and simplicity. Trinities offer residents exactly that: small-sized living in a large, busy city.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
The kitchen of a trinity home, located in the basement, on the 1000 block of Moyamensing Avenue. The home is being renovated by architect Tim Kerner of Terra Studio.

Interspersed with larger rowhouses, trinities today help create more economic diversity in popular neighborhoods with strong public school catchments. In high-demand neighborhoods such as Queen Village, for example, trinity homes have sold recently for less than $200,000, according to property records — nearly half of the 19147 zip code’s median price of $385,000 in the third quarter of 2017.

The economic model of having smaller, more affordable units in high-priced neighborhoods is not unique to Philadelphia. In Paris, for example, residents have found more affordable housing units in chambres de bonne, astoundingly tiny French apartments located in higher-priced apartments and buildings. And in cities from London to New York, basement apartments typically offer the same, more affordable benefit, too.

The affordability of trinity homes — coupled with their historical appeal — was one reason Lola Arellano-Fryer and her partner chose one nearly four years ago.

“I was going to be living in Philly for the first time, and I got hooked by this idea of living in this quintessentially Philadelphia home,” said Arellano-Fryer, a 31-year-old social-media manager. “It sounded like the perfect size for two people.”

After searching for a trinity online for weeks, Arellano-Fryer finally snagged one built in the late 1800s on a residential court in Fishtown. Measuring just 500 square feet, Arellano-Fryer’s home featured four levels, each with a footprint only slightly bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet. In her kitchen basement, all her appliances were miniature.

Camera icon Lola Arellano-Fryer
Lola Arellano-Fryer’s cat, Yaz, sits on the stairs leading to the second floor of her trinity home in Philadelphia. Narrow spiral staircases are a hallmark of trinity homes.

“The biggest challenge we probably faced was storage,” she said. “There was only one closet in the kitchen, and no closet in the bedroom. … We bought a large wardrobe to store all of our clothing, but we had to take it up the stairs piece by piece and then assemble it.”

And to move it out a few years later, Arellano-Fryer did what many trinity owners do: She hired professional movers to hoist most of her furniture out her third-story bedroom window.

“We wanted something bigger,” Arellano-Fryer said of her decision to move. “And we potentially wanted to start a family in this house, and I couldn’t imagine growing into a trinity — having a toddler on the stairs would make me so nervous.”

Squeezing a large family into a small house is not atypical in Philadelphia.

“The idea of privacy is a modern idea. The notion of a door to your bedroom is also a modern thing,” said Towers, the Queen Village architect. “Trinities do not have those things — so when you come up the stairs, you land in a room that people sleep in.”

“There’s no sense of privacy; there’s no place to get away,” Towers continued. “No door to slam when you are in a snit. If you want to slam the closet or bathroom door, go right ahead.”

In a trinity home, Towers said, it’s all that you can do.