Redefining what a rowhouse could be - in 1962

The heart of the University Mews complex is a shady courtyard.

With its mix of modernist architecture and quaint, brick-lined walkways, University Mews could pass for a distant cousin of I.M. Pei’s Bingham Court in Society Hill. Its 46 brick-and-concrete houses are oriented around a similarly gracious communal courtyard. But West Philadelphia’s University Mews was completed in 1962, a full two years before Pei’s ground-breaking infill project.

Besides being a charming, tucked-away community, University Mews is a fascinating, early example of architects’ efforts to redefine what an urban rowhouse could be. The project was featured in a 1964 issue of Progressive Architecture — then the bible for modernist designers — devoted to “The New Row House.” While the American dream house had long been equated with stand-alone suburban homes, the opening essay in the 174-page magazine suggested that the humble attached home deserved new respect, especially as a means of providing affordable housing and fighting sprawl.

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Brick-lined streets without sidewalks or curbs add to the quaint feel of University Mews in West Philadelphia.

That essay is a good reminder that the issues that were bubbling up 53 years ago are still relevant today. So are the rowhouse designs such as University Mews, which is virtually unchanged from its 1962 design.

Located at 45th and Spruce, the complex was designed by Ronald C. Turner on the grounds of a former Victorian mansion built by Charles M. Swain, owner of the Public Ledger. Although a private project, it was a product of the same urban-renewal approach that produced Society Hill’s infill housing. The federal government even offered 90 percent financing for the houses, which were priced starting at $22,000, in an effort to entice middle-class buyers and stabilize the neighborhood. (One house recently sold for $400,000.)

Perhaps because of security concerns, University Mews was conceived as a self-contained compound. Yet it still manages to find a balance between privacy and neighborliness. The two brick-lined streets that connect the compound to 45th Street could be considered an early example of a woonerf, a “living street” featuring shared space for pedestrians and automobiles.

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This plan for University Mews includes two brick-lined streets from 45th Street.

The graciousness of those streets sets the tone for the project, which has the feel of a modernist commune. At the center is a red-brick, tree-shaded central court, where today, residents hold potlucks and monthly “dessert nights.”

The houses themselves are simple and compact, with light-filled, split-level interiors. To enliven the facades, Turner ran a thick, white concrete beam above the ground floors and recessed the entrances below. The mix of vertical and horizontal windows is emphasized by brick dividers supported by chunky, modernist keystones.

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A photo from Progressive Architecture showing the original interior of a house at University Mews.

Despite being informed by a similar sensibility, University Mews can’t match Bingham Court’s formal elegance. One reason is the developer’s decision to place parking garages on the ground floor of every home. Fortunately, the sociability of the Mews’ layout helps make up for the largely blank ground floors. Tall trees and lush gardens take the edge off the defensive design elements. After half a century, there is still a lot that Philadelphia can learn from this modest modernist mews.

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University Mews was built on the site of a former Victorian mansion at 45th and Spruce. The stone wall from the old house remains, but has been fitted with a University Mews cornerstone.