Why I Love Philadelphia, Part 3: Trinity Houses

“TRINITIES,” IN PHILADELPHIA PARLANCE, are three-room, three-story houses — one room per floor — built between the 1790s and 1840s.  They’re cozy, charming, evocative, historic, and, some might add, un-livable.

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Rear unit of my ‘double trinity’ in South Kensington, above. The property consists of two back-to-back trinities under one roof.

Trinities are not for everyone, especially those with bad knees or king-size beds. The smallest are only 100 square feet per floor. There’s a lot of going up and down stairs — narrow, twisty stairs at that.

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They’re cherished archetypes in Philadelphia (I know there are some in Baltimore and probably other cities, but Philly abounds in them). I’ve never seen or heard of such a tiny house in New York — correct me if I’m wrong.

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You can see very early trinities lined up on Elfreth’s Alley in Old City, but trinities are not just historic curiosities. They’re all over Craigslist, and real-estate websites, for 249K and up in the very best neighborhoods.

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I’ve owned a trinity in South Kensington since 2007 (all pictures in this post). In fact, it’s two trinities, back-to-back under one roof. The rear unit was vacant; I fixed it up nicely, but it still took a while to find a tenant. One woman said the stairs gave her vertigo. Someone else used the word claustrophobic. But when an agile young man bounded up and down those stairs with a big smile on his face, I knew I had the right guy.

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Trinities are found throughout the city, in Fishtown, Kensington, Queen Village, Graduate Hospital, Center City and elsewhere, often on narrow, cobbled alleys.

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As of this writing, there was a trinity for sale for 299K in Center City, and one for 249K in Queen Village. This greedy old-house fanatic wants another Philadelphia trinity!

About cara

I blog for fun at https://casacara.wordpress.com, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here: https://casacara.wordpress.com/recent-articles/
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20 Responses to Why I Love Philadelphia, Part 3: Trinity Houses

  1. Caroline says:

    Trinities are totally livable! I lived in one when I first moved to Philly. As long as you use your space efficiently and live clutter-free, they’re so cozy. (Also, you have to be careful on those stairs after you’ve had a few glasses of wine.) I actually went to an open house for the first one you posted–the one that’s $299k. It’s wonderful! It made me wish I still lived alone. The seller really did an amazing job with it–the kitchen is adorable and high-end and the patio is very private and like a beautiful extra room. It’s on Quince, which is a great street, I think he’s selling all of his furniture with it. Anyway. I love trinities :).

  2. cara says:

    Hey, Caroline, thanks for filling us in on that listing from the POV of one who’s actually checked it out. But if I don’t miss your point, you’re saying trinities are totally livable – for one person!

  3. Caroline says:

    Yes! One person + one cat or one small dog.

  4. Melissa says:

    I’m beginning to understand more and more why Philly is called the “Sixth Boro”. A Trinity house sounds perfect for the minimalist. I have a slight problem with clutter (understatement) and don’t know what I’d do with my book collection, but it looks like a great concept.

  5. Beth Huerta says:

    Hi !! That Trinity for $249 is mine and it’s still for sale! It’s a gorgeous house – completely comfortable! Interested?

  6. Beth Huerta says:

    I can be reached through my realtor Carol Brown @ 215-528-1868

  7. Jenna says:

    I’m moving into a trinity this week and was just googling “moving into a trinity” and came across this post. I am so excited to have a cozy little house. I won’t be alone however, I have a boyfriend…but we have the holy grail of trinities…one with an extra floor! Sooo in case you’re interested…it’s basement, living room, kitchen, bedroom/bath, bedroom. Yay!

    I’m good with getting my bed up the stairs (I have a squishy double mattress and a frame that comes apart)…any advice on getting a couple of old, normal sized dressers up the stairs? I’m nervous!

  8. cara says:

    Ummm…hire local movers experienced with trinities? Actually, I think you’ll be OK as long as the dressers aren’t oversized. Best of luck to you, Jenna, in your new trinity (actually, counting the basement, they’re all four stories), and many thanks for commenting!

  9. Jenna says:

    movers…that’s funny. $$$$$$$$$

    (this one’s 5 floors)

  10. cara says:

    So we have to call it a…”quad” then? What neighborhood are you in, Jenna?

  11. Joy says:

    I grew up in Philadelphia. My best friend’s father had a photo studio in one of these trinities in Center City. We used to refer to these type of buildings as “father, son, holy ghost” buildings.

    I now live in Brooklyn. My house looks like a West Philadelphia row house.

  12. cara says:

    hi Joy, thanks for the reminiscence! Hard to imagine operating a business out of a Philadelphia trinity. I occasionally see a house in Brooklyn that reminds me of Philly. Just the other day, I noticed a pair of houses — frame I think — on Washington Ave in Clinton Hill, set back far from the street, with porches on top of a high stoop, and I thought “Philadelphia!”

  13. Joy says:

    Come by Fuller Place in Windsor Terrace and you’ll be surprised! (A little more than a mile from where you are, I’m guessing!).

    Windsor Place, between 10th and 11th Avenue smacks of West Philadelphia, too.

  14. cara says:

    hi Joy, good to hear from you! I *love* Fuller Place….check this out: https://casacara.wordpress.com/2008/12/25/prettiest-block-in-brooklyn/
    Haven’t seen Windsor Place, though – I will take a look. (Know of any houses for sale on those blocks? If so, I’m interested!)

  15. My cousins bought a gut-renovated trinity on Naudain Street. The modern kitchen is the full width of the house, right behind the small front living room. There’s no bathroom on the main floor. Not for everyone, but I would take one in a heartbeat! Especially if it was a little less “gut” renovated.

    I’m also from Philadelphia, living in Brooklyn. I don’t think it’s the “Sixth Borough.” It has a different feel.

  16. cara says:

    Hi Jonathan, nice to hear from you. I’m with you on the less renovated the better. Within reason! Yes trinities have undeniable charm. They are not for everyone though. Welcome to Brooklyn. There does seem to be a Brooklyn Philadelphia orbit that a lot of people are traveling these days.

  17. Megan Rye says:

    Hello Fellow Trinity Enthusiasts, we are selling our trinity in Queen Village, Philadelphia, which has affectionately been restored to the original random-width pine floors along with 3 fireplaces. It’s in a safe, gated courtyard. We’d love it to go to someone who will enjoy it as much it as we have: http://goo.gl/rLPvR

  18. Deb says:

    My best friend’s family lived in two back to back trinities, the 1st floor had a doorway knocked through. They used to get furniture into the upper floors through the windows.

  19. Pingback: Our Fishtown Trinity

  20. Justine Cullinan says:

    I lived in Park Slope in the 1960s, when it was on the cusp of discovery, and figured that my return to Brooklyn was genetic as my forebears had lived there for years (two maiden aunts who were in service in Brooklyn Heights in the 1870s had managed to buy their own house on Sterling Place when they retired and both my grandfather from Ireland and my grandmother from near Rittenhouse Square fetched up in St. Teresa’s parish in the beginning of the 20th century). It was then that a friend of mine took me to visit a friend of hers, who lived in a Trinity house near South Street. I was enchanted — it even had an 18th C ivied English formal garden in the back. When we returned a few days later, on crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, I thought “Oh, Brooklyn, I thought you were everything, but I’ve been unfaithful, and now have another love — Philadelphia.” And, now that I’m older, I’ve picked up a few more old surprising neighborhood “loves.” Thanks for limning this particular kind of house sprinkled throughout our old Northeastern cities. I would think that in an era of real-estate excess, these kinds of efficient and beautiful houses would be clamoured for …

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