Neither Yoav nor I had spent any real time in Philly beyond a few day trips over the years, so when we planned our first visit to the City of Brotherly Love, we were looking at it from a completely different perspective. Virtually nothing about this first trip was going to be about popular attractions or touristy things. We were on a discovery mission first and foremost, focusing on walking around City Center and our target neighborhoods to get a feel for things. If we happened to stumble upon a tourist thing, that would be okay too.
In my last post, I went over how I had begun doing my homework on the city focusing first on neighborhoods followed by housing when we booked our trip in mid November. One of the local housing types which came up in my research is the trinity, which is essentially a small (often under 900 sq ft) three story house with one room on each floor connected by small tight spiral stairs locally referred to as a “winder”. Since these adorable houses were frequently on our list of search results we decided that rather than stay in a hotel, we should rent a trinity. While we knew we wanted more space than a trinity offers, we saw this as a perfect opportunity to spend a weekend in a tiny house and see how we felt about it, or more importantly, how we felt about winders.
With the trinity rented, we looked at how we were going to get there. Philly is only about 90 miles from NYC, so it is a relatively short trip (which is one of the reasons we started looking there). The obvious choice would be to travel by train. Amtrak has nearly 50 trains a day leaving from Penn Station and passing through Philadelphia, but fares start at $39 per person each way and rise up to well over a hundred bucks. For a 90 minute ride, that seems a bit steep. We decided to opt instead for the least glamorous mode of transport possible… Greyhound. There are 20+ buses a day from Port Authority to Philly, and fares start at $10 and max out at $19 for priority seating. Big difference! It is an extra 30 minutes, and you do ride with folks of more modest means, but it is certainly not as horrible as snooty folks frequently make it out to be, and it drops you in the middle of center city whereas the train stops across the Schuylkill River outside of city center. We decided to live it up and spend the extra $5 for the priority seating option, which basically means you get to be among the first ten people boarding the bus. It is worth it to me because I have longer than normal legs, and prefer to sit next to a window without obstructions.
The trinity we rented for the weekend is located in the Rittenhouse Square area near Broad. It was an adorable house with charm for days. According to a house history (framed on the wall in the living room), it was built in 1842. The house had a living room and small kitchen on the main floor, a sitting area and bathroom on the second floor, and the third floor was a bedroom, all connected by a restored set of winder stairs so tightly built that the hand rails were vertical (and necessary). We very quickly learned that true winder stairs were not something we could live with. Climbing the the stairs was relatively easy when you have nothing to carry in your hands, but descending them was an exercise in skill. This especially came to light during trips to the bathroom at 3:00am.
Friday was a regular work day for both of us, so by the time we arrived and settled into our trinity, it was already 8PM. We decided to just walk about and find dinner. We were only a few blocks from the Gayborhood, so that was our immediate target. We were of course, quite hungry, but the excitement allowed us to hold off until we found a nice place to eat (rather the the first place we came across). We ended up having a delicious dinner at Mixto on Pine Street. Following dinner, we continued wandering about, looking at the city from a completely different set of eyes… Could we? Should we? Live here?
Saturday was all about exploring neighborhoods and open houses, yes… Open houses. After a super delicious breakfast at Miles Table on South Street (did I mention that Philly is known for having really good food?), we wandered down into Bella Vista, home of the Italian Market. Using Zillow’s handy open house planner, I had several on our list, it was a matter of timing and location. I chose houses I knew may not be what we wanted because I wanted to get a general feel for the different housing types in Philly. A few years back when we were hunting for our co-op in NYC, we went to more than 50 open houses over the course of a year, learning what we liked and didn’t like in the process. We were looking for a pre-war apartment, and discovered that for us, pre-war meant pre-WWI (1918), as value engineering began to strip the character by the 1920s.
Our requirements for a house would seem simple enough. We wanted three bedrooms (one for us, one for guests, and one for myself to use as my creative space), we wanted at least 1,200 square feet, we wanted outdoor space (even if it wasn’t large), we wanted a basement, and we wanted old with character. As it turns out, an 125+ year old three bedroom house with 1,200+ square feet, a small yard and a basement was indeed easy to find and very affordable. Except for one thing… Character.But old with character was not as simple as I had hoped. Most row houses in city center are indeed 125+ years old, some much older, but unfortunately time has not been kind to most of them when it comes to character. The vast majority of the houses have been gut renovated multiple times over the years often leaving very little original detail intact. In more recent years, there has been a huge influx of house flippers buying old homes, gutting them to the studs, and building a brand new (and usually banal) house inside an old shell, and removing any hint of the past. But, as I learned from going to more than 50 open houses a few years ago when searching or our co-op in New York, it is important to see all different types of homes. Even homes you may not consider living in. You need to get a feel for the types of spaces and the only way to do that is to go to open houses. The first one was a lovely house on South 6th Street which had been renovated within the last ten years. It was a three story double trinity with an addition on the rear resulting in about 1,350 sq. ft. In lieu of a back yard, it had a highly coveted parking spot which is kind of a big deal in Philly given that the vast majority of homes were built during the times of horses and buggies. The house had a winder with vertical hand holds like our rental, but it was bigger and not as treacherous to climb and descend. The next open house was on Carpenter Street. This was another three story place with about 1,400 sq. ft. The house was totally adorable! It had character! It had original or at least very old details! It also had a recently replaced kitchen in the rear addition, which was not quite my style, but I could so totally live with it with very little change. When we climbed tight (but straight) stairs to the second floor, we saw three bedrooms and a bath. The front bedroom was plenty large to use as a master, and it had a walk in closet. The rear bedroom was smallish but adequate for use as a guest room. The rooms were not terribly exciting, but absolutely serviceable. We liked this place, and we also liked that the selling agent was professional and friendly. The last open house was on the tiny S Schell street. This is what I would consider to be the true flipper special. At first glance, it looks sexy! It has a nice first floor, a lovely kitchen, and they added some very features…. But upon closer inspection it became clear that all was not as it appears. The woodwork, door casings, and trim weren’t finished well (or just unfinished in areas), the engineered floor was pretty, but you could see where it was going to buckle, and it felt cheap when walking on it. The glass enclosed entrance to the basement was stunning to look at, but barely 24 inches wide when you descend the steep steps. And then the basement itself was less than six feet in height. Basically a storage space and not much else.
The time spent between the open houses was all about walking all over Bella Vista, through the Italian Market, and parts of Queen Village. We had a tasty lunch at Morning Glory Cafe, and then later headed back to the trinity for a much needed nap. The evening had us exploring downtown along Walnut street, more of the Gayborhood and the super adorable tiny streets lined with more trinities. Dinner was at a tiny Greek place called Effie’s on Pine Street. As we sat at dinner, we both looked at each other and simultaneously came to the conclusion… Yes, we could live here, we should live here, and with that, the decision was made.
On Sunday we squeezed in three more open houses, and a lot more walking around. The three open houses were much like the day before, only they were located a bit more to the west, and honestly, none of them were very impressive, although one house in Rodney Street had a rooftop deck with a lovely view of the skyline. We also managed to walk around City Hall and get a better feel for the lay of the land. By late afternoon, we were back at the bus depot getting ready to head back to NYC.
After arriving home and reflecting on our weekend, we decided that we needed to make several more visits over the coming months to get a better feel for things and to see more open houses. We began to plan our next visit for early January.