Row House Romance: Have You Seen the Back?

back sides of several joined row houses
Brick/collage: the back side of a row house block with a lot going on. Lawrenceville

Don’t tell Ms. Orbit, but your author has had a long-running affaire d’amour going on decades now. My paramour is lovely—and complicated—but always a surprise. A fellow makes his clandestine visits early in the morning and late at night—sometimes even sneaking in for a Rupert Holmes-style lunch hour. Just like Lionel Richie and the gang, she’s quite literally a brick house … but is still mighty mighty when she dresses down in casual wood frame and siding. Yes, I’m in a legit Row House Romance and here to tell you a fire that burns this hot ain’t going out any time soon.

side-by-side row houses, seen from the rear, with very different backyards
A tale of two backyards, Lawrenceville

We’ve talked in this virtual pages about how terrific row houses appear when they’re close-quartered odd couples, as twins gone wild, and dressed alike, side-by-side. Those collections all contemplate the street-side views of this uniquely urban design.

So today, we move around to the alley backsides of row house blocks where so often the true variations on this theme get amplified. Here—with less people looking and a little more room to make choices—homeowners let these birthed-from-the-same-womb siblings go their own ways.

She joined the fencing team, maybe, and likes to wear false eye … err, window lashes. His waistline expanded with a new addition and dresses like a pile of clothes when he can’t keep his siding straight.

rear view of two row houses
Row house cubism, Lawrenceville
rear of row houses seen over wooden fence
On—and over—the fence. Lawrenceville
rear view of three row houses
Squeezed together, Lawrenceville
side-by-side row houses with similar siding, seen from the rear
Little pink houses, Bloomfield
alley view of brick row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA
Split personality, Lawrenceville
rear view of three row houses
Three amigos, Lawrenceville
rear view of brick row house showing differences between two halves
Better fences, Lawrenceville
rear-view of house and garage
Green scene, Millvale

Big Sky Rooflines

Maybe it’s cheating to include so much big blue sky in a photo that’s supposed to be about buildings, but when you’ve got it—and yes, it’s not all that often in Pittsburgh—a photographer will work it like a rented mule. Lit up like billboards and shining like new pennies, even humble row houses are elevated against a perfectly blue sky. It gives the picture a deep, mystical contrast we can’t resist. They just look so darn good—even from the back side.

three similar-looking row houses with white siding, seen from the back
Bloomfield
alley-facing exterior of row houses in Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville
alley view of row houses, Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville
rear view of three row houses
Lawrenceville
alley-facing exterior of row houses in Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville

Both Sidings Now: Mixed-Media Houses

house with fake brick siding patched with many different types of shingles
The Sistine Chapel of mixed-media DIY home repair. Etna

With apologies to Joni Mitchell,

I’ve looked at life with both sidings now
Fake stone, fake brick, anyhow
Clapboard slats and fish scale tile
Colored vinyl—go on for miles

Call it what you like—brick collage bricolage or asphalt aspirations, vinyl verité or aluminum assemblage. We’re going the refer to the unique phenomena of homes improved in multiple phases with multiple different exterior building materials as mixed-media houses.

side-view of row house exterior made up of many different building materials
Slanted and enchanted. Mixed-media with ghost house. Lawrenceville

However it worked out, there are a lot of Pittsburgh homes—specifically row housesthat ended up with an upstairs/downstairs division in after-market siding. Sometimes, the twofer becomes a fourfer or fivefer when we go around the corner, under the porch, or up to the mansard roof.

The choice of material sometimes seems like a very conscious design decision—let’s do the first floor in blue stucco, she might say, yeah, and we’ll have white aluminum on the second floor, he joins in—but that doesn’t explain everything.

detail of residential wall showing fake brick siding underneath tiled siding
Bustin’ loose / drink the Kool-Aid. Elliott

Way too many of these examples seem like accidents of time, as if one set of homeowners made an initial decision and a subsequent owner came along and flipped the script twenty years later. Some just feel like people went with bargain lots on leftovers that couldn’t cover the entire house. We’ll likely never know why things ended up the way the did.

The photos—hopefully—speak for themselves and we don’t have enough puns on exterior cladding or Joni Mitchell in-jokes to warrant too much jibber-jabber. Enjoy.

back sides of several joined row houses
Once, twice, nine times a lady. Lawrenceville
row house with collection of different types of siding
The grand buffet! Bloomfield
house with many different styles of siding
An even grander buffet! Allentown
older brick house with modern facade additions in many styles
Ain’t that America: brick, wood, steel, and glass. Mt. Washington
house wall showing multiple siding materials
Rocks Bottoms mixer-upper. McKees Rocks
garage wall showing multiple siding materials
Triple layer cake. Bloomfield
set of three row houses in mid-renovation showing many layers of different siding types
Mid-renovation mixed-media. Bloomfield
three-story house with different styles of siding at each level
Three stories for three storeys. Millvale
pair of row houses with different types of siding on first and second floors
Bloofer-Twofer. Bloomfield
house with multiple patterns of siding
Business in the front … a different type of business around the side. West Homestead
small building with multiple siding materials in Donora, PA
Off off-white and stone below. Donora
pair of row houses where wall siding of one matches porch siding of the other
Your porch, my wall. Neighbors sharing siding. Bloomfield
wood fence constructed with many different pieces of scrap wood
“That used to be a crack house,” the neighbor told me. Mixed-media fencing, Beltzhoover
older apartment house with wood siding on the first floor and fish scale shingling on the second and third
Upstairs/downstairs. Polish Hill
newly-constructed row houses with "ghost house" cutting through the aluminum siding
The ghost in you. Mixed-media ghost house. Duryea, PA
large older row house with multiple types of siding
Mansard multi-layer. Bloomfield
small building with multiple siding materials in Pittsburgh, PA
Old school/new school. Hazelwood
large older building using multiple types of siding
Multi-sided multi-sidings. Bloomfield

The Over-the-Wall Club: Searching for Wall Quarters

exposed formerly interior wall showing three paint colors in perfect quarters
One of humankind’s most glorious examples of wall quarters. Inside-outside wall, Wellsville, O.

The giant wall holds a lot of history–and likely not a few secrets. Two tall stories high and spanning the full depth of the lot–from the sidewalk on Wellsville’s Main Street all the way back to the service alley–this space did a lot of living. Demolition on the building that used to be here exposed a (former) interior wall that is an archeological treasure our shallow American memory will have to substitute for “real” finds like Sutton Hoo or Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The plaster walls still cling to a rich palette of battered colors. Each room had been painted in an entirely different scheme and what remains are beautiful antique reds, pale yellow-greens, and deep melancholy blues. There are channels on the surface where we see clear outlines of the old building’s load-bearing interior walls, a staircase, plumbing lines, slotted holes in the brickwork for tall floor joists.

With all this, it is one particular section of the wall surface that intrigues more than the rest. In it, we see the intersection of three colors, each scarred, smeared, and pockmarked with age but still brimming with verve. A strong yellow line runs due north-south and gives the whole thing the composition of a modernist painting. Everything exists in perfect right angles.

cinderblock and plaster wall with loose bricks
The wall that started it all. Forest Hills

The obsession with wall quarters began way back in 2015 with a reporting trip to Forest Hills. We were there to commune with the ex-atom smasher and later found ourselves by another, similar, inside-outside lot. Amongst the rubble of felled bricks and illegally-dumped housewares were four squares within a larger square: the right side faded green-blue, the left a dirty white; plaster above, cinderblock below. The section lines could not have been more precise.

It was perfect: balanced and meditative, color, material, and texture arrayed in transcendent harmony. It’s the kind of lightening bolt that may only land once in a generation–heck, once in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

brick and masonry wall sectioned into four colors, Pittsburgh, PA
Strip District

But, wall-watching naifs that we were back then, the hard truth wasn’t fully understood. It seemed obvious that we’d run into more big, glorious, quad-sectioned walls just as soon as the mind was opened to them. Why, once you set the controls for Marys or Steelermobiles or The Dog Police you see them everywhere–wall quarters must be just as easy … right?

brick wall with loose bricks
Bloomfield

Well, you know where this is going. No, it is not easy to locate a perfect wall square–and this poke-down-every-alley and look-inside-any-abandoned-property keister is here as a material witness. Six years later–six years of looking for these things!–and we’ve come up with merely a handful of specimens. A lot of them aren’t even that good!

But if you take the collection we did manage to cobble together and throw in a (good-sized) set of bonus/pseudo-wall squares, we end up with a pretty nice haul. Hopefully they’re as pleasing to Orbit readers’ eyes as they are for staff to deep focus on when we’re destressing in Chez Orbit’s salt cave. Breathe in, breathe out, close our eyes and say it until we believe it: everything is going to be all right.

cinderblock wall sectioned into rough quarters by paint, Pittsburgh, PA
South Side
section of plaster and marble wall divided into four distinct quarters
Millvale
detail of brick wall where different paint layers have made distinct geometric sections
Bloomfield

Row House Rejoinders

I’m not going to lie, The Over-the-Wall Club has some purists who frown on the relatively easy wall quarter pickins found in row house blocks. While it took us half a decade of constant scouring to come up with just the few “real” quarters (above), any Sunday stroll through the South Side Flats or the Mexican War Streets will reward with a bounty of these interfaces between next-door row houses.

With brickwork and foundations in a continuous plane, it just takes neighboring homeowners with different color preferences and a little bit of luck (steps, stoops, porches, and downspouts all get in the way; sloping hillsides break a lot of linear connections) to get really nice, perfectly squared-off intersections.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
closeup of bricks meeting foundation of two rowhouses, forming equal square quandrants
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

No Room for Squares

As with life, things on a wall don’t always line up perfectly. One shouldn’t let that diminish the shear ecstasy of a beautiful mixed-media surface, though. An extra drain pipe here, foundations that don’t line up there–we’re all better off to roll with these as … not imperfections, but rather elements that broaden the depth of the final composition. Ain’t nobody perfect, but a wall with a whole lot of problems sure might come close.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of retail storefront where colored glass joints have made distinct geometric shapes
Vandergrift
brick exterior wall of row house painted in multiple sections
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
wall surface with geometric shapes formed by paint colors, siding, drain pipe
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make geometric pattern
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of brick retail storefronts where paint choices have made distinct geometric shapes
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

Row House Romance: The Monochrome Set

Bob Ross would be proud: lots and lots of red! Bloomfield

Behind a six-foot brick wall sit two side-by-side row houses facing a thin alley in Bloomfield. On the left is a typical Pittsburgh wooden worker house: two up/two down, three windows wide, no decorative flourishes. Immediately abutting it is either a small house with an unexpected garage door or a small garage/workshop with an apartment upstairs–it’s not really clear. Everything is painted red.

This is a prime specimen for the row house fancier who wants a single, coordinated palette: lots and lots of red with just enough white trim to outline features of the two houses and make design snobs’ blood pressure rise. On a sunny day, with a big blue sky and just one wispy cloud dancing above it, don’t that look like America, man.

Spring green and clean. Bloomfield

After the mental and physical exhaustion of last week’s sob session, it’s time for some spring cleaning. We’re sitting on sixty-eight stories in draft mode–so it’s well past time to clear out the cupboards, beat the rugs, and maybe throw some things away. Yeah, we may never get to Andy Warhol’s weight set or great Men’s Room signs, but if the brain will cooperate, expect a return to the weekly format for a while.

For the latest installment of our Row House Romance series, we’re digging into that elusive sub-genre of row house watchers–the side-by-side bestest buddies that decided to dress up in identical outfits. (Or, at least, came pretty close.) Enjoy.

pair of wood frame row houses, both painted white, in Pittsburgh, PA
White on white, Bloomfield
Gray parade: gray house, gray house, gray sky. Bloomfield
large row house painted bright green
A green dream, Lawrenceville
pair of matching row houses, one painted white, the other black
Back to basics, Lawrenceville
pair of row houses with matching yellow siding
Mellow yellow, Marshall-Shadeland
pair of row houses, both painted gray
Gray parade redux, Lawrenceville
pair of row houses, both painted gray
Light/gray, Lawrenceville
Yellow(ish) fever! Bloomfield
pair of row houses, both painted in shades of red
Three shades of red, Sharpsburg
pair of row houses, each with gray shingled siding
Blue sky/gray fish scale, Perry Hilltop

Row House Romance: Odd Couples Edition

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

The holy grail! Side-by-side row houses of different width, height, design, color, and modernization, Bloomfield

If there is a high–the dragon, if you will–that the  hardcore romancer chases, it is this. A pair of stout row houses, butting right up against each other like books on a shelf, but otherwise as unrelated as chalk and cheese.

He with the faded green aluminum siding, splotched with decades of not-quite-matching touch-up paint; she with a prim new black-and-white scheme on her brick façade, ready for the town in never-going-out-of-style two-tone. He made the regrettable decision to turn his windows into port holes; she’s left the nice big double-hung two-paners intact, and has the afternoon sunlight to prove it. He’s still lugging around the same set of heavy-lidded awnings he picked up after high school; she’s newly trimmed her detail work–all clean lines, tight accents, and graceful ornament.

We could go on about how he’s put on a few pounds from all that sitting around, but that would just be cruel. No, we’re here to celebrate that great accident of residential architectural history–the side-by-side odd couple pairings one finds in Pittsburgh’s many row house blocks. Each evinces an anthropomorphic reaction to the unlikeliest of subjects: old-school worker housing.

There was enough commonality in some of these to group them into loose themes. Really though, this one’s all about the visuals, so we’ll quit yappin’. Whether you live in one (guilty!) or are just a drive-by wanna-be, happy row house romance to one and all!

To Peak or Not to Peak?

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

3-story brick townhouse adjoining 2-story frame row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Big Buddy/Little Buddy

large brick row house next to small row house with aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

South Side

pair of row houses of different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Brothers From a Similar—but Definitely Other—Mother

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick and frame row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

exterior of wooden row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Brighton Heights

Mixed-Media

Victorian-era brick row house next to modern metal and glass row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

older brick row house next to under-construction house, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

pair of row houses with very different siding treatments, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

brick row house with flat roof next to wooden row house with peaked roof, McKees Rocks, PA

McKees Rocks

row house with collapsed roof next to row house with new siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Marshall-Shadeland

ornate brick Victorian row house next to plain designed row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Mexican War Streets

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

Well, it took long enough–three years and change.

It was that long ago, in this same electronic publication, where the author declared, “To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!” (“A Thomasson!” Pittsburgh Orbit, March 16, 2016)

Rabid fans of architectural effluvia have been sitting on their hands for years now, waiting for a promised revival, but was the wait ever worth it! It’s not every day that a beaut’ like this comes along.

Five short steps form a poured concrete stoop along the alley side of a Bloomfield row house. They lead to a blank wall. The base has been freshly repainted in a deep slate blue with its risers and wooden railing accented in alternating colors of red, mauve, aqua green, yellow, orange, and a couple shades of blue. The whole construction pops from the otherwise nondescript off-white siding.

We’ll not go into the whole thing here, but a “Thomasson” is an artist-created name for an architectural or infrastructure relic that no longer serves any purpose but is still actively maintained. It’s that second clause that makes them so rare.

While Webster Hall’s former retail entrance (see the earlier story) is totally legit, it never felt quite right. The remaining two-step platform makes a pretty obvious nice long bench along the Fifth Avenue sidewalk bookended by a pair of planters. One could argue this is less Thomasson and more adaptive reuse. In reality, no one ever sits there; theoretically a person could.

In contrast, the Bloomfield side steps-to-nowhere are really textbook Thomasson. They clearly led to a door that’s no longer there, boxed in by after-market aluminum siding in a serious home renovation project. It’s expensive and/or labor-intensive to jackhammer out all that concrete–not to mention there’s a possible structural hazard for the home’s foundation. So one can imagine the very reasonable desire to just leave it be.

But by preserving the useless handrails and taking up the paint brush–in eight different colors, no less–the homeowners are working at some next-level Thomasson generation. It’s an oddball curio, discussion topic, and detour destination for a backstreet Bloomfield gambol.

Someone made the effort to redd up their Thomasson. We’re glad they did.

Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.