The building in Philadelphia that’s now known as the Betsy Ross House was never actually occupied by Ross. That building most likely existed a few door over but is long gone. But the museum does an excellent job of recreating a proxy that conveys the larger truth even if some of the historical details are a little off.
Nearby Elfreth’s Alley provides an example of both the architecture and urban form that dominated Philly from the very early 1700’s until the middle of the twentieth century. City lots were typically between twelve and sixteen feet wide.
A compact three story “trinity” house was the standard home type with a kitchen in the basement, front parlor on the main floor, and a bedroom upstairs. Over time additions were put on to the back that doubled or tripled the home’s size. Homes were usually built on a cash basis or with money borrowed from family and friends. They were expanded as more children arrived and as the household budget allowed.
In the case of the Betsy Ross house the landlady occupied the back rooms that had been built as an addition to the original home. The rear quarters were quieter and removed from the unpleasantness of the street. The original front part of the house was rented to Ross. The house was effectively a duplex. Ross lived upstairs and ran her upholstery and drapery business from the front parlor on Arch Street.
It’s worth noting that every aspect of this traditional arrangement is absolutely illegal today in nearly every municipality – including much of Philadelphia. Try subdividing your split level ranch home on a cul-de-sac into apartments and opening an upholstery shop in your two car garage and see how that goes down with the local authorities. You won’t likely be sewing any American flags when General Washington comes calling.
As a twenty two year old architect working for Adler & Sullivan’s office in Chicago Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built his own home in Oak Park, Illinois. At the time the surrounding territory was open prairie at arm’s length from the industrial heart of Chicago. He and his wife Catherine raised their children in this home, but the house was more than a suburban residence.
Wright conducted his architectural practice from his home. As more children continued to arrived (there were ultimately six) his original office was turned to bedrooms and an addition to the home was created for his professional activities. A waiting room, secretary’s office, private office, and drafting room were all built on what was originally the front lawn.
As time unfolded Wright had an affair that resulted in his leaving his family and running off to Europe and then Wisconsin with his mistress. In order to support his family during this abandonment he subdivided the home into apartments. Catherine and the six kids lived in one portion of the house and drew rental income from the other parts of the building. Again, try any of that in your home today and see how the neighbors and municipal regulators respond.