A townhouse, or town house, is a type of medium-density housing in cities, usually but not necessarily terraced (row housing) or semi-detached. A modern town house is often one with a small footprint on multiple floors. The term originally referred to the city residence of a member of the nobility, as opposed to their country seat.
Historically, a town house was the city residence of a noble or wealthy family, who would own one or more country houses in which they lived for much of the year. From the 18th century, landowners and their servants would move to a townhouse during the social season (when major balls and drawing rooms took place).
In the United Kingdom most townhouses were terraced. Only a small minority of them, generally the largest, were detached, but even aristocrats whose country houses had grounds of hundreds or thousands of acres often lived in terraced houses in town. For example the Duke of Norfolk owned Arundel Castle in the country, while his London house, Norfolk House, was a terraced house in St. James's Square over 100 feet (30 metres) wide.
- Leinster House in Dublin - residence of the Duke of Leinster (Ireland's premier duke) and now the seat of Oireachtas Éireann, the Irish parliament.
- Powerscourt House - Dublin residence of Viscount Powersourt, a prominent Irish peer. It was sensitively converted into an award-winning shopping centre in the 1980s. (See an image of one of its decorated ceilings here.)
Georgian Dublin consisted of five Georgian squares, which contained the townhouses of prominent peers. The squares were Merrion Square, St. Stephen's Green, Fitzwilliam Square, Ruthland Square (now called Parnell Square) and Mountjoy Square. Many of the townhouses in these squares are now offices while some have been demolished.
In the United States and Canada, a townhouse has two connotations. The older predates the automobile and denotes a house on a small footprint in a city, but because of its multiple floors (sometimes six or more), it has a large living space, often with servant's quarters. The small footprint of the townhouse allows it to be within walking or mass transit distance of business and industrial areas of the city, yet luxurious enough for wealthy residents of the city.
In areas so densely built that detached single-family houses are uncommon or almost nonexistent, ownership of a townhouse connotes wealth. Some examples of cities where townhouses are occupied almost exclusively by the wealthy are New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.
"Rowhouses" are similar, and consist of several adjacent (next to), uniform units originally found in urban areas on the east coast such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, but now found in lower-cost housing developments in suburbs as well. A rowhouse will generally be smaller and less luxurious than a dwelling called a townhouse.
The name "townhouse" or "townhomes" was later used to describe non-uniform units in suburban areas that are designed to mimic detached or semi-detached homes. Today, the name townhouse is used to describe units mimicking a detached home that are attached in a multi-unit complex. The distinction between dwellings called "apartments" and those called "townhouses" is that townhouses usually consist of multiple floors and have their own outside door as opposed to having only one level and an interior hallway access. They can also be “stacked” and such townhouses have multiple units vertically (typically two), normally each with its own private entrance from the street or at least from the outside. They can be side by side in a row of three or more, in which case they are sometimes referred to as “rowhouses”. A townhouse in a group of two could be referred to as a townhouse but, in Canada and in the United States, it is typically called a semi-detached, and, in some areas of western Canada, a half-duplex.
An example of a non-traditional "townhouse" that is in a complex akin to an apartment complex, is a two bedroom unit with the living room in the front on the lower level, kitchen in the back. Two bedrooms are on the front and back of the upper level with a single bathroom between. This style has become less popular in areas where it has been adopted by 'rent control' or HUD apartments.
In Canada, single-family dwellings, be they any type such as single-family detached homes, apartments, mobile homes or townhouses for example, are split into two categories of ownership:
- condominium (strata title) where one owns the interior of the unit, and also a specified share of the undivided interest of the remainder of the building and land known as common elements.
- Freehold, where one owns exclusively the land and the dwelling without any condominium aspects. In the United States this type of ownership is called fee simple.
Condominium townhouses, just like condominium apartments, are often referred to as "condos", thus referring to the type of ownership rather than to the type of dwelling. Since apartment style condos are the most common, when someone refers to a "condo", many erroneously assume that it must be an apartment style dwelling and conversely that only apartment style dwellings can be condos. All types of dwellings can be condos and this is therefore true of townhouses. A "Brownstone" townhouse is a particular variety found in New York.
After the Second World War, large townhouses/terraced house in British cities were often divided into flats or converted into offices. In the early 21st century this trend was reversed to some extent, partly because there is less demand for old houses as offices, since open-plan layouts are preferred, and partly because the number of very rich people in London has risen. In 2004, the Grosvenor Group sold two grand terraced houses in Belgrave Square that had been in office use, for reconversion to family houses. The asking price was £12 million each.
For marketing purposes British property developers and estate agents often call new city terraced houses "townhouses," because of the negative connotation of terraced housing. The aristocratic pedigree of terraced housing is widely forgotten.
- Bute House - former residence of the Marquis of Bute in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square, now the official residence of Alex Salmond (First Minister of Scotland)
- Dundas House - former Edinburgh home of Sir Lawrence Dundas, now the principal branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland
- John Knox House - 15th-century townhouse on the Royal Mile
- Old Moray House - 17th-century dwelling of the Earls of Moray in the Canongate
- Queensberry House - bought in 1689 by William Douglas, 1st Duke of Queensberry, now incorporated into the new Scottish Parliament Building and housing the office of the Presiding Officer
- The Georgian House, Edinburgh - restored 18th-century townhouse which is open to the public
In the Middle Ages the London residences of the nobility were generally situated within the walls or boundary of the City of London, often known as "Inns", for example Lincoln's Inn was the town house of the Earl of Lincoln, Gray's Inn of the Baron Grey de Wilton. They gradually spread onto the Strand, the main ceremonial thoroughfare from the City to the Palace of Westminster, where parliamentary and court business were transacted. Areas such as Kensington and Hampstead were countryside hamlets outside London until the 19th century, so mansions in these areas, such as Holland House, cannot be considered as true historical townhouses. Bishops also had London residences, generally termed Palaces, for example Lambeth Palace, Ely Palace, etc. Many aristocratic townhouses were demolished or ceased to be used for residential purposes after the First World War.
The greatest residence on the Strand was the Savoy Palace, residence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the richest man in the kingdom in his age. The Strand had the advantage of river frontage to the Thames, which gave the nobles their own private landing places. The next fashion was to move still further westwards to St James's, to be near the Tudor royal court. In the 18th century Covent Garden was developed by the Duke of Bedford on his Bedford Estate and Mayfair by the Grosvenor family on their Grosvenor Estate. The final fashion before the modern era was for a residence on the former marsh-land of Belgravia, developed after the establishment of Mayfair also by the Duke of Westminster. The following examples, most of which are now demolished, are comparable to the Parisian Hôtel particulier:
- The Albany
- Apsley House
- Bedford House
- Bridgewater House, Westminster
- Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace)
- Burlington House (now home of Royal Academy)
- Chesterfield House (demolished 1937, now eponymous Mayfair block of flats)
- Clarence House the residence of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and now the residence of Charles, Prince of Wales
- Clarendon House
- Crewe House, Curzon Street, Mayfair, currently the Saudi Arabian embassy
- Devonshire House (formerly on Piccadilly, opposite present Ritz Hotel. Formerly Berkeley House)
- Dorchester House
- Essex House
- Grosvenor House (replaced by eponymous hotel)
- Harrington House formerly the London residence of the Earl of Harrington
- Hungerford House, residence of Baron Hungerford until 1669. It later became the site of Hungerford Market and then Charing Cross railway station
- Lansdowne House
- Londonderry House (formerly on Piccadilly)
- Marlborough House residence of the Prince of Wales and later Queen Mary the Queen Mother (1936–1953) (now the Commonwealth Secretariat)
- Montagu House
- Norfolk House
- Northumberland House (demolished)
- Pembroke House, Whitehall
- Somerset House
- Spencer House formerly the London residence of the Earls Spencer
Whilst most English examples of the townhouse occur in the capital, the provincial cities also contain some historical examples, for example Bampfylde House (destroyed in WW II) in Exeter, the county capital of Devon, the town house of Baron Poltimore of the Bampfylde family, whose main country seat was Poltimore House in Devon. Also in Exeter was Bedford House, also demolished, the town residence of the Duke of Bedford who resided principally at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire but required a base in the West Country from which to administer his vast estates there.
Asia, Australia and South Africa
In Asia, Australia and South Africa, townhouses are generally found in complexes. Large complexes often have high security, resort facilities such as swimming pools, gyms, parks and playground equipment. Typically, a townhouse has a Strata Title, i.e. a type of title where the common property (landscaped area, public corridors, building structure etc.) is owned by a corporation of individual owners and the houses on the property are owned by the individual owners.
In population-dense Asian cities dominated by high-rise residential apartment blocks such as Hong Kong, townhouses in private housing developments remain almost exclusively populated by the very wealthy due to the rarity and relatively large sizes of the units. Prominent examples in Hong Kong include Severn 8, in which a 5,067-square-foot (470.7 m2) townhouse sold for HK$285 million (US$37 million) in 2008, or HK$57,000 (US$7,400) per square foot, a record in Asia, and The Beverly Hills, which consists of multiple rows of townhouses with some units as large as 11,000 square feet (1,000 m2).Commonly in the suburbs of major cities an old house on a large block of land is demolished and replaced by a short row of townhouses, built 'end on' to the street for added privacy.
- English country house
- Great house
- Manor house
- Stately home
- Duplex (building)
- terrace (architecture)
- list of house types
- Hôtel particulier
- For a description of an 18th-century town house in England, for example, see Olsen, Kirsten. Daily Life in 18th-Century England. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, pp. 84–85.
- Also see Stewart, Rachel. The Town House in Georgian London. Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009.
- For background, see Casey, Christine. The Eighteenth-Century Dublin Town House: Form, Function and Finance. Four Courts, 2010.
- For a history of the town house in the United States, see Herman, Bernard L. Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780-1830. UNC Press Books, 2005.
- For a general discussion of town houses in Edinburgh, see Brown, Keith M. Noble Society in Scotland: Wealth, Family and Culture from the Reformation to the Revolutions. Edinburgh University Press, 2004, p. 203ff.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Townhouses.|
- Cunningham, Peter. Handbook of London Past and Present, London, 1850 (see section 20: "Palaces & Chief Houses of the Nobility & Gentry in the Present Day).
- Daisy, Countess of Fingall. Seventy Years Young. First published 1937 (autobiography of an Irish peer's wife, covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth century).