On Park Avenue, in Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills neighborhood, sits a large, brick and masonry, U-shaped building. The building’s Neoclassical and Renaissance Revival exterior is notable for its symmetry, tall columns, and elaborate doorways. It’s the Verona, built in 1906 as a distinguished, upscale apartment building.
The Verona’s beauty aside (we’ll get back to that later), have you ever given thought to the history of this structure type? And by that, I mean, the apartment building?
Apartment Buildings Through History
At its simplest, an apartment building is a large building with more than one housing unit. They’ve been around for nearly a millennium. They coincide with the rise of cities and high population density—after all, apartment-style living is a practical way to ease congestion.
Here are some examples:
- Circa 200 A.D. Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico. You’ll still find the remains of over 2,000 apartment buildings amongst this city’s ruins.
- Ancient Rome. Apartments were in buildings called insulae (meaning “island”). These could be a block of buildings or a single structure. Some were as tall as six or seven stories. Wealthier folks lived in the lower levels and conditions became more squalid as you moved upward…The reverse of today’s “penthouse living”, which we owe to the invention of the elevator.
- Edinburgh’s Medieval Old Town. By the 16th century, multi-story dwellings were common. Each level was an apartment, treated as a separate house, one built on top of another.
- 1830s New York City. During the 19th century, low-cost apartment buildings were built in big cities and towns across the U.S. and Europe to house the growing numbers of industrial laborers. Between 1821 and 1855, New York City’s population nearly quadrupled—and kept growing. The typical New York City apartment building, or tenement, developed in the 1830s to accommodate the uptick. These buildings held apartments of narrow rooms arranged end-to-end in a row like boxcars. Let’s just say that tenement living conditions weren’t particularly nice by today’s standards.
The French Connection
The second half of the 19th century brought big changes in apartment design for the upper-middle class and rich. Paris took the lead, heralded by the creation of the French Second Empire architectural style.
By 1850, the center of Paris (Old Paris) was overcrowded, unhealthy, and crime-infested. To fix it, Emperor Napoleon III ordered Paris rebuilt. From 1853 to 1870, a vast public works program under the direction of Georges-Eugene Haussmann replaced medieval alleys and structures with wide avenues and monumental buildings, added new parks and squares, and constructed new sewers, fountains, and aqueducts.
The most striking features of Haussmann’s rebuild—ones that are still a huge part of Paris today—are the many apartment buildings that line the city’s boulevards. Haussmann’s street blocks are unified, architectural wholes—not full of independent buildings. Within these blocks, the new apartment buildings followed the same general plan:
- Ground floor and basement–often occupied by shops or offices;
- Mezzanine—typically with low ceilings (versus those soaring heights you can find elsewhere!) and often also used by shops or offices;
- 2nd floor with a balcony—here you will find the largest and best apartments;
- 3rd and 4th floors—becoming less elaborate than the 2nd floor…;
- 5th floor with a single, continuous, undecorated balcony—eh;
- The iconic mansard roof level—basically small attic rooms initially for lower-income tenants, but later used by servants of people in the apartments below.
The preponderance and uniformity of Haussmann’s apartment buildings gave us the concept of the “Paris flat”. The insides held elegant architectural flourishes including high ceilings, parquet flooring, floor-length windows, and intricate wood and plasterwork.
Paris’ reconstruction impacted building design throughout Europe and the United States—and this included apartment building design.
“Paris Flats” Jump the Pond
Think “U.S. / Late 19th Century Luxury Apartment” and the iconic Dakota overlooking New York City’s Central Park is top of mind. Built in the 1880s, the Dakota was among the earliest luxury apartment buildings in the U.S. The desirability created by its grandeur has not changed in over a century. When it was built, apartment-style living was a new idea for New York’s elite. However, they could not resist the Dakota’s private courtyards, elevators, 14-foot ceilings, state-of-the-art kitchens, and servants’ quarters. The same was happening in other major U.S. cities.
In Cincinnati, the Lombardy is located downtown on West Fourth Street. Built in 1881 by real estate developers Thomas Emery & Sons, this 7-story building is among Cincinnati’s first fashionable apartment buildings. It had both kitchens and bathrooms in each apartment—something multi-family buildings just didn’t have before. Notable Lombardy residents included William Howard Taft, who rented a bachelor pad when he was starting his career in law.
The Lombardy is one of four large apartment complexes erected by the Emerys during the 1880s. All four were designed by Cincinnati Architect Samuel Hannaford. Unfortunately, only the Lombardy and Brittany–built in 1885 on West Ninth Street—remain. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Rise of the Modern Apartment Building
With the beginning of the 20th century came the advent of the modern, large apartment building. Elevators, central heating, and other conveniences became staples that could be shared in common by tenants. Upscale apartment buildings also offered amenities like leisure facilities, communal dining rooms, shared formal spaces, elegant gardens, and even delivery and laundry services.
In Cincinnati, the location of apartment buildings followed the expansion of the city’s extensive streetcar system. The Verona is part of this trend–the McMillan Avenue streetcar line was a mere block away. Like the Lombardy, the building was built by Thomas Emery & Sons. However, by this time, the Emerys had a new architect, Joseph Steinkamp. Joseph and his brother, Bernard Steinkamp, designed many apartments for the Emerys, all on growing streetcar routes. Here are just of few, all of which happen to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places:
- The Parkside (1897), 3315-3317 Jefferson Avenue, Shingle style, NRHP Ref. 08000116;
- The Somerset (1898), 802-814 Blair Avenue, NRHP Ref. 14000355;
- The Alexandra (1904), 921 E. William H. Taft Road. Dutch Colonial Revival style, NRHP Ref. 97001223;
- Haddon Hall (1909), 3418 Reading Road, Dutch Colonial Revival style, NRHP ref. 82003582.
The Steinkamp-designed Verona is among Cincinnati’s finest early 20th century residential buildings. Its artful blend of Neoclassical and Renaissance Revival influences, and elegant formal gardens are one-of-a-kind.
The Verona was completely renovated in 2008. Today, each of its 76 one- and two-bedroom units is a unique blend of historic elegance and modernity. For a peak inside, the photo gallery below shows the Verona’s Unit #3.
And—as you might have guessed—the Verona is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP Ref. 08000625).