April 11, 2017

7 Reasons To Live In A Historic Apartment Building

A historic photograph of a middle-class neighborhood in Detroit with apartment buildings.

photo by: Michigan State Historic Preservation Office/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

The Warren-Prentis Historic District neighborhood in Detroit features many apartment buildings built at the turn of the 20th century.

While apartment buildings have been around for close to two centuries (the earliest tenement in New York City dates to the 1820s), they really started to take off in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As city populations boomed, the need for concentrated housing in dense areas became imperative.

Now, people choose apartments over a house for many reasons, including lower rents, less maintenance, and prime locations. And while newer apartments may have amenities absent from older buildings, there are many benefits you can derive only from living in a historic apartment.

We’ve compiled a few reasons why living in a historic apartment is preferable to living in a newly constructed one.

1. Historic structures have irreplaceable character.

The decorative finishes on historic structures continue to impress. Intricate baseboards, parquet floors, and ornate decorative details from innovative products like terra cotta and cast stone create visually pleasing places to live. It’s hard to replicate that kind of quality in modern construction, where efficiency and cost effectiveness are often prioritized over aesthetics.

Additionally, building materials that are commonplace to us were once novelties. They were used in creative and innovative ways that often give historic structures unique qualities. Think cast iron, concrete, and masonry veneer. These are mundane today, but originally they were often used to simulate more expensive building techniques. As such, they maintained a level of craftsmanship and style sometimes lost in modern construction.

2. Historic apartments are typically very durable, thanks to solid materials and construction practices.

One of the most innovative historic building materials is Guastavino tile, a structural terra cotta tile used for vaulted arches. It was fireproof, strong, durable, inexpensive, and lightweight. Throughout New York’s public spaces and common areas in buildings, you’ll find early examples of these tiles that blended functionality with artistry. The Plaza Hotel, for example, used Guastavino tiles, which became a popular selling point for its earliest residents thanks to contemporary fear of fires.

Like Guastavino tiles, you will find plenty of hearty construction materials such as slate roofs, load-bearing masonry walls, and plasterwork that often outlive the lifespan of materials used in construction today.

3. Historic apartments are typically more soundproof than in modern construction.

One of the most noticeable differences between historic and new buildings is that today, doors do little to soundproof a space. That's because today's doors are primarily made of fiberglass, a lightweight, fireproof, and inexpensive material which, as opposed to historic building materials such as solid wood, lacks in soundproofing. If you are concerned with always hearing what’s going on in the hallway, or you simply prefer to avoid noise distractions, living in a historic apartment with older doors is one way to prevent that.

Secondly, efficiency in cost and labor in modern construction has led to the standard wall being made of wood or metal studs and drywall. These materials fail in soundproofing when compared to a solid brick wall or a plaster coating.

The Val D'Armour Apartment building in LA was built in 1928 and features unique craftsmanship.

photo by: The City Project/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

This apartment building was built in 1928 in Los Angeles.

4. Living in a historic apartment is like taking part in a history lesson every day.

Early buildings constructed to house a large number of people in a small footprint were often cramped, dark, and prevented circulation of air flow. Starting in big cities like New York City and Chicago, architects began to play with layouts, eventually creating unique buildings with center courtyards to draw in light and air. They adapted standard masonry construction techniques so that skeletal framing systems could make way for taller, lighter, and airier buildings. By living in a historic apartment, you are a part of that history lesson.

(Also, by living in a building that uses oft-studied materials or structural systems, there will almost always be a reachable solution to any problems.)

5. Historic apartments are often in city centers or other desirable areas.

While modern apartment complexes are also frequently built in city centers, older apartments contributed to urban growth. Often, they are already located in great areas that have established parks, shops, and communities. While new construction looks for these locations to add to, historic apartments have the advantage of already being there.

6. You become part of the preservation community by living in a historic apartment.

If your building's historic character has landed it on a list like the National Register, or if it is located in a historic district, you inherently become part of the preservation conversation in your community. Often, historic apartment complexes will have a board or a group focused on the preservation and maintenance of the structure. By joining it, you can be an active participant in the conversation and have a say in the way your apartment is preserved.

7. Historic structures present more opportunities over their lifespan.

The El Moore in Detroit, for example, was a turn-of-the-century luxury apartment building that had excellent bones for its later transformations into a boarding house before its current iteration as a joint hotel and apartment building.

Like El Moore, historic apartments have much of what people want today in their living space—innate character, quality building materials, and a foundation to use the existing fabric to create spaces that adapt to people's needs.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and an editorial assistant for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

mwhite@savingplaces.org

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