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Atlanta's First Apartments are Hiding in Plain Sight

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In this new series, Hidden History, we'll investigate some of the more interesting Atlanta properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places (believe it or not, there are more than 200 of them). Properties are included for a number of reasons — some are representative of a unique style, others were the site of historic events — and have been deemed "worthy of preservation" by the national government. Inclusion doesn't guarantee preservation, so we'll see what's happened to these sites over the years and find what history lies in Atlanta, often unnoticed. First up: the city's very first highfalutin apartments.

Back in 1885, Atlanta was barely a town of around 50,000 people; a new State Capitol Building was rising in the heart of downtown and an enterprising Baltimore builder, Jacob Rosenthal, saw potential for the growth of a major city. Importing ideas employed up north, Rosenthal, through his company the Atlanta Land and Annuity Company, constructed the first apartment buildings in the city — a row of 14 brick townhomes between West Peachtree and Spring streets. While the form was found in cities across urbanized New England, the idea never really took off here; in fact, these may be the only row homes of this style ever built in the city. Surprising as it may be, eight of the original 14 survive today, hemmed in the heart of the city between Emory Midtown Hospital and the Connector.

The land on which the apartments were built was owned by Calvin W. Hunnicutt, whose home sat on Spring Street facing east. Hunnicutt sold the land for $22,000 — about $570,000 today — and Rosenthal created the street, briefly known as Hunnicutt Avenue, and erected the 14 homes — which, according to the NRHP application, were said to be "superior to anything of its class south of Washington." Soon after their completion in January 1886, the street was renamed Baltimore Place — in homage to the form borrowed from Baltimore — though Hunnicutt Street still exists today on the western side of the Connector.

Constructed on the fashionable north side of the city, the 14 homes quickly attracted the monied denizens of Atlanta, who flocked in and bought the residences. The row-house form was unique to the street, and the method of renting the land was the first example of formalized residential rentals in Atlanta. Each house sold for $4,000, but the land then had to be rented from Rosenthal for $110 per year. The combination of unique form and sheer luxury — each unit boasted indoor plumbing with hot water, central heat, gas lighting and private gardens — proved quite alluring. In fact, in the early days, the street was recognized by Georgia's governor as one of the three sites for visitors to see in the city.

While the grandeur of the properties sustained the block's prestige through the outbreak of World War I, as the city expanded northward, the area around Baltimore Row came in and out of fashion. In 1924, the four units closest to Spring Street were demolished to make way for stores. Through the years of downtown's decline, a steady stream of vagrants and bohemians cycled through the block. In 1954, two units at the eastern edge of the street met their demise in a freak construction accident. However, fortune favored the eight middle units, and despite the multi-lane gash running to the west and south, Baltimore Block survived.

Purchased in 1983 by One-Lake Erie Center Co., the eight remaining townhomes were converted into offices and a $14 million addition — with more office space and 15 residential units — was constructed, connected to the original buildings by a large glass atrium. While the addition may be a bit ungainly, fortunately the historic facades remain. Now at the precipice of the Connector, it seems the eight survivors are destined to be around for a long time. So, hooray for small victories!

· Atlanta's Historic Row Houses [Georgia on My Mind]
· Baltimore Row Ground Breaking [E F Howington & Co.]
· Baltimore Block Nomination Form [National Park Service]