What makes an apartment building graceful?

What makes an apartment building fit well into a neighborhood? My first reaction was that I know a good apartment when I see it. While this view might work for the US Supreme Court definition of “hard core pornography” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964), it’s not particularly helpful for figuring out what sorts of apartment buildings fit into urban neighborhoods.

I went in search of multifamily buildings in Savannah that seem to fit well within their surroundings.

106 West Gwinnett

This six story apartment building is the tallest structure adjacent to Forsyth Park. Its first floor is occupied by commercial tenants (currently a vintage clothing store and a bicycle shop). The yellow brick tower has long been one of my favorite buildings in the city.

The building hugs the lot line and is surrounded by streets on three sides. These streets allow plenty of light into all of the windows. The top floors peek over the tree canopy to provide unparalleled views of the park and city. The building’s stylish parapet makes it recognizable from a great distance.

1712 Abercorn (Court Apts.)

As the name suggests, this three story apartment building has an interior courtyard. Large live oaks conceal the mass of this building from the street and its neighbors. The courtyard faces west – allowing light to penetrate late into the afternoon. A brick wall north of the building conceals a row of off-street parking along the lane.

This building sits between an Episcopal church to its south (which is set back on an ample lawn) and a mixed use commercial structure to its north (which has no front lawn). Its red brick echoes the nearby church, while the building’s scale reflects that of the nearby storefronts.

321 Abercorn (Lafayette Condominiums)

Although Savannah’s trust lots were never intended for housing, this four story condominium building occupies the entire block. Its listing in Buildings of Savannahindicates that the site hosted the city jail, a grand house, and a Bell Telephone switching station. The building originally faced Drayton street until a 1954 addition expanded it to fill the entire block.

Unfortunately the street frontage on Abercorn facing Lafayette Square leaves something to be desired. On either side of the long awning, ramps lead to an underground parking garage. This creates an inhospitable pedestrian environment. In spite of this the building has an elegant appearance and fits in nicely with adjacent wards of smaller structures.

*This book by Robin B. Williams is an amazing resource for architects, planners, and preservationists interested in Savannah.

3 West 36th

I walk or bike past this building at the end of my street nearly every day. It blends in neatly with the “streetcar suburb” feel of the Thomas Square neighborhood. The apartment building is surrounded on three sides by streets (although the diminutive DeSoto street serves more like a lane).

My cursory research indicates that it was rehabbed in the last two decades. It appears that each unit has a small balcony facing north or south. The parapet walls have a Dutch canal feel which sets the building apart in the city.

210 East State

This graceful three-story courtyard apartment building faces Oglethorpe Square and sits kitty-corner from a Savannah architectural landmark, the Owens Thomas House. Its wide, south-facing courtyard allows plenty of light to reach deep into the open space. With the exception of this courtyard, the building appears to take up every available inch of its site.

While many of its neighbors have been converted to parking garages, museums, or academic institutions, this building serves as a subtle reminder to visitors and workers that people live here.

20 East Liberty (Derenne Apartments)

It’s surprisingly easy to miss this eight story apartment tower situated near the southern edge of downtown. Situated on the corner of Liberty and Drayton streets (with Perry Lane running behind it) the building seems never to pop out from familiar vantage points. The expansive tree canopy running down Liberty street plays a significant role in this concealment.

The building has a narrow courtyard facing south. Each of its 44 apartments has an exterior balcony. The DeSoto hotel and Drayton Tower face the building to its south and east respectively.

805 Whitaker (Atwood)

Walking around Forsyth Park one afternoon in December I spotted this gem and realized that in my hundreds of walks around the park I had not once noticed it. This set me on the quest of discovering other graceful apartment buildings in the city.

Large windows and a glass door allow abundant light to flow into the central stairway. Neat balconies offer east-facing apartments an unmatched view of activity in the park. Six parking spaces fit on the property facing Howard Street (which acts more like a lane in spite of its name). The building seems unpretentious between the mansion to its north and the more modest home to its south.

So what makes an apartment building graceful?

It is impossible to understate the role of context. A building that gracefully fits into Savannah’s street grid may be an eyesore in Pittsburgh or Poughkeepsie . While mathematically inclined people may search for geometric relationships between buildings and lots, I am more inclined toward intuitive definitions of the relationships that define urban spaces.

What do these buildings have in common: each uses its land efficiently. Most are built right up to the lot line. Open space is provided through private courtyard areas, not yards set off from the front, side, or rear. Many of these buildings have street frontages on two (or three) sides. This helps daylight reach the apartments and ensures that residents have something interesting to look at.

As an urban planning student in the not-too-distant past I was introduced to the New Urbanist concept of the Transect. This model of urban form defines six zones – or patterns of development. It has been translated into form based zoning codes throughout the US.

I propose that a graceful apartment building is one that bridges two transect zones. In other words, it is a building that fits within neighborhoods of two urban intensity levels: the one which primarily defines the neighborhood, and the one of next highest intensity.

In order to meet the demands of population growth, cities of the future will need to allow for population growth in existing neighborhoods. This will inevitably mean building attached homes, duplexes, and multifamily housing in neighborhoods that have historically excluded these uses. Apartment buildings that fit in their surrounding neighborhoods illustrate how communities can host a variety of building types gracefully.