Farrington Place Apartments
Farrington Place (later Oakhurst) Apartments, St. Paul, 1962 (Ramsey County Historical Society)
Apartment buildings old and new form a major part of the housing stock in the Twin Cities. Before about 1890, however, few such buildings followed the template typically used today, in which apartments are arranged along interior corridors reached from a central entrance.
Instead, most multi-unit buildings up to the late 1880s were row houses, well over one hundred of which could once be found in St. Paul and Minneapolis, especially near the downtown areas. Usually long and narrow and no more than three stories tall, these row houses came with multiple entries, either to a single unit or to one or two units per floor.
Beginning in the late 1880s, however, so-called “French flats”—large, multi-unit buildings designed for a middle-class clientele—became increasingly popular, possibly because they allowed for more units on a given site than was usually the case with row houses.
Elevators, which began appearing in commercial buildings in the Twin Cities by the 1870s and in homes and apartments by the 1880s, made it possible to build these early French flats to heights of six stories or more, since anything much beyond four stories meant a hike up the stairs most people didn’t care to take.
Some of the finest of these early apartment buildings were in St. Paul, and one of them—the Colonnade (1889) at 538 St. Peter St., still stands, although its two upper floors were amputated following a fire in 1955. The six-story Hotel Barteau (1889) at Ninth Street and Smith Avenue in St. Paul was perhaps the grandest of these early French-flat buildings. Later known as the Piedmont Apartments, it was a marvelous Victorian confection, so much so that I used it for scenes in my novel, Rafferty’s Last Case. Alas, the Barteau lay in the path of Interstate 35E and was razed in 1969.
As it turns out, I-35E claimed another St. Paul apartment building from 1889 that, as far as I can tell, was unique in the Twin Cities. Called Farrington Place (and later renamed the Oakhurst Apartments), it was at 217 Pleasant Ave., a few block west of today’s Kellogg Blvd. beneath the Summit Avenue bluffs (this stretch of Pleasant is now gone).
Part of what made Farrington Place so distinctive was its piled up, side-by-side layout. Five stories high, it consisted of two units per floor to either side of a central hallway. The few good photos of the building suggests that, as designed, it was on the luxury end of the apartment spectrum. Each of the original ten units came with its own front balcony or porch and featured eight rooms, more than in the average house of the day. I’ve seen no plan of the apartments, but they probably offered at least three bedrooms.
Farrington Place’s lively design was the handiwork of Allen H. Stem, who in the late 1880s was a partner in the St. Paul architectural firm of Hodgson and Stem. Although Stem (1856-1931) isn’t as well-known today as his great St. Paul contemporaries, Cass Gilbert and Clarence Johnson, he was a fine designer who produced notable buildings is a variety of styles, including the Colonnade, finished the same year as Farrington Place. With his later partner, Charles Reed, Stem also designed many railroad stations and was the original architect of record for Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
Whereas the Colonnade takes its inspiration from Renaissance Classicism, Stem went for a very different look with Farrington Place, which was a delightful Victorian mishmash. Organized around a projecting central pavilion, the building featured arches large and small (including a triple-arched entry porch), balconies with every unit, a top-floor loggia, two decorative pediments along the roofline, and plenty of windows to bring in light. The result was a building with the festive air of the best Victorian architecture.
The apartments were built by John Farrington (1827-1905), who was born in Ireland and arrived in St. Paul around 1850. He was said to have built the first brick store in the city and also became involved in the fur business. But like many other pioneers, he ultimately made his fortune as a real estate broker.
In 1873, Farrington celebrated his wealth by building a French Second Empire-style mansion at 219 Pleasant, next door to where his apartment building would rise 16 years later. Today, his name lives on in Farrington Street in St. Paul.
John Farrington House (Next to Farrington Place), 1962 (Ramsey County Historical Society)
The apartment building boom that produced Farrington Place ended in the early 1890s when the nation fell into what was then the deep depression in its history. By the time the economy rebounded around 1900, Victorian styles had fallen out of favor and nothing like Farrington Place was ever built again in St. Paul.
As late as 1940 Farrington Place’s original ten apartment remained intact, according to city directories. This is a bit surprising because most other row houses and apartment buildings of its era were subdivided into smaller units. The adjacent Farrington mansion, however, had become a rooming house by the 1930s.
Both Farrington Place and the Farrington mansion were razed in 1962-63 to make way for I-35E, as were several blocks of old mansions and apartments further down Pleasant Avenue. Many neighborhood residents opposed the proposed freeway’s route and a long legal battle ensued before the I-35E parkway finally opened in the 1980s.