A Richardsonian Romanesque Treasure: The San Marco Apartment Building of East Walnut Hills

November 26th, 2017  |  Published in November 2017

The San Marco Apartment Building is located at 1601 Madison Road
at Woodburn Avenue and helps to define East Walnut Hills’ DeSales Corner.
Its pinnacled roofline with massive elongated chimneys provides a distinguished
and unique character to the neighborhood.

Traveling in our vehicles from Point A to Point B, we often take for granted some exceptional buildings in passing them by mindlessly.  One of these buildings deserving greater attention and much veneration is The San Marco Apartment Building at DeSales Corner on the southeast block at 1601 Madison Road and Woodburn Avenue in East Walnut Hills.

Completed in 1894, The San Marco was an ambitious project designed by Boll & Taylor and rises seven stories across Madison Road from the imposing, soaring spire of St. Francis DeSales Roman Catholic Church, built fifteen years earlier in 1879.  The San Marco was constructed as a luxury apartment building offering large flats for affluent families and was located on the rapidly growing streetcar line from downtown.  From its beginnings, it has helped to anchor the East Walnut Hills Business District around DeSales Corner.  Like its past, there is renewed strength today with the neighborhood’s businesses blossoming, ranging from restaurants and bars, art galleries, antique shops, to a bicycle shop, and longtime stalwart businesses such as Palette Studios for lighting.

Towering above these neighboring businesses, The San Marco was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque Style named after famous Boston architect, Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886).  Known for its massiveness, this style features picturesque roofline profiles, rustication and polychrome of materials, with semi-circular archways for doorways and the crowning of clustered windows.  One of Richardson’s great admirers was famous Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan, who was influenced by the former’s use of texture, massing, and an exuberant language of floral stone carving.  The San Marco’s architects, John Boll and Charles Taylor, were equally influenced by Richardson and Sullivan in designing this red brick high rise apartment building, and it contains dramatic flourishes of floral sandstone carving at its arched entryway.  At strategic points of interest, such as at gable peaks or its multistoried oriel, fine stone work was carved for finials or corbels in celebration of these details in making this splendid for the eyes to behold.  The rounded oriel, which is one of the prime features of The San Marco, is similar to a bay window – but which springs from the 3rd floor upward, cantilevering over the sidewalks and allowing greater views and providing abundant light into the apartments.  Instead of rising from the ground like normal bay windows, this oriel visually rests on a rounded carved stone corbel decorated in a profusion of plant life for added interest, as well as to “borrow” air rights above the streetscape for more square footage.

The San Marco’s roofline is particularly noteworthy with a multitude of peaked gables, elongated chimneys, gargoyles, finials, and a round turreted top to the oriel, offering splendid embellishments as the building rises to the sky.  Like the rooftops of French chateaux with their many chimneys, gables, dormers, and turrets, The San Marco’s fascinating geometry of shapes and ornamentation help to punctuate the top of the building and give it a unique distinction.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s as the DeSales Corner business district declined with the exodus to new suburban neighborhoods and shopping centers, The San Marco and surrounding buildings began to deteriorate.  Eventually by the 1970’s, the building was in a serious state of decay and finally was rescued by the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority for renovation into handicapped-accessible one bedroom apartments, thus sparing a great architectural marvel from the wrecking ball.

While other neighborhoods in Cincinnati declined economically and socially in prominence, East Walnut Hills always managed to retain its fine homes to the east of The San Marco on and off Madison Road.  Some of our city’s finest collections of mansions are found here in an eclectic mixture of architectural styles ranging in age from the 1840’s to modern day.  With their towering mature trees and breathtaking river views, these residences have always been sought after.  It is because of them along with highrise condominiums, fine private schools, and dedicated congregations to the neighborhood which have allowed East Walnut Hills to survive with a new resurgence of activity and success along Woodburn Avenue at DeSales Corner.

A few blocks away from The San Marco is a new $5 million residential development located on the former Seventh Presbyterian Church site at the corner of Cleinview Avenue and Madison Road.  Ten new townhomes, beginning in the mid-$400,000 price range, are being built while retaining the original church tower and front façade designed by Samuel Desjardins in 1886.  This development is a further indication of the neighborhood’s vitality and commitment by residents.  Similar to The San Marco’s ambitious construction in 1894, this nearby new project by Great Traditions Land & Development Co. and D-HAS Architecture, Planning & Design will provide an impetus for future proposals and activities that will help propel the East Walnut Hills Business District and neighborhood to attain continued longevity as well as favorable results.  In the heart of it all is the venerable San Marco, still commanding its prominent stature after almost 124 years.  Although having suffered reduced circumstances from its elegant start, The San Marco can stand proud in allowing its residents of reduced means to equally enjoy this vibrant community along with the affluent.

–Stewart S. Maxwell

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