In their day, Thomas J. and John J. Emery were the richest brothers in Cincinnati. At a time when very wealthy people earned $10,000 annually, the Emery brothers paid more than $100,000 in taxes every year.
This vast fortune was rendered from good old Porkopolis pig fat. Thomas Emery’s Sons Inc. converted pig fat into candles, converted candles into money and converted money into land. Thomas and John acquired parcels all over Cincinnati, Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Toledo, and Denver, mostly office buildings and commercial blocks. Through their residential projects, the bothers introduced to the United States a concept from France, a new lifestyle known as “Paris flats.”
In 1880s America, there were basically three urban housing options: mansions with a full allotment of servants for the affluent, residential hotels for the merely well-to-do, and tenements for the great unwashed. The Emerys built Cincinnati’s first apartment buildings with suites of three to five rooms all on one floor, hence “flats.” Without the shared parlors and dining rooms of residential hotels, these Paris flats were ideal for modern couples or up-and-coming bachelors who dined and entertained at venues throughout the city.
To realize this French concept in the Queen City, the Emerys recruited Samuel Hannaford, designer of Music Hall, the Cincinnatian Hotel, City Hall, the Observatory and many other iconic structures. Hannaford was at the top of his game as three apartment buildings he designed for the Emery brothers opened to much fanfare in 1883. Two of these original apartment buildings survive: the Brittany at the corner of Ninth and Race, now subdivided into condominiums, and the Lombardy on Fourth Street near Central.
The Lombardy Flats gained immediate cachet as the toniest address in town. When Seth Evans Smith and Nina Teresa Pugh, scions of two eminent Cincinnati clans, married in October 1882, they announced temporary residence in Keppler’s Hotel until their rooms in the Lombardy were ready for occupancy. William Howard Taft rented a bachelor pad in the Lombardy just as he was renouncing a life of journalism to pursue a career in the law. Rent back then was $50 a month.
Among the cutting-edge amenities available to Lombardy residents was an elevator, surely appreciated by those occupying the upper floors of this seven-story building. It was innovative but glitchy and displayed this sign:
“The proprietors of this building have furnished ample and safe stairways for the use of tenants, and ask them to use them. Those preferring to use the elevator do so at their own risk.”
As the new century dawned, Cincinnati’s business and commercial center drifted beyond Fountain Square and the western reaches of Fourth Street acquired a musty aroma. By 1930, the Lombardy was little more than a flop house. When the city threatened to demolish the building in 1984, C.J. Rocklin, who had lived in the Lombardy throughout the Depression, wrote an unsentimental memoir for the Enquirer:
“The day we moved into the Lombardy Apartments, a senile pile of bricks that remained from an age of elegance of long ago, I leaned against a wall and cried, silently promising myself and my wife and children to come that I would provide better for them than my parents had done for me.”
The Lombardy escaped the wrecking ball and got a stem-to-stern rehab in the 1990s. Most of Hannaford’s Italianate flourishes were jettisoned to achieve a rudimentary urban-pioneer décor. Today, the Lombardy is among the buildings decorating Cincinnati’s inventory on the National Historic Register, and is part of the Sundance Property Management portfolio.