I haven’t contemplated on party walls in quite some time, but it used to be a subject that vexed me. It’s a tricky one, because there’s no universally understood term for what I’m describing here, which makes it harder to pin down. Is there a better label than “party wall”?
Simply put, the old commercial buildings of our carless 19th century downtowns stood shoulder to shoulder, with walls so close that it may be hard to fit even a pinky finger into the space between them. It was the most practical use of space. In the most densely populated cities of the East Coast, housing followed a similar paradigm: the old urban neighborhoods typically feature attached housing (rowhomes), thereby eliminating the opportunity for any sort of lateral property claims. That is, buildings built in a row may have a distinct front and a back, but they usually lack any real sides: no yards, no windows, no doorways. They share those sides, those party walls, with another building. The adjoining vertical supports between two abutting structures with discrete owners function loosely as party walls, but it’s not the same as the unit next door in an apartment or condo building. The term is misleading, since, by and large, the two buildings do still have separate walls of their own. This can be a godsend when it comes to modifications, because, if one of the two structures get demolished, the adjacent one should retain structural integrity. That formerly hidden party wall then often becomes an exposed brick wall, fronting a now-empty side lot, often used for parking. The blank brick party wall looks funny and improper; the designers never expected it to remain exposed to the open air. But that’s what happened as urban centers declined economically and old buildings and blighted rowhomes came down.
Over the last 25 years, as most urban centers have enjoyed some degree of a renaissance, those blank side walls have offered varying predicaments and solutions. Should the owners of the surviving building adorn the blank party walls with big beautiful murals? Not always a good idea, since a developer may purchase the vacant (or underutilized) side lot, developing it and thereby hiding the mural completely. Perhaps a temporary hanging—a massive tapestry of sorts—mounted on the party walls is the better solution; it can get dismounted and reused if a new building goes up in the old empty lot. What happens when the owner of the surviving building punches holes in the newly exposed party walls to allow for windows? The extra sunlight was desirable when the lot next door was vacant, but as it gets filled, it creates a conflict to the tenants of the existing building with those side windows; a new building will likely permanently conceal them, leaving an aperture looking out to a brick wall. Clever developers and architects can find a workaround in this regard as well.
This pondering on party walls allows a good transition to a relevant scenario I encountered recently: an old building in downtown Morgantown, West Virginia, where a much newer structure sprouted on the long-vacant lot next door. Here are the two buildings, side by side:
It doesn’t require a history buff to deduce which building is old and which is new. The building on the left hosted a rare two-story Panera Bread, which was huge news when it filled the brand-new structure back in 2014. Morgantown, which hosts the flagship campus for West Virginia University, has a respectably vibrant urban center befitting a college town, but most cities of 30,000 can’t justify very many two-story restaurants, especially given that a successful chain like Panera Bread typically plays it safe with one story archetypes in the auto-oriented suburbs. It seems extremely unlikely to me that Panera corporate actually developed the structure, but the only background info I can find is from archived photos on Google Street View, which shows a “Creative Real Estate Development Company” had proposed the two-story structure back in 2012, according to signage. Panera Bread became the primary tenant two years later.
Note that I used past tense in these references to Panera.
Despite the café seating outside, the Panera is shuttered. From what I can tell, it closed within the last year or so—a rarity for a successful chain like Panera Bread. Perhaps the reduced student presence from COVID-19 protocols killed it, or perhaps it was unusually poor word of mouth. At any rate, it didn’t have a “for lease” sign and I didn’t try to enter, so I only confirmed its closure by calling the other functional Panera Bread in Morgantown…in an auto-oriented suburban area, no less. Maybe the building’s owner has already found a new tenant. The tenancy of the building is not that important though; what’s critical is the much older structure right next to it. It’s an apartment building, and its proximity to the heart of WVU’s historic campus undoubtedly makes it a lucrative place to market to students.
But was it always an apartment building? A closer look at some core details suggests that it’s had a mixed history. And many of those core details are on the party walls:
Can’t see it? I recognize that the Panera Bread building is concealing most of it in this angle, but let me sketch it out in hot pink:
The brick pattern is a different color in that one space, a space shaped like a window. And there are a lot more of them.
On the floor below the top, the lintel of an old window is still there, embedded in the brick. But the window is no more. This party wall got bricked over, presumably long ago. An archived Google Street View shows that, before 2014, the space occupied by the Panera Bread Building was a surface parking lot. But the older building, the Wubbie Apartments, had tons of windows at one time. All bricked over.
Given the nature of party walls and older buildings, two conditions here are unusual: 1) that the current use of this old building is apartments: 2) that the windows stayed bricked all this time. Why is this weird? Well, a primary selling point to apartments is usually natural light; the fenestration is one of the ways we can determine a building to be residential in nature. While windows are usually desirable in commercial buildings, they aren’t necessarily a sine qua non the way they are for apartments, condominiums, or hotels. The owners of this (presumably century-old) Wubbie Apartments building probably have no difficulty leasing the units; it’s a great location overlooking High Street, the heart of Morgantown’s youth-oriented downtown.
But wouldn’t those units be better if they had more windows? Furthermore, wouldn’t it be easier to subdivide into further smaller units if the fenestration allowed it? The property managers of the Wubbie Apartments market the structure for its 1, 2, 3, and 4-bedroom units. And, mercifully, the side wall opposite the Panera Bread building seems to have retained most of its windows, as indicated from this promo on the website.
But this strange juxtaposition prompts an interesting speculation on how things got this way. To use a term I recently coined, it’s time to engage in some more architectural forensics to understand the Wubbie Building, the Panera Bread Building and their unseemly relationship. I do not think that the Wubbie Apartments began as a primarily residential building. (A Masonic Lodge, perhaps? A social club or some other civic building?) The fenestration does not support residential units; people want lots of windows. Additionally, the emphasis of ornamentation exclusively on the façade, while the sides of the building are almost completely unadorned brick walls, suggests that the original architects conceived the Wubbie Building with the expectation that it would have neighboring buildings in the immediate vicinity on both sides, perhaps so close that the neighbors physically touched the Wubbie Building.
In other words, before the erection of the contemporary structure that (until recently) housed a Panera Bread, we know there was a parking lot, and before there was a parking lot, that corner parcel hosted some other building, which most likely partially or completely obscured the party wall. And, over that same period of time (perhaps a half-century or more) the Wubbie Building changed uses, perhaps repeatedly. It might have begun as an institutional structure, then shifted to residential, commercial or even light industrial, prompting the bricking-over of old windows (including two-story windows in the back). Then, perhaps in the last quarter century, another residential developer repurchased the property, recognizing the need to restore some fenestration to make it palatable as residences, but emphasized all this fenestration on the other side of the building, opposite the Panera Bread structure. Here’s a view of that other (east) side, where the party wall fronts a tiny alley and then an old mansion that WVU most likely purchased and converted into the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center. But note how the windows on this party wall, abundant though they may be, still don’t really fit the bricked-over apertures; the glass is a lot smaller than the bricked-over part, another reason I suspect this building began as some other non-residential institutional use. And now, with a structure hugging the west party wall, the Wubbie Building has less opportunity to modify its interiors so that windows will ever be reasonable on the side directly abutting the Panera Bread building.
Unless the Panera Bread Building has significant structural problems, I suspect it will have no difficulty finding new tenants, even if it consists of two separate tenants (one per floor); Morgantown just can’t support that many mega-restaurants. But having a neighboring structure may have sealed the fate of the Wubbie Building as apartments on (I suspect) a single-loaded corridor, with units loaded on the west party wall (with the windows) so that the eastern wall supports the windowless hallways. It’s a perfectly acceptable configuration, and certainly better than long-term vacancy or demolition. But it also demonstrates how beholden real estate is to sudden shifts in demand and how resourceful owners must do whatever they can to modify what are fundamentally immobile structures in order to meet demand for new uses.
There’s good reason the Spanish word for “real estate” is inmobilaria. The regional leadership team at Panera Bread no doubt agree.