What’s in a Name When It Comes to Apartment Buildings?

Columnist Lew Sichelman on managing the monikers in your portfolio.

Lew Sichelman

Lew Sichelman

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet. But would have a long-forgotten apartment complex in the Washington suburbs rent up as quickly if it were named Barry’s Neglect or Shepherd’s Misfortune, which were the monikers ascribed to the Maryland properties in colonial times?

Probably not, which is why naming a property ranks up there in importance as top-notch construction. It’s also a chore many developers find to be a traumatic, so much so that one told me years ago he compared it to “trying to name your firstborn.”

Sometimes it’s perfectly clear where a multifamily development gets its name, Mountain View Apartments, for example, or the Oceanside Living Estates. In some cases, though, there’s a story behind the name. And sometimes it’s quite a story.

Take the Son House Apartments in downtown Rochester, N,.Y. Why is a 21-unit development in the heart of the Rust Belt named after the great Mississippi pioneer of the Delta Blues?

What could have been one of those supernatural Delta legends about a musician who suddenly stopped playing and disappeared without a trace at the height of his fame turns out to be less spooky, although it’s still an interesting yarn.

Son House (the “Son” is an honorific, meaning Junior), after helping define the early Delta style in the 1930s with such classics as “Death Letter Blues” and “Preachin’ the Blues,” did abruptly disappear from the Delta.

But it turns out House got a job as a railroad porter for a line in New York State and probably discovered Rochester as a result. He liked it and decided to move there, apparently without telling too many people about it. He retired from music and lived in Rochester for decades before being rediscovered by a later generation of music fans in the 1960s. He became an elder statesman of the blues before dying in the 1980s.

But if House was a local hero of sorts in Rochester, why is there a Woody Guthrie Place in Oregon?

The 64-unit mixed-use project is in the Lents neighborhood of Portland. The connection? The famed songwriter lived in Lents in 1941 while he worked for the Department of the Interior, which commissioned Guthrie to write songs about the Bonneville Power Administration’s Grand Coulee Dam.

Guthrie must have found something congenial in the neighborhood, for he wrote one of his most famous songs, “Roll On, Columbia” during that time. And, in a touch the itinerant rail-riding folk singer probably would have appreciated, Woody Guthrie Place has been built adjacent to a light rail transit line for the convenience of its residents.

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a famous writer back in the 19th Century but not so much in the 21st. And yet, a development called the Longfellow is set to be built in Cleveland.

As it turns out, the Longfellow is an adaptive reuse of a historic Cleveland school that dates back to 1908. And the old building, while referred to as the Longfellow, was actually the Henry W. Longfellow School, named for the poet. Thirty old classrooms there are being repurposed into apartments, and to keep the historic theme in evidence, residents may find pieces of blackboard in their units, and old lockers outside in the corridor.

Sometimes, apartment developments are named after real people. The Irene, an apartment building in Chevy Chase, Md., was built by Abe Pollin, who went on to own Washington’s professional basketball and hockey teams before he passed away. Pollin named the building after his bride.

The nearby Elizabeth also was named for its builder’s wife. Glad he didn’t use the more familiar form of her name, though. Somehow, “I live at the Betsy” doesn’t sound nearly as chic. Then there are the guys who — no kidding — have named one project after their wives and the next after their girlfriends.

Often, though, there’s more of a story behind the name. The Doris, in Wheeling, W.V., takes its name from the late Doris Woda of developer Woda Cooper Companies. Doris’ son Jeffrey named the development after his mom in honor of her deep connection with the city of Wheeling and with housing.

There was a real Miriam behind the Miriam Apartments in Chicago, too. That was Sister Miriam, who tended to the poor and whose 66-room SRO was recently upgraded to 66 studios, each with its own bathroom and kitchenette. Some people have called this kind of upgrade, done without expanding the size of the building, a small miracle, but then again Sister Miriam’s boss was a notable miracle-worker Himself.

As with Big Emma and Little Emma in Springdale, Ark., sometimes a first name on a building may not refer to an actual person at all. These two developments, totaling about 100 units, were named after the street where they are located. The street itself seems to have been named after the stepdaughter of the first mayor of Springdale way back in the day.

The Systematic Approach

As it turns out, there is a much more “scientific” way to name every real estate development, even office buildings. Lavidge, an Arizona ad agency, uses a number of tried-and-true methods to help its clients name their projects. Among them, stick to what was there to begin with, such as the Gas Light District in San Diego, or honor a nearby landmark as in Judiciary Square, and consider spelling, like adding an “e” to the word point Point or Rotonda instead of Rotunda.

California Builder Services, a consulting firm, also has three tips to consider when naming a property: It’s location, your target market and your competition. And on that latter point, the firm warns on its website, be extra careful not to name your place after a nearby community. It not only confuses people, it explains, it could create marketing issues.

Still, there are no rules. The Fifield Cos. took an interesting approach in naming K2, a 34-story apartment tower in downtown Chicago. K2, in Asia, is one of the tallest mountains on Earth. The Chicago building, while certainly not the tallest in the city, will have “the highest level of amenities, architecture and finishes,” the developer says.

K2 is also one of the most difficult peaks—it has the second-highest fatality rate—in the world to climb, and the building was one of the most challenging financing deals the developer had ever put together. It took a consortium of five commercial banks to fund the project.

My associate Mark Fogarty contributed reporting and writing to this column.

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