ALLENTOWN, Pa. - In the late 1980s Mrs. Sarah White was entertaining a visitor with a lot of questions about her 30 years at Allentown's Livingston Apartments, a once elegant 1920s building at 14th and Hamilton Streets.
The widow of two once prominent local businessmen, White, then 90, seemed genuinely surprised when asked why she and her late second husband Major Lee White, president of the Beaver Meadows Coal Company of Hazelton, had selected the Livingston to live in. After explaining how they both decided that the large home they owned in the country was just too much space, she said firmly, "Why? Well because it was nicest apartment house in Allentown, that's why."
Allentown came relatively late to the concept of apartments.
In the 19th century apartment living was viewed by many Americans with suspicion. Having a home was considered ideal, although living in a hotel on a semi-permanent basis was accepted, because it was assumed that the desk clerks who kept an eye on who came and went were a check on anything shady or immoral, but apartments offered a type of anonymity that many found disturbing.
The first apartment buildings recorded in the city were in the 1880s, but it was not until the start of World War I, when large numbers of people came into Allentown to work in the war industries, that the crush of population made apartment living respectable. And by the late 1920s apartment living reflected the glamour of urban living, which was then considered the height of sophistication, reflected in the popular culture coming from Hollywood and New York.
It was into this world that the Livingston Apartments were born on May 29, 1928. That day's newspapers featured large articles hailing the Livingston's opening. Called "the largest apartment structure in Eastern Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia," it had been built at a cost of $475, 000 gold-backed Coolidge dollars by Maxwell Potruch, the 33-year-old son of Bethlehem builder Aaron Potruch.
The building took its name from the famous early American family that married into Allentown's founding Allen family in the early 19th century. It had 33 apartments, some with space for live-in servants. Some like those that the Whites later occupied consisted of an entire floor. The press gushed about the Spanish-Moorish style lobby.
"From the beautiful ceiling and side walls, the work of that splendid interior artist Paul Janert, down to the smallest detail the reproduction is faithfully done. The exquisite marble work, the handsome wrought iron fittings, the lighting effects, the stained glass windows hung with charming draperies, and the grill work give to the Livingston apartments an air of distinction such as is seldom found outside of ultra fashionable apartment buildings in the larger cities."
And then there was the roof garden. In that pre-air conditioner era when many people had a sleeping porch, the Livingston provided its tenants with sweeping views of the city that included the new PP&L tower skyscraper and the handsome Americus Hotel. High above the street and the stream of Model T's, the Livingston's lucky inhabitants lived in a space where they could hold roof parties just like those that they saw attended by Hollywood stars like Clara Bow, dancing a wild Charleston. Was there bootleg liquor about? Almost certainly there was.
Everyone assumed in 1928 that the Livingston was just one of many fashionable apartment buildings that dotted the city. But the stock market crash burst their bubble as if it had been struck by a hat pin. The Potruchs were hit particularly hard. Aaron Potruch retreated to his native Brooklyn where he died in 1933 at age 58. After that a long battle began over the property between the builder's heirs and several prominent attorneys. In 1939 the Evening Chronicle ran a story about the whole real estate mess under the headline: "To Foreclose on Livingston, City's Swankiest Apartment Named in Legal Action."
Despite all this the Livingston went on attracting class A tenants. And in the early 1940s the mess was finally settled with the takeover of the building by Allentown businessman William N. Kanehann. Running the building until the 1970s, he kept everything first class. There was a uniformed doorman in the lobby and an elevator operator.
One tenant who moved into the Livingston with her mother in 1941 recalled in the 1980s how every morning the superintendent, who wore a linen jacket over his suit coat, came down and polished the chrome till it was spotless. And in the summer time she recalled spending hours covered with cocoa butter getting a suntan on the roof.
As the years passed the Livingston lost its status. The wealthy wanted homes in the suburbs not apartments in downtown Allentown. And if it was real urban living they were after, Philadelphia and New York could offer far more elegance than the Lehigh Valley.
But today there is promise at the Livingston again. Developer Nat Hyman has purchased the property and plans to make it a luxury living space again. It's enough to make you want to dance the Charleston.
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