Home Tour: Not long ago, these Civil War-era Northside townhomes were on their last legs

Now the $369K houses are open to the public

CINCINNATI -- Mike Berry understands urban development, how a seed sewn in the right spot can sprout a community. As a boy living on Orchard Street, Berry helped plant the fruit trees whose white blossoms make it one of the prettiest blocks in Over-the-Rhine every spring.

Now Berry and his Form Building Solutions partner, Chad Scholten, have set their sights on another block that's primed for improvement: the eastern end of Cooper Street in Northside.

In this case, the seed Berry and Scholten helped plant is The Littlefield Bourbon Bar and Kitchen, which is in a Civil War-era building they and owners Matt Distel and John Ford brought back to life in 2014. The community that sprouted is Cooper Row, five outside-old, inside-new homes on the other side of the Spring Grove Avenue from the bar.

Two of the units, 1614 and 1616 Cooper St., have been staged with furniture and will open for their first public viewing this weekend (2:30-4 p.m. Saturday; noon- 2 p.m. Sunday). The 1,900-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2½-bathroom units are priced at $369,000.

Work is nearly complete on a row of three townhomes that are next door and directly across from another Berry-Scholten project, a 150-year-old apartment building they rescued in 2008. Berry said it was the city's first historic, mixed-use building to be awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification.

Cooper Row townhomes are not LEED-certified, but they could have been, Berry said, if he had taken the time to complete the extensive documentation the U.S. Green Building Council program requires. All units, he said, are insulated with highly-efficient, non-toxic cellulose and sound-proofing materials, as well as tankless water systems.

Each townhome has a rear patio off the kitchen and a 220-square-foot, railed deck off the third-floor master-bedroom suite that looks out to a shared parking lot, a community garden, several old church spires and the western ridge of the Mill Creek Valley. Northside's restaurants, bars and shops are just steps away on Spring Grove and Hamilton avenues.

Berry and Scholten, who have been friends since they were classmates at Walnut Hills High School, acquired the five Cooper Row units over a period of several years. They gutted them one at a time and removed what likely were illegal rear additions that were rotting and had no footers or foundations.

"These things were at the end of their lives," Berry said of the rowhouses that were built during or shortly after the Civil War for factory workers in what was then called Cumminsville. "The roofs were failing, the plumbing was failing. They really were on their last legs."

Construction began in earnest 3½ months ago and included additions off the back that increased the square footage by 40 percent.

Berry led us on a tour of 1616 Cooper St., the westernmost of the five units. Guests enter directly from the sidewalk (there is no yard to maintain) and step into a compact living room that features white oak flooring and a brick wall that was exposed during construction. The wood floors are everywhere in the house except the bathrooms, which are marble tile.

Gone is the steep, central stairwell that Berry said "was like going up a ladder." It was replaced with two sets of switchback steps that feature metal handrails made by the crafty Scholten. Beyond the stairwell is a half bathroom, which is the unit’s only room that makes an unexpected fashion statement: bold and bright wallpaper.

Berry said he approved of the bathroom’s herringbone marble floor and dark gray quartz countertop, but the flowery, high-contact wallpaper wasn't his choice.

"I thought it was a little gaudy, but it has grown on me," he said. "It's fun, and it's nice to see something different.”

Design choices make the kitchen a classic urban room: exposed steel beam and brick; central island; gray-veined countertops; medium gray walls and glass subway tile backsplash; white trim; neutral-colored, self-closing maple cabinets; and black stainless-steel appliances. A bonus space divided from the kitchen by the beamed brick wall can be used for dining or as a sitting room.

The townhouse's second floor features two bedrooms, a bathroom with tub and a laundry closet. A pony wall lining the last run of steps to the third floor gives the master suite an open ambiance. Features include a sitting area, glass-and-tile shower and a double-sink vanity.

Berry said he and Scholten made the townhomes as green as they could, not only by selecting efficient mechanicals -- the air-conditioning system is 18 SEER, four points higher than the mandated minimum -- but by sourcing materials locally. Among the vendors they turned to were Switch Lighting & Design and Vulkane Industrial Arts in Over-the-Rhine, Bona Decorative Hardware in Oakley and Cordes Lumber in Elmwood Place.

The builders also respected the history of the buildings by seeking exterior paint color advice from longtime Cincinnati preservationist Chris Cain. The colors on the back of the homes, Berry said, were chosen by Scholten and his wife, Nicole.

Berry said they are confident they built in "good value" at Cooper Row and that the asking price -- given the addition, deck, patio and location --  will attract young urban buyers. But did he imagine when he and Scholten started buying the property that they'd be asking $369,000 five years later?

"I thought maybe $180,000, but since then the market has really strengthened here," he said. "This (price) is really on the low end. It could cost you double in Oakley or Over-the-Rhine."

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