For people visiting Columbus, Ohio, and even locals seeking an atmosphere of culture and refinement, the Seneca—built in 1917—was once not only the place to go, but the place to be seen.

The 10-story brick building with ornate Renaissance Revival architectural details was the prime location for visitors to the city who enjoyed both the glitzy suites and nearby cultural attractions.

But times changed, new hotels drew customers away, and the Seneca lost its allure, closing its doors in the late 1960s. A short stint as office space for a government agency was followed by 20 years of vacancy, and the structure ultimately deteriorated into a shell of its former self. Broken pipes leaked water, while rain and snow seeped through shattered windows. Before long, the plaster was crumbling, the ceilings sagged, and the marble floors were piled with rubble. Twice, the building owner sought to demolish the structure.

Now, thanks to the efforts of a new out-of-town owner, the Seneca has been reborn as the 77-unit Historic Landmark Seneca Hotel Luxury Apartments. The restoration was a long and difficult process—including six months to remove asbestos—but now, the rescued Seneca is resuming its rightful place in the hearts of Columbus residents.

SEIZING POSSIBILITIES The Seneca had been a first-class hotel for decades, spanning the '20s on through the '60s, but the '70s were not as kind to the historic symbol of Columbus high society as the earlier years had been. Its reign as toast of the town came to an end in 1972 when the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency converted the building into office space, but the real problems started when the EPA moved out in 1987 and the building sat vacant for two decades. Due to the years of neglect, the Seneca became an eyesore in the Discovery District, the downtown Columbus neighborhood that had grown to include numerous hospitals, universities, and cultural institutions.

Campus Apartments took a chance by turning the deteriorating Seneca Hotel into luxury apartments. But the risks have paid off.
Left: Mike Foley, Rycus Associates Photography; Right: Campus Apartments Campus Apartments took a chance by turning the deteriorating Seneca Hotel into luxury apartments. But the risks have paid off.

After several failed attempts to renovate or rehabilitate the building through the years, Campus Apartments came to town. The Philadelphia-based company develops and manages market-rate apartments targeted to students, young professionals, and faculty members by partnering with universities. When company president and CEO David Adelman first saw the Seneca, he immediately grasped its potential.

“We knew we could be really creative with the design to give it appeal,” Adelman says. But community leaders were enthusiastic—and skeptical. “We were the crazy out-of-towners taking on a project people had tried to tackle for 20 years,” he says.

Redevelopment wouldn't be easy. Because the building contained so much asbestos, the state declared it a vertical brownfield. Fortunately, Campus Apartments received $2 million in city and state grant funds to cover the six-month environmental abatement process.

HISTORIC MEETS MODERN Campus Apartments wasn't working with a blank slate when it set about redeveloping the Seneca. The layout of its 77 apartment units was more easily achieved because of the hotel's original design, says project architect John Meegan of Columbus-based WSA Studios, which partnered with PZS Architects of Philadelphia on the design.

For starters, the structure included numerous niches and setbacks to bring in daylight. “When you see the rooms now, you see a lot of natural light. That's a real advantage,” Meegan says. The elaborate masonry on the exterior was in remarkably good condition considering the years of neglect, and only a few areas of brickwork and terracotta near the roof needed repair.