Famed for its palaces and museums and thoroughly imbued with an air of past glories, St. Petersburg is, in broad historical terms, a very modern city. Its development coincided with the general European trend for urbanization and the adoption of the apartment as the main style of accommodation for city dwellers. By the mid-19th century, only a tiny percentage of the population at the very top of the social ladder could afford to live in private houses, and the vast majority of Petersburgers were moving to rented accommodation in apartment buildings.
The "dokhodny dom" (tenement building) was not only the easiest way to accommodate the city's rapidly growing population, it was also an attractive investment for St. Petersburg's wealthy merchants and industrialists, and even for many members of the aristocracy. Apartment buildings, usually of four or five stories and with a small inner courtyard, began to spring up throughout the historic centre, bearing the names of the prominent citizens who had commissioned them.
The owners would often have their commercial premises and their own apartments on the lower floors of the building, with the second floor traditionally occupied by the most luxurious living quarters, and apartments decreasing in size and splendor the higher the floor.
As for many owners the apartment building would be their own home as well as a business project, they were generally willing to spend lavishly on decoration and design. There are numerous masterpieces of eclectic, revival, Art Nouveau and Russian Neo-classical architecture among the St. Petersburg apartment buildings of the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Sources of architects' inspiration ranged from classical temples to Venetian palaces and medieval castles, and in some cases the elaborate decorations became synonymous with the buildings themselves, so that names like "the house with towers" or "the house with owls" have an almost official status in local nomenclature.
The grand era of apartment houses in St. Petersburg came to an abrupt end with the October Revolution. With the honorable exception of a few ground-breaking constructivist housing projects of the late 1920s and a handful of neighborhoods that benefited from the Stalinist construction boom of the 1950s, the main Soviet solutions to the housing problem were to first slice up the palaces, mansions and grand lodgings of the pre-Revolutionary elite into cramped communal apartments, and later to throw up the endless rows of monotonous prefabricated blocks that comprise most of St. Petersburg's dormitory regions.
Nonetheless, it is the comparative lack of 20th century construction projects that has allowed St. Petersburg to retain the historic aspect of the city centre like a museum of the pre-Revolutionary era, a fact recognized by UNESCO's decision to designate the whole area a world heritage site in 1990. While many of St. Petersburg's historic buildings have been shockingly abused and neglected over the last century, the sense of living amongst the decaying grandeur of a past civilization has an insidious charm that seduces locals and visitors alike. In this respect, St. Petersburg truly is the "Venice of the North", and nowhere is the juxtaposition of modern living and the social order and design of the past more tangibly experienced than in the city's grand historic apartment buildings.