Historic row houses are the residential backbone of large Eastern cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, where they still fill block after block. In the Twin Cities, however, they are a relatively rare sight.

There was a time, though, when row houses were quite common here, particularly in the downtown areas. By 1900, in fact, more than 80 row houses stood in and around downtown Minneapolis, with another 40 or so in downtown St. Paul.

Today, not a single row house survives in downtown St. Paul, while a dozen or so can still be found in downtown Minneapolis, including a significant group in the South Ninth Street Historic District within the Elliot Park neighborhood.

These early row houses — the bulk of them built in the 1880s and 1890s — were often scattered, but in Minneapolis they were most abundant around the southern and western edges of downtown. St. Paul's row houses were concentrated north of the downtown core near the area where the State Capitol stands today.

Row houses were the standard apartment buildings of their day, and they housed a wide range of tenants, from poor immigrants and working-class families to some of the cities' wealthiest citizens. After 1900, few row houses were built because of a shift to multistory apartment buildings with a single main entrance and units arranged along interior corridors.

There were several kinds of row houses. For the poorer classes, buildings usually called tenements featured small one-story apartments arranged in a row, with each outside entrance typically serving two to six apartments. Other row houses featured lines of two-story apartments, usually with four rooms per unit. At the upper end of the scale were luxury buildings of three or more stories containing spacious multi-floor apartments with numerous rooms.

Among tenement-style row houses, the largest in the Twin Cities was Beard's Block at 1200-1228 Washington Av. S. Built in 1881 by Henry Beard (who later donated much of the land around Lake Harriet for park use), the block featured about 80 apartments served by 16 outside entrances. The U-shaped three-story building, which also contained ground-floor shops on Washington, was demolished in 1932.

The first deluxe row house in the Twin Cities later became known as Eastman Flats, on Nicollet Island, where DeLaSalle High School is today. Built by William Eastman, one of the island's developers, the complex consisted of a pair of three-story stone row houses, some offering up to 14 rooms per unit.

The larger of the two, built along the north side of Eastman Avenue in 1877, consisted of 30 units and extended the width of the island. The other section, on the south side of the avenue, was completed five years later and contained 20 apartments.

Eastman hoped his project would attract an upper-middle-class clientele, but that idea never worked out, and in the early 1890s both row houses were subdivided into one or more apartments per floor. Eastman Flats was gone by 1959, but the much smaller Grove Street Flats (1877) still stands nearby as reminder of early row housing on the island.

By the early 1880s even more luxurious row houses were being built. The picturesque Warman Block (1882) at 8th Street and Portland Avenue S. offered nine roomy, three-story residences. It was cut up into smaller apartments years before its demolition in 1953. Central Park Terrace (1885) at 104-116 Willow St. was even larger, with 18 upscale units overlooking Loring Park. It survived in subdivided form until 1969.

But what may have been the most lavish of all the downtown row houses was Zier Row, at the northeast corner of 9th Street and 4th Avenue S. Designed by Minneapolis architect William Dennis, the four-story Chateauesque style building featured nine elegant units, one of which was occupied by Dr. Edward B. Zier, who built the place.

Zier hailed from New Albany, Ind., where his father built riverboats, including the legendary Robert E. Lee. After first studying engineering, Zier switched to medicine and spent four years training in Europe. He arrived in Minneapolis in 1881 and soon established a flourishing practice.

In March 1889, the Minneapolis Tribune published a lengthy description of Zier Row under the headline "Pride of the City." It was indeed quite the building, sporting an elaborate mansard roof with a prominent corner tower. Within, the 12- to 15-room apartments offered rich oak and sycamore woodwork, beamed ceilings, stained glass, bathrooms on every floor and a large fourth-floor space that could be used for dancing or billiards.

Zier died at age 44 in 1901, and a decade later his row house met the fate of many of its kin when it was subdivided into an apartment hotel with 140 rooms. Over the years, the old row house went by a number of names, including the Hotel Cleveland, the Henrietta Apartments and finally the Residence Apartment Hotel.

Restored and refurbished, Zier Row might still be a source of civic pride, but it was not to be. Dr. Zier's magnificent creation was wrecked in 1967, and the site today is nothing grander than a parking lot for the Normandy Inn.

Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.