Architect Breaks Down Five of the Most Iconic New York City Apartments

Real estate is a peren­ni­al­ly hot top­ic in New York City, as is gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

Above, archi­tect Michael Wyet­zn­er, breaks down the defin­ing fea­tures of sev­er­al typ­i­cal NYC apart­ments.

You’re on your own to truf­fle up the sort of rent a 340 square feet stu­dio com­mands in an East Vil­lage ten­e­ment these days.

The ances­tors would be shocked, for sure. My late moth­er-in-law nev­er tired of caus­ing young jaws to drop by reveal­ing how she once paid $27/month for a 1 bed­room on Sheri­dan Square…and her moth­er, who immi­grat­ed at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, couldn’t wait to put the Low­er East Side behind her.

He may not truck in final sales fig­ures, but Wyet­zn­er drops in a wealth of inter­est­ing fac­tu­al tid­bits as he sketch­es lay­outs with a black Pen­tel Sign Pen. His tone is more Low­er East Side Ten­e­ment Muse­um tour guide than the com­ments sec­tion of a real estate blog where salty New York­ers flaunt their street cred.

For instance, those enfilade ten­e­ment apartments–to employ the grand archi­tec­tur­al term Wyet­zn­er just taught us–were not only dark, but dan­ger­ous­ly under-ven­ti­lat­ed until 1901, when reforms stip­u­lat­ed that air shafts must be opened up between side by side build­ings.

This pub­lic health ini­tia­tive changed the shape of ten­e­ment build­ings, but did lit­tle to stop the pover­ty and over­crowd­ing that activist/photographer Jacob Riis famous­ly doc­u­ment­ed in How the Oth­er Half Lives.

(Anoth­er mea­sure decreed that build­ing own­ers must sup­ply one indoor toi­let …per 20 peo­ple!)

While we’re on the top­ic of toi­lets, did you know that there was a time when every brown­stone back­yard boast­ed its own privy?

Home­own­ers who’ve spent mil­lions on what many con­ceive of as the most roman­tic of New York City build­ings (then mil­lions more on gut ren­o­va­tions) proud­ly dis­play old bot­tles and oth­er refuse exca­vat­ed from the site where privys once stood. The for­mer res­i­dents turn their out­hous­es into garbage chutes upon achiev­ing indoor plumb­ing.

Lay­ing aside its dis­tinc­tive col­or, a brownstone’s most icon­ic fea­ture is sure­ly its stoop.

Stoops grabbed hold of the Amer­i­can public’s imag­i­na­tion thanks to Sesame Street, the Harlem pho­tographs of Gor­don Parks and the films of Spike Lee, who learned of Mar­tin Luther King’s assas­si­na­tion as an 11-year-old, sit­ting on his.

“Not porch!,” he empha­sized dur­ing a Tonight Show appear­ance. ”In Brook­lyn, it’s stoops. Stoops!”

(For­give me if I delve into NYC real estate prices for a sec: the Bed-Stuy brown­stone from Lee‘s semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Crook­lyn, above, just went on the mar­ket for $4.5 mil­lion.)

There’s no ques­tion that brown­stone stoops make excel­lent hang out spots, but that’s not the rea­son they rose to promi­nence.

As Esther Crain writes in Ephemer­al New York, the Com­mis­sion­ers’ Plan of 1811 which led to the city’s grid­like lay­out negat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of alleys:

With­out a back door to a row­house accessed through an alley, ser­vants and work­ers would enter and exit a res­i­dence using the same front stoop the own­ers used—which wasn’t too pop­u­lar, at least with the own­ers. 

But a tall stoop set back from the side­walk allowed for a side door that led to the low­er lev­el of the house. While the own­ers con­tin­ued to go up and down the stoop to get to the par­lor floor (and see and be seen by their neigh­bors), every­one else was rel­e­gat­ed to the side…And of course, as New York entered the Gild­ed Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enor­mous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from get­ting into the house. 

Flash for­ward a hun­dred and fifty some years, and, as Wyet­zn­er notes, a stoop’s top step offers a high­ly scenic view of the Hefty bags the neigh­bors haul to the curb the night before New York’s Strongest roll through.

Wyet­zn­er also pro­vides the his­tor­i­cal con­text behind such archi­tec­tural­ly dis­tinc­tive digs as SoHo’s astro­nom­i­cal­ly priced light-filled lofts, the always desir­able Clas­sic Six res­i­dences on the Upper East and Upper West Sides, one-room stu­dios both mod­ern and orig­i­nal fla­vor, and our blight­ed pub­lic hous­ing projects.

If you’re itch­ing to play along from home, check out the New York Times’ reg­u­lar fea­ture The Hunt, which invites read­ers to trail a sin­gle, fam­i­ly, or cou­ple delib­er­at­ing between three prop­er­ties in New York City.

A sam­ple: “After a mouse infes­ta­tion at her West Vil­lage rental, a sin­gle moth­er need­ed a bet­ter spot for her fam­i­ly, includ­ing a son with autism.”

Review the lay­outs and click here to see whether she chose a brand-new 127-unit build­ing with a rooftop pool, a Harlem brown­stone duplex with a back­yard rights, or an updat­ed one bed­room in a down­town co-op from 1910.

Relat­ed Con­tent

A New Inter­ac­tive Map Shows All Four Mil­lion Build­ings That Exist­ed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

Behold the New York City Street Tree Map: An Inter­ac­tive Map That Cat­a­logues the 700,000 Trees Shad­ing the Streets of New York City

New York Pub­lic Library Puts 20,000 Hi-Res Maps Online & Makes Them Free to Down­load and Use

The New York Pub­lic Library Lets You Down­load 180,000 Images in High Res­o­lu­tion: His­toric Pho­tographs, Maps, Let­ters & More

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo. She has lived in all man­ner of New York City apart­ments, but hopes to nev­er move again. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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