Distinguishing Dwellings

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Housing is Manhattan’s “good provider”—and what a resource it supplies! Even in predominantly commercial areas, an occasional multi-family apartment house may be found, tucked between office towers. But many Manhattan side streets, wide streets, and the even wider avenues are lined with residences—a collection of private homes and multi-family dwellings that vary in size, architectural style, and services offered to accommodate innumerable lifestyle variations.
When it comes to distinguishing these dwelling types, a walk through any historic district will provide the best, most enlightening education. Supplement these strolls with the wealth of material you’ll find on re-re.info. Don’t overlook the neighborhood maps and photographs in our Dwellings department; explore the hundreds of original sales brochures in our I’m Still Standing section, and for detailed coverage of Manhattan’s historic districts, be sure to visit our Neighborhood coverage in Of Human Interest department.
The three basic housing categories—multiple-family, usage conversion, and single-family—have 15 variations:

  • Tenement Apartment Houses.

These dark, poorly ventilated, shabbily constructed apartment buildings—occasionally H-shaped, or with a “dumbbell” configuration—were banned in 1901. Existing tenement structures have been renovated, so as to meet current building codes, and in many cases smaller units have been combined into larger apartments.

  • Lofts. 

Generally built in former commercial or light-manufacturing industrial structures, with ceilings of more than 17 feet, these living spaces have been converted from large, adaptable, open areas into multiple-room residences, due in part to Artists in Residence regulations, which provided for the zoning of entire floors as live/work studios. Working, as well as living, in former factories became popular among beatniks, plastic artists and filmmakers, and writers and musicians—beginning in the 1950s particularly along the Bowery from SoHo to Chinatown—but by the late 1960s Soho landmark cast-iron structures, in mid 1970s Tribeca-historic-district “loft-living,” had become a much sought-after lifestyle for many downtown dwellers.

  • Flats Buildings. 

Adapted from tenement-style dwellings as five- to six-story apartment houses, these buildings featured such modern amenities as elevators and conveniences as telephone lines. They were decidedly less cramped than the tenements that inspired them, and were embellished with sumptuous moldings and fittings. It took only until 1897 for these dwellings, with their continually upgraded services—the precursor to the superintendent, the “hall porter,” among them—to lose their second-class status and to be deemed socially acceptable. It wasn’t long before flats lined uptown side streets, and French flats buildings with ground-floor shops became a fixture on Broadway, and on Lexington and Madison Avenues.

  • Apartment Hotels. 

A Manhattan favorite shortly since their inception surrounding Madison Square, circa 1850, these residential buildings with two- to four-bedroom apartments—but no kitchen—were particularly convenient for the new and growing professional and culturally elite class, with meals taken in a common dining room, as a result, domestic staffs could be reduced significantly. Once extremely popular with celebrities, especially on the Upper West Side, apartment hotels lined Central Park West (and a few original structures remain on Broadway). This residential category still thrives, with a dozen apartment houses offering hotel services along Central Park South, Fifth, Park, and Madison Avenues.

  • Innovative Apartment Houses. 

These grand-scale multiple-family dwellings were the result of combining multiple lots—at times, an entire City block—to lay the groundwork for what were to become unadulterated residential fortresses. The four prime examples, gargantuan undertakings that required years to complete, and opened their doors by 1884, following the French-inspired, Stuyvesant Apartments, 142 East 18th Street, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, and completed in 1864, were: Hubert & Pirsson’s Hotel Chelsea, at 222 West 23rd Street, and George W. DaCunha’s 34 Gramercy Park East, among the first co-operatively co-owned. The other two suchlike pioneering buildings were James Ware’s Osborne Flats, on West 57th Street at Seventh Avenue, and Henry Janeway Hardenbergh’s Dakota Apartments, on Central Park West at West 72nd Street, which included tennis courts and a croquet field on the adjoining 175-foot-long lot.

Twenty-odd years later, they were followed by the porte-cochere and courtyard concept, with the architecturally significant Apthorp Apartments, at Broadway and West 79th Street, built by the Astor family, and the Belnord Apartments, at Broadway and West 86th Street (at the time, the most massive apartment house in North America), and Astor Court, at Broadway and West 89th Street. Additionally, Artist Studio Buildings, an early 1900s transitional apartment-house style, designed with a north-facing double-height ceiling space in each unit, to entice the wealthier classes to multiple-family-dwelling living. About 150 luxury apartment houses from this circa 1910 era still stand. Sadly, though, 240 have met the wrecker’s ball.

Innovative Apartment House, Osborne Flats; Pre-war, Park Avenue’s first residential high rise; Post-war, along Sutton Place South


  • Pre-War. 

Enjoying what may be the most specific classification in all of Manhattan real estate, these luxury apartment houses—erected after 1918 but before renewed European hostilities in the mid-1930s—are most notable for their wealth of attractive features: grandly proportioned reception rooms; multiple bedrooms, often with en suite bathrooms; and, adjoining the kitchen pantry, the servants’ quarters with one or more maid’s rooms. They were constructed in accordance with the best building techniques and highest standards of the day, and included hardwood floors, enamel-luster wood-paneled doors, wainscoting, extensive ornamental detailing, and a wood-burning fireplace.
The best of them were built at the avenue corners, including the Upper West Side’s Riverside Drive, West End Avenue, and Central Park West, as well as the Upper East Side’s Fifth, Park, Lexington, and East End Avenues. Many pre-war apartments have since been reconfigured, with two or more rooms being combined, thus adjusting the original room count, but not the living space size; occasionally, juxtaposed rooms—even entire apartments—have been combined.

  • Post-War. 

Throughout the late 1940s, grand-scale housing construction began, and lasted into the early 1970s—when nonstop housing construction stopped altogether. These apartment houses are identified by their white- or red-brick façades, with little detailing and, in adherence to contemporary tastes, all decorative interior moldings were omitted too. To accommodate high demand, the painstaking construction methods of yore were displaced by faster techniques. Additionally, in an effort to offset escalating land costs, room sizes were reduced and ceiling heights lowered.

  • Apartment House Towers. 

These skyscrapers of their day—at 40 stories or higher—were first constructed in the early 1960s, predominantly on the Upper East Side. As their popularity grew, in part to the inclusion of balconies jutting out from their brick façades, single-tower apartment houses rose all over town, and then rose even higher. Since the mid-80s, though, when Museum Tower opened, adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art, residential towers have become a more modern-leaning composition of glass and steel, much like their office-tower neighbors. By 2000, 60- to 80-floor towers had become the norm (at present, several even taller Midtown structures are slowly inching upward). Most notable—and as the result of popular demand—many have incorporated the pre-war-apartment-house ceiling heights of 9 to 10 feet—and some are even loftier.


Row house, East Village; Once Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III’s home, now Neue Gallerie; Apartment House Tower, Midtown


  • Row Houses. 

The predominant dwelling of choice for upper-middle-class families, these homes are stand in unbroken lines, or “rows.” Each home shares two common walls—except at the line’s extremes. A century ago, row houses were designed with an exterior stairway, or stoop, from the sidewalk to the second or “parlor floor,” which was the grandest level. Traipsing in mud and horse droppings from the street was avoided. A service entrance to the kitchen through a small street-facing courtyard, the areaway, and is called an “American” basement. Many of these stoops have since been eliminated, and the term “brownstone,” which describes the dark building block used throughout Manhattan during the mid to late 1800s, has virtually replaced the architecturally correct, though less glamorous term “row house.”

  • Town Houses. 

These single-family dwellings are differentiated from row houses primarily by their width—greater than a 25 feet standard city lot. A town house does not have a stoop. Moreover, the façade has extensive custom details, and the sumptuous materials used lavishly throughout their interior, further differentiates a town house from a “row house.”

  • Mansions.

Built between 1870 and 1910, on corner lots along Fifth and Park Avenues and Riverside Drive, most of these grandiose homes have since been demolished to make way for luxury apartment houses. Many others were sold and converted for institutional use. For example—a museum, school, charity’s headquarters, and foreign consulate, complete with a diplomat’s living quarters. Since 2000, two grand mansions in the Carnegie Hill Historic District, and one on East 72nd Street, off Fifth Avenue, have been retro-fitted, for use once again as a private residence.

  • Brownstone Conversions. 

Connoting a change in usage—from single-family home to multiple-family dwelling, often as floor-through apartments, occupying an entire floor—these conversions vary, from efforts at preservation that retain original ornamental detailing to those gut-renovated and combined to create small, modern apartment houses.

  • Town House and Mansion Conversions.

Though unusual, a scattered few prime single-family dwellings, such as Mrs. Amory Carhart’s mansion, Three East 95th Street, off Fifth Avenue, the Duke-Semans town house on Fifth Avenue, at East 82nd Street, the Pulitzers’ home, on East 73rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, have been converted into sumptuous multi-family dwellings.

  • Office Building Conversions. 

Connoting the usage change, from a commercial-office space to multiple-family dwelling, this category is characterized either as loft-like or conventional-apartment layouts. They are inevitably within mixed commercial and residential zoning districts.


Conversion-to-multiple-family usage: office building, mansion and brownstones