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NYC prewar apartments: A design nerd’s guide

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Beginners—we’ve got your back

Courtesy of Streeteasy.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Often, buyers consult floorplans for practical purposes, like determining the best layout of furniture in a particular room.

But floorplans can be so much more than just utilitarian. Appreciating the layout of an apartment can also provide clues to the social and cultural climate at the time the house or apartment was built.

Today, we’re taking a look at three different types of prewar—that’s pre-World War II—apartment layouts in New York City. Each one catered to a different subsection of the population around the turn of the 20th century.

And while they share certain characteristics (if you’re looking for an open kitchen, time to think about renovating), they are all fundamentally separate.

From those designed for bachelors to lofty, bright spaces for artists, these century-old city dwellings all remain, more or less, as intact as the day they were completed and—at the very least—may cause you to do a double take the next time you check out a floorplan.

The floorplan of an Edwardian five apartment.
Courtesy of Streeteasy.

Upper West Side (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $5,800/month)

One of the most common types of prewar apartments is the “classic six,” a configuration of a living room, dining room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a room for live-in staff. It was the kind of unit designed to suit the needs of families.

This turn-of-the-century apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a variation on that theme, with its single bedroom. It’s referred to as an “Edwardian five.”

The “Edwardian five” was specifically designed for single men or widows—people who may not need extra bedrooms for children, but still had a lady’s maid or a gentleman’s valet for daily help.

Many “Edwardian five” apartments have been reconfigured over the years—especially towards the second half of the 20th century, when live-in help for single individuals became less and less popular, and the layout became obsolete.

What you’ll often find with intact “Edwardian fives” is an attempt to re-label the rooms so that the apartment can better suit the need of a modern family. Here, the dining room is labeled a “den/2nd bedroom,” and the original foyer has become the “dining area.”

Courtesy of Streeteasy
Courtesy of Streeteasy.
Courtesy of Streeteasy.

The floorplan of an apartment in 998 Fifth Avenue by Stanford White.

Upper East Side (5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, $27 million)

In the Gilded Age, high society apartments resembled the sprawling floorplans of country estates more than anything else.

Designed by the famed architect Stanford White, this apartment across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art has its impressive square footage subdivided into three areas: There are the private quarters of the bedrooms, four grand entertaining rooms, and an entire wing for staff.

While today it’s common to entertain in the kitchen or in a space that’s open to the kitchen, things were different in 1912. Here, the only way to really access the kitchen is through the dining room, and even then you have to travel through a butler’s pantry.

The not-so-subtle division of space here was meant to communicate a hierarchy: the people cooking dinner did not enjoy the same status as the people enjoying dinner. The smells of the kitchen were best kept at bay, separated from the entertaining areas by whole rooms, if space allowed.

Also notice how the living room, dining room, and library are organized in a row, connected by grand doorways and bookended with fireplaces. This sort of axial spatial organization is characteristic of the Beaux-Arts style, which Stanford White often worked in and was generally popular at the time.

Courtesy of Streeteasy.
Courtesy of Streeteasy.
Courtesy of Streeteasy.

An artist’s studio apartment.

Lincoln Square (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $2.95 million)

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, a new type of building started to pop up around Manhattan, one that catered to the more creative crowd: dedicated artist studios.

The most salient characteristic of the artist studio was the large, often double-height lantern windows that bathed the lofty studios in light. Many of the buildings have yielded themselves to redevelopment over the decades, but a few survive. This apartment—in the aptly named Hotel des Artes—is one such example.

Although the original function as an artist’s studio has been abandoned, traces of its past exist in the two-story living room with its large, south-facing windows, positioned to capture the most sunlight possible.

Similar to the “Edwardian five,” this floorplan has been renamed to try and “modernize” the layout for a non-artist. While the grand studio space was probably also a spot for socialization, the second floor—now just bedrooms—is likely where the artist’s private living was done.

This different sort of studio apartment is rare to come on the market, but if you ever cross paths with an apartment that features a suspiciously large (and tall!) “living room,” chances are more has been painted there than just the walls.