In Manhattan Classic: New York’s Finest Prewar Apartments, New York architect Geoffrey Lynch takes readers on a whirlwind tour of more than 80 of the most lavish homes in the city.
These aren't just ritzy homes, either. These historic apartments were all built by renowned architects during New York's golden age of architecture—from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century. There was a mad dash to erect new buildings, that were grand in style and unlike anything that came before them. "Prewars really were this unique building type for families to live in the city that appeared around 1870, flourished for about 60 years mostly in New York, then vanished," Lynch tells Co.Design.
New York was growing at a lightning pace during this period, and expanded from 500,000 inhabitants in 1850 to almost 5 million by 1910. Apartment house construction boomed. "Entire neighborhoods seemingly tripled in height, as rows of 4-story town houses were flattened to make way for 15-story apartment houses," Lynch writes in the book's introduction.
This golden age in New York City architecture saw such designers as Rosario Candela, master of the center-hall floor plan, Bing & Bing, which favored elegant Art Deco touches, and Schwartz & Gross, the firm who set the warm masonry tone of West End Avenue, all lend their obsessive attention to detail to create what were billed as private mansions in the sky.
"Often, prewar architects were self-taught, first-generation immigrants who couldn't afford to go to architecture school," Lynch writes. "Instead, they learned their trade on the job as apprentices." With elaborate woodwork, fine wood floors, moldings, and brass door handles, "prewars were deliberately designed to convince families to give up their townhouses, matching or surpassing them architecturally while providing the luxuries of 24-hour doormen," Lynch writes.
When the Great Depression hit and banks stopped lending money to developers, apartment construction ground to a halt. The prewar building era was over. Now, with regal awnings and doormen in uniforms sporting gold tassles, chandelier-lit lobbies with gleaming marble floors, these palatial spaces are, of course, stratospherically expensive—even more so than their newer counterparts.
"Most of the apartments in the book would cost between $2 million and $60 million," Lynch tells Co.Design. That is, when they do come on the market—a rare occurrence, "because residents can’t imagine leaving, except feet first," Lynch writes.
Rich histories are absorbed in these buildings’ high ceilings and thick walls. 440 Riverside Drive was featured in the movie Enchanted, and 55 Central Park West was in Ghostbusters. First Lady Jackie Kennedy grew up in 740 Park Avenue. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s time in the Dakota ended in tragedy: Lennon was shot outside its entrance. In 1957, in the lobby of The Majestic, infamous Mafioso Frank Costello survived an assassination attempt in the form of a gunshot to the head from Vincent "The Chin" Gigante. Screenwriter Nora Ephron penned a story in 1996 for the New Yorker about her love affair with an apartment in the Apthorp, where Al Pacino, Conan O'Brien, Rosie O'Donnell, and Cyndi Lauper have all also lived.
The past decade has seen a reboot of the classic prewar; now we have the contemporary prewar. We've seen "the invention of the modern apartment people fall in love with," Lynch says. "Some examples are truly spectacular, clearly inspired by the great prewar center hall floor plans." He cites Richard Meier's Perry and the Charles Street towers, as well as 551 West 21st Street, designed by Norman Foster.
Click the slide show for nine knock-out prewar apartments in Manhattan.
Manhattan Classic is available from Princeton Architectural Press for $50.