A History Lesson
For anyone who cares to read…
In addition to my passion for prewar architecture, I LOVE history in general. So, before diving headlong into prewar architecture, I would like to provide a quick historical review on the socio-economic picture of New York starting in the late 19th Century. Architecture is always a reflection of the society it serves.
THE AGE OF PRIVATE HOMES
There is some debate about the identity of the first NYC apartment building for the well-heeled. No matter what it was, there is general agreement that it dates to the 1880’s. It took another 40 years, give or take, for the concept to become fully accepted, and to actually serve as the predominant form of habitation for the most affluent of the city’s citizens.
THE LATE 1800s
Through the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th Century, almost all wealthy New Yorkers still lived in private homes. There were exceptions, notably for example, the pioneers at the Dakota on CPW and 72nd Street, which opened in 1888. Mrs. Astor and her 400 friends lived in city mansions, sometimes spanning full blocks. The merely well off lived in various forms of single family attached dwellings. The great houses of the Astor and Vanderbilt clans are almost all gone now, except for those that have become museums, schools, and the rare billionaire homestead. The many extant brownstones and townhouses are mostly divided into multi-family dwellings, which today serve a variety of family types across the socio-economic spectrum. That being said, there are still some very wealthy families living elegantly in these structures as single family homes.
THE EARLY 1900s
During the first and into the second decades of the 20th century, the “Edwardian Era” (named for Queen Victoria’s son and heir, King Edward), economic and technological forces together led to more apartment building construction. Although the very wealthy were still somewhat ambivalent, if not hostile to the concept, upper middle class families were more accepting of this form of habitation. So developers seized on the opportunities presented by the construction of the NYC subway system, which made open land further uptown available for development. The period, roughly 1900 to 1919, was a critical transitional period. It was transitional insofar as it served as a bridge between the morés and tastes of the late “Victorian Era”, and those of the roaring 1920’s. The differences wrought during this 20-year time period were quite significant. New York transformed from a society of heavy dresses, carpets, drapes, and stiff formality supported by teams of servants and horse-drawn carriages, to one of flappers doing the Charleston, and motoring to speak-easys.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE PREWAR APARTMENT
The prewar era can be sliced and diced in many ways, but I think of it as having four parts:
- Edwardian as mentioned above, from 1900 -1919
- Early ‘20s, (1920-1925)
- Roaring ‘20s (1926 – 1932)
- Art Deco (1932-1941)
The Edwardian apartment buildings have numerous defining visual and spatial characteristics, some good, some bad, and some double-edged. On the down side, they tend to have room proportions of the earlier Victorian era house, i.e. the ceilings are too tall relative to floor area. The Dining Room is often larger than the Living Room. The change in this relationship may be a result of the advent of radio. Before the radio era, families gathered in the Dining Room for meals, and tended to stay there. Subsequently, families tended to gather in the Living Room around the radio. There was also a lack of rigid separation between living, sleeping, and service/servant areas. Often the layouts have many, if not all the rooms strung out along very long and winding corridors (often called “long hall” or “railroad” type flats – even for the well-off). They have fewer bathrooms than we might deem optimal, and certainly minimal closet space, at best one per bedroom. They are darker than they need to be, with fewer windows than could have been placed. Overall they are primitive in their arrangement, and certainly less successful than their successors in their quest for light and air. Despite all these drawbacks, many such apartments are still highly coveted. The disproportionately high ceilings, despite violating concepts of “ideal” proportion, do create a greater and more dramatic sense of space. They also generally have more detail, like panel moldings, and larger scale base and crown moldings. Often the hardwood floors and tile work are incredibly ornate works of art. The exterior of these buildings tend to be more exuberant than what comes later, a greater “feast for the eyes”. This is indeed an interesting paradox. The staid Victorian era loved busy patterns and applied ornamentation, whereas the more liberated 1920s moved away from this “gingerbread” ideal.
I mentioned that this period was transitional. Of course the buildings from this era represent a tremendous accomplishment in their own right, but ultimately they are more important as precursors, to some degree practice works, for what comes later. I mentioned the long hall and railroad flats, but there were some better apartments, at the Dakota for example, where the central hall plan is seen in its embryonic form.
The “name” architect James .E.R. Carpenter, who designed many important buildings between 1910 and 1919 and beyond, is often credited with inventing the central hall plan concept. He did in fact design many luxury buildings, specifically on Park Avenue from 42nd to 72nd streets, in the nineteen-teens, that show an advanced spatial planning. Many of these apartments still exist, and they are pretty amazing, if I may gush. Many of those between 42nd and 59th have been razed to make way for office buildings. However, Carpenter remains today the King of Park Avenue in the 60s. In most of these cases, he was working with an incredible luxury of space, often a single apartment on a floor spanning at least half a block facing Park Avenue.
The central hall plan allows for a more modern arrangement of rooms, eliminating the winding corridors, and odd room arrangements typical of the Edwardian Era. The new paradigm, as evidenced by Carpenter’s work, allows an apartment to have 3 distinct functional zones, all reachable from the Entry Foyer. The Living Room, Dining Room, and Library form one zone, the Kitchen, Butler’s Pantry, and various servant’s rooms form another zone, and family bedrooms and bathrooms form yet another.
Another famous architect whose name has caché today, Emery Roth, also began experimenting with this design formula in the late nineteen-teens on the west side. However, it is Rosario Candela along with Roth, who most famously took this planning concept to its apogee. It is not clear that any one person “invented” the center hall plan, its embryonic form going back to the earliest luxury apartment buildings. It is a bit like the invention of calculus, Newton gets the credit, but it seems that Leibniz discovered it at the same time. Even Newton acknowledged: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”