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Summer 1993
City Journal Summer 1993.
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The Rise of the High-Rise
Elizabeth Hawes
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Elizabeth Hawes gives a synopsis of her new book, New York, New York (Alfred A. Knopf), which describes the transformation of New York into a city of apartment dwellers.

By anyone’s measure, the era between the Civil War and the Great Depression was one of the most boisterous in history. Within those years, Old New York became a city; its citizens became urban people; its leisurely ways became “modern life.” From the first plainspoken buildings of “French flats” to the last swaggering tower, luxury apartment houses annotated this evolution expressively and comprehensively. In 1869, all upper-class New Yorkers lived in private houses; by 1929, 98 percent of that same population had been stacked up in multiple dwellings. Phenomenal changes had been written in stone.

The saga of the apartment house could be written from an economic point of view: the spiraling cost of living, the need for servants to maintain the regimen of row house life, and the added burden of an income tax after 1913 collaborated with ambitious developers to make the apartment house increasingly attractive. But houses also have cultural, social, and aesthetic dimensions, and the campaign to make the apartment house respectable was a struggle against the stubborn grip of traditional values. Its eventual success with the upper classes, who had the greatest investment in houses and the least inclination to be pragmatic, went hand in hand with the dismantling of the old order.

In 1884, the Upper West Side of Manhattan was still a patchwork of small, sleepy settlements. On West 72nd Street, goats wandered among small truck farms. Constructing the nine-story Dakota, alone on the West Side, was a daring venture for Edward Severin Clark. The most daring aspect of Clark’s scheme was the extravagance of his building, which his architect, Henry J. Hardenbergh, designed for the well-to-do. The Dakota ranked with St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Plaza Hotel, and the Navarro as one of the most costly buildings in New York. It was constructed like a fortress, its foundation laid on solid rock. For strength, the walls tapered from 20 inches on the first floor to 16 inches above the sixth; the floors were laid three feet thick.

One look at the Dakota roofline told a passerby that it was not an ordinary apartment house. The two-story copper-trimmed slate roof seemed to break out irrepressibly into a fantasy of expressive features: turrets, towers, chimneys, flagpoles, finials, and windows of every conceivable style, size, and shape. Inside, the enormous rooms, the 15-foot ceilings, the one-of-a-kind carved marble mantelpieces bespoke luxury that was unknown even to wealthy householders. Doorways draped with tasseled portieres opened into velvet-hung rooms that opened into other rooms: the voluminous suites made the visitor feel formal and grand. Clark’s personal quarters, which had 18 rooms were allocated to the sixth floor in the hope of popularizing upper-story living, and included a ballroom-like drawing room with twin fireplaces and Baccarat chandeliers.

In a single architectural gesture, the Dakota set the character of the West Side. Its grand style and scale invited imitation; its character encouraged company, for it stood there with authority, as if to say, “This is the way the West Side is going to be.” Nonetheless, when the first Social Register appeared in 1887, no tenants from the Dakota were to be found in its pages. Those who would take up residence in an apartment house on the West Side inhabited a domain outside the dictates of form and fashion.

At the turn of the century, as the Upper West Side was making itself into a quarter of apartment dwellers, the Upper East Side was still consumed with the building of single-family mansions. The very rich did not wish to live in or even near apartment houses. Restrictive clauses on upper Fifth Avenue and on certain blocks below limited the height and use of new buildings. Architects were hard at work, however, trying to make the apartment house attractive even to millionaires.

The watershed year in apartment history on the Upper East Side was 1910, the year an apartment house began to take shape at 81st Street and Fifth Avenue, in the midst of Millionaire’s Row, almost directly across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The architects of Number 998 Fifth Avenue were McKim, Mead and White—a reassuring choice to design a big new building in sacrosanct territory. A full-scale neo-Italian Renaissance palazzo of exquisite refinement, 988 was nonetheless not an extravagant apartment house compared with those on the Upper West Side. The difference between a building like the Dorilton and 998 was the difference between opulence and grace. It had the air of an arrivé, rather than a nouveau arrivé.

The fact remained, however, that high society was still conservative on the issue of sharing a roof. But then Elihu Root, who not many years earlier had made upper Park Avenue respectable by building a house at 72nd Street, walked through 988 with a young broker named Douglas Elliman, who pointed out the thick walls and fine pantry and real fireplaces, and offered him a cut rate to sign a lease. Root agreed. A Vanderbilt, a Guggenheim, and a governor, Levi Morton, followed: the conversion of the rich had begun. While the tide did not turn overnight to apartments, it turned over the next decade, building up a new landscape.

A new Park Avenue was also taking shape on the old New York Central Railroad yards—a sooty, steamy, industrial district containing a piano factory, slaughterhouses, and breweries. The street-level tracks were sunk below the ground and the magnificent new Grand Central Terminal erected. By opening day on February 1, 1913, plans had been filed on half the new lots on Park Avenue. Within a decade Park Avenue had become the most prestigious residential address in the city. It was startling to realize that brownstones and mansions had no place in its scheme, for they would not have suited the scale or the style of the street. One had only to imagine how insignificant and eccentric even the Villard Houses might have looked on this wide and panoramic avenue to understand how irrelevant the fine old forms had become. Park Avenue offered a new and revised version of well-to-do urbanity; it spelled out how the modem aristocracy intended to live now: lavishly, privately, but also cooperatively and efficiently, well-served and well-serviced, “near ’business’ (and yet not actually, in their homes, on a business street),” as one guidebook put it. The city encircled, but it did not encroach.

The decade of the Twenties saw the biggest building boom in New York history. Luxury apartments rose up, and French flats, family brownstones, and historic mansions were carted off in pieces to the dump. But even at this last stage of transition, apartment architects were mindful of the recalcitrant. When Mrs. E. F. Hutton, for example, was reluctant to sell her townhouse property at 1107 Fifth, the builder agreed to rebuild her 54-room mansion on top of the apartment structure.

The luxury apartment’s task had been to ease a new generation out of the quarters built by its ancestors. Hundreds of them built during the Great Era still stand on the streets of New York. They are Queen Anne, neo-Gothic, High and Low Renaissance, moderne. They look like houses, hotels, fortresses and palaces. Together they offer an explanation of the process of urbanization in its most intimate terms—of how New Yorkers learned to live in a city, and of how the city grew up.

 

 


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