The penthouse dwellers of early 1900s New York

Living in a New York penthouse is synonymous with wealth and luxury. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the early 20th century, well-heeled New Yorkers began giving up their single-family mansions in favor of apartment living. But no one wanted to reside on or near the building roof, where smoke belched from chimneys and unsightly water tanks were constructed.

Instead, rooms and shack-like houses near or on the roof were given to servants, like these two New Yorkers, happily posing for photographer George Bain on top of an unidentified “skyscraper” apartment residence that city resident today would kill for.

When penthouses were rebranded for the elite in the 1920s, rooms for building staffers and servants were relocated to the lower floors.

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7 Responses to “The penthouse dwellers of early 1900s New York”

  1. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    Did the chimneys stop belching smoke in 1920’s due to gas heat replacing coal furnaces? And when the servants lived on or near the roof in shacks, were the shacks heated?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I believe the answer to the first question is yes, no more coal furnaces. I don’t know if the shacks built on the roof were heated; perhaps they had their own little chimneys. It can get mighty cold on a New York roof in winter!

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    What a green thumb! I wonder if they grew the flowers for pleasure or for sale–or both. Interesting they did not seem to grow vegetables–this is not a subsistence skyscraper!

  4. Julie Says:

    Looks like they are growing castor bean in pots! It also, as mentioned, looks not to be any sort of kitchen garden.

  5. Beth Says:

    The most prestigious apartments in the Dakota Apartments were those on the ground floor. Residents could exit their carriages in the courtyard and step right up into their apartments. Their servants lived on upper floors. John Madden used to occupy one of those.

  6. Pearl Says:

    Thanks for the post, it prompted me to look into this further and it looks like the reason for the change was a matter of gentrification. A fascinating and familiar story!
    I found more info here:

  7. The mysterious woman on the “little penthouse” of a 1930s tenement roof | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] to be the stubby rooftop structure many tenements had that led to an interior staircase. The penthouse as a place of luxury was a new concept in the 1920s, but this rooftop is anything but […]

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