The stunning first white brick apartment house

New York City has about 140 white brick apartment houses. (Seems like the number should be higher, right?)

But these residences dating back to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—with their glazed facades that tend to look gray and grimy—don’t always get a lot of love.

The exception to the rule is magnificent Manhattan House, considered to be New York’s first white brick building.

Spanning East 66th Street from Second to Third Avenues, Manhattan House opened in 1951 in a city undergoing a building boom to meet the housing needs of its 7.8 million residents.

The house’s 21 stories quickly filled with renters, who eschewed the limestone and red brick apartment buildings of old in favor of sleek, European Modernist-inspired design—which included “large windows and projecting balconies, as well as landscaped driveways and a block-long rear garden,” stated the Guide to New York City Landmarks.

From its earliest days, Manhattan House has had an aura of luxury. But its origins were more humble.

It was built in the shadow of the Third Avenue El (above, in 1952) by the New York Life Insurance Company, replacing a former car barn.

Because insurance companies at the time were “only allowed to invest in limited-revenue rentals,” according to a 2015 article in Observer, Manhattan House wasn’t built with all of the trappings of a luxury building. 

“The complex had a wing of maid’s rooms, but no central air,” stated Observer, adding that the ceilings were only nine and half feet high, as opposed to the 10-foot ceilings in more posh residences.

Of course, many of the amenities designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft (who liked his creation so much, he moved in) were pretty sweet, like wood-burning fireplaces and air pressure in the halls that made it less likely cooking odors would waft into another apartment.

“A private garden spanned the property’s length (the second-largest private garden in the city after Gramercy Park) and the complex’s layout—five towers arranged in a cruciform shape along a shared central lobby—provided a sense of airy continuity while ensuring that the interiors never felt cold or cavernous,” wrote Observer.

Rather than middle class residents, Observer noted that “Manhattan House attracted eminent architects, designers, ad execs, prominent journalists, musicians, and assorted culturati.” Grace Kelly was an early resident, as were Benny Goodman, Jackie Robinson, and Frank Hardart—of Horn & Hardart Automat fame.

Making Manhattan House even more of a showstopper is the strip of land with a stone wall in the middle of 66th Street. It’s something of a moat, a demarcation line separating the building from the rest of the cityscape.

Throughout the decades, Manhattan House has preserved its pedigree. One major change happened in 2005: a condo conversion that took 10 years to complete.

Perhaps the fact that the building was landmarked in 2007 adds to its appeal, and price tag. This airy and lovely apartment is going for $12 million.

[Top image: MCNY 2010.7.1.9773; third image: MCNY 2013.3.2.2344; fourth image: MCNY X2010.7.1.9812; sixth image: X2010.7.1.10115]

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13 Responses to “The stunning first white brick apartment house”

  1. fabulouslululolo Says:

    I recall after the Third Ave EL was torn down how the neighborhood around Bloomingdales and the 60″s changed and white apartment buildings were built.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, it seems to me just walking around the area that white brick buildings popped up all along the second and third avenue el lines!

  2. ironrailsironweights Says:

    Building next to the unsightly El wasn’t quite as risky as it seemed. While that section of the El didn’t come down for a few more years it clearly was under death sentence when Met Life started the project as the soon-to-open Second Avenue Subway would render it obsolete.
    How’d that work out 🙂

    Peter

    • David H Lippman Says:

      The Second Avenue Subway did indeed arrive — 110 years after it was promised.

      My father rode the last train on the 3rd Avenue El on May 12, 1955, and swiped a lantern. He put a nice little red light in it. I inherited the lantern, and when I have important work to do, I flip on the lantern to let my family know I can’t be interrupted.

      Dad promised to take me on the first run of the 2nd Avenue Subway when it opened in 1980. Every now and then I’d tease him about that.

      I rode the first northbound train on that line on New Year’s Day in 2017. Governor Cuomo was on the first southbound train, so we didn’t shake hands. However, we immediately got beggars.

      Next day, my family and I flew to New Zealand for our big vacation.

      I do remember and know about this building complex. I am told that the apartments have fireplaces (not likely), but did know it had no central a/c, as proven by the boxes sticking out the windows to this day.

      I did not know about the raft of celebrities that lived there.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        We may have seen each other riding the Second Avenue Subway on New Year’s Day 2017!

      • ironrailsironweights Says:

        In the early 1970’s the federal government made funds available that would pay for construction of the full-length Second Avenue Subway. All the city had to do was come up with a far smaller amount of money out of funds it already had allocated for that purpose.

        Unfortunately, Abe Beame was concerned that an upcoming five-cent subway fare increase would ruin his mayoral reelection chances, and came up with a morally dubious but somehow legal scheme to avoid the increase by skimming off money from the federal government’s SAS funds (the “Beame Shuffle.”) As a result, the SAS didn’t get built, Ed Koch defeated Beame in the Democratic primary, and the fare went up by more than five cents.

        Peter

  3. countrypaul Says:

    Very interesting history. As a young suburban kid from New Rochelle I never got to ride the original 3rd Avenue El except for the portion that lingered above 149th Street in the Bronx. I wish I had clearer memories of it. In my opinion, the El should never have come down until they got the 2nd Avenue Subway up and running. (Thinking about it, it would probably still be running today!) But we can’t revise history…. I do like the “stone wall” boulevard; it’s a nice break from the grid.

  4. Ricky Says:

    I have been in an apartment in the building one year for the Kips Bay Showhouse. I seem to remember some poorly proportioned rooms and it being very confusing to find the correct elevator in the large lobby.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I never made it inside…maybe it’s not as impressive in the lobby and most apartments.

  5. Timothy Grier Says:

    I remember how modern the white brick buildings seemed to me as a kid in the 50s and 60s. I was jealous when my best friend moved from our red brick apartment building to a shiny new white brick building. Gordon Bunshaft designed many landmark buildings such as Lever House and the Hirschorn Museum. He was also a patient of my Dad’s.

  6. Shelly BLeier Says:

    My home sweet home. Such a great building. Here 26 years.

  7. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Updates May 22nd - New York, Manhattan, and Roosevelt Island | Manhattan Community Board 8 Says:

    […] Ephermeral New York takes a close look at Manhattan House, the City’s first white-brick apartment building. […]

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