For rent on the Upper West Side in the 1930s

Finding a relatively affordable apartment in a pricey Upper West Side building is no easy feat. But things appeared different in the late 1930s, as a peek at the real estate pages of the New York Times reveals.

The “for rent” section of the paper in August 1938 features dozens of oversize ads dripping with adjectives and images designed to lure tenants—and the vast majority of these ads are for elite Upper West Side addresses.

A combination of factors apparently led to a late 1930s glut of unrented units in the buildings constructed during the Upper West Side boom years of the early 20th century. The Depression must have been a factor, leading to an oversupply of luxury apartments developers were desperate to fill.

Taking a closer look at some of the ads offers an idea of what people were looking for from a New York City apartment in the 1930s—and it also proves that certain amenities never go out of style.

The Master Apartment Hotel ad (top image) is aimed at potential renters who want to “live in a home of art and culture,” with free “lectures and recitals.” One amenity is telling: “silent refrigeration.” Refrigerators became more common in homes in the 1930s, but maybe they sounded like jet engines?

This ad for both 450 West End Avenue and 5 Riverside Drive (second image) is designed for families with kids, and the real estate copy about the great schools is exactly what you’d find in an ad today. But about that second building overlooking the spectacular Schwab Mansion? Well, the mansion was torn down a decade later, so the view would have been of a demolition pit and construction site until a replacement went up.

I like the third ad, which covers five of the poshest buildings along the Central Park West of today. “Each building occupies an entire block and enjoys cool breezes and day-long sunshine,” the ad tells us. Clearly this is before air conditioning, and the cool breezes were a real selling point.

370 Riverside Drive was built in 1922, and the list of features—two and three baths, spacious closets, well managed—still have strong appeal. My favorite amenity is the “fine type tenants.” No riffraff here!

Twenty-plus blocks down Riverside Drive was number 100. Dropped living rooms, Venetian blinds, stall showers, concealed radiators, Kentile kitchen floors…and radio outlets!

Each of these buildings is still standing, and most (if not all) have been converted to co-ops and are part of protected historic districts. About the prices listed: unless otherwise indicated, I believe they cover an entire year.

[All ads are from the August 14, 1938 edition of the New York Times]

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22 Responses to “For rent on the Upper West Side in the 1930s”

  1. boxwoodbooks Says:

    Would I be right in thinking that post WWII finding a similar apartment in Manhattan to those shown was like finding hen’s teeth?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Do you mean would it be very hard to find a similar apartment in Manhattan post-WWII? I think so; there was a terrible housing shortage in New York after the war, as construction had been mostly halted. But in the 1950s and 1960s, it would become easier. People were leaving the UWS, and crime was high. By the 1980s and 1990s, the area rebounded.

    • Bob Says:

      This shortage is what led to the institution of residential rent control in 1947. As noted, crime did more than rent control to solve the imbalance (by lowering demand, not increasing supply).

  2. Abe Goteiner Says:

    How is 27 blocks “a few blocks down? 82nd to 109th on RSD.

  3. Francine P.H. Says:

    That was a lot of fun! Love reading old papers etc. Thanks.

  4. countrypaul Says:

    The annual rents then wouldn’t cover a month now! Very revelatory post, thank you.

    • Bob Says:

      The $50 in August 1938 (due to inflation) was equivalent to about $910 in 2019. $200 monthly (for the “$2,400” annual rent 5-room apartment) would due to inflation be equivalent to about $3,630 in 2019.

      And the subway is no longer a nickel. 🙂

  5. Bob Says:

    The Master Apartments were not full apartments comparable to today, per Daytonian in Manhattan:

    “The upper floors held 344 apartments–from one to three rooms in size–for artists. Because it was an apartment hotel, tenants had minimal kitchen facilities (called pantries), and ate for the most part in a large common restaurant.”

    His description of the developer hints at why, beyond just the shape of the building, the Master building was supposedly an inspiration for the supernatural location where the final scene in ‘Ghostbusters’ takes place:

    “In 1920 Nicholas Roerich and his wife, Helena, arrived in New York City. The Russian-born mystic and artist promoted himself as a master in the theosophist belief in ancients who could transmit messages and knowledge to believers. He mesmerized wealthy Americans who formed a near-cult. (Reportedly, the spiritualist urged follower Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture under Franklin Roosevelt, to persuade the Treasury Department to add the mystic pyramid of the Great Seal to the dollar bill—a changed that was enacted in 1935.)

    “Among his ardent followers were Louis L. Horch, a specialist in international finance, and his wife, Nettie. The couple were major financial backers of Roerich’s Master Institute of United Arts and the Roerich Museum, founded in 1923. Louis Horch was president of the museum and the couple owned hundreds of the artist’s paintings.

    “The Horches had established the museum in an apartment building they owned at No. 310 Riverside Drive. They took their dedication a step further in 1928 by purchasing the abutting properties at Nos. 311 and 312 and securing a bond to fund construction of a skyscraper on the site.”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Bob, I should also explain the concept of the apartment hotel; these were very popular since the 19th century, but gradually lost favor with New Yorkers. Some still remained in the first half of the 20th century. And a few exist today, though I can’t think of any examples.

  6. Veritas1010 Says:

    Excellent backdrop and NYC history! Ex-pats appreciate it and yes the prescient comments too.

    Thank you!

  7. Laird Kelly Says:

    “Silent refrigerators” meant that the apartments had something like an ice box kept cold by air that was piped in from large compressors located in the basement, or on the roof, similar to split unit A/C systems we have now. The ice boxes would have small fans to draw the air into the box. Full refrigerators of the time were somewhat noisy but the bigger problem was that they gave off heat. Some of them were even powered by natural gas.

  8. rwerthei Says:

    Are those annual rents? Seem high for monthly.

    Sent from my iPhone


  9. laurencefrommer Says:

    Change of email address Please change email to: 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

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