An 1887 example of apartment living in Yorkville

The Upper East Side’s Yorkville neighborhood is dense with brownstones, tenements, and high-rise residences.

But hiding in the middle of all that stone and glass is one of New York City’s first-ever apartment buildings—an 1887 red-brick dowager with a combined name that harkens back to the German immigrants who began populating Yorkville in the late 19th century.

This early residence containing individual apartments is actually two buildings at Second Avenue and 89th Street, according to Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. (The official address: 1716 and 1720 Second Ave.) The name of the two: the Kaiser and the Rhine.

“The Romanesque Revival buildings were named to evoke German nobility, and appeal to Yorkville’s middle class German residents,” stated the Friends in a 2020 newsletter.

The name also served as an homage to the Rhinelanders, the old New York family who developed the apartments. The Rhinelander family bought land in Yorkville in the early 19th century, and generations later cashed in when the enclave lost its rural feel and filled with people during the Gilded Age.

1929 map of the block between Second and First Avenues and 89th and 90th Streets, with the Kaiser and the Rhine on the lower left.

Their calculated attempt to appeal to German immigrants was crucial to making the apartments a success. Prior to the early 20th century, apartment living was a hard sell. Any New Yorker who could resided in their own single-family house, and only the poor or working class dwelled in separate units under one roof.

But by branding them “French” or “Parisian” flats and hiring prominent architects to design spacious, stately units, apartment buildings slowly began to catch on.

The first, The Stuyvesant Apartments, was designed in 1870 by Richard Morris Hunt on 18th Street near Gramercy Park. By the 1880s, a French Gothic apartment building had gone up on East 17th Street. The Dakota on the West Side, The Osborne on 57th Street, and the spectacular Navarro Flats on 59th Street were also filling up with tenants.

The Kaiser and the Rhine boasted refined architectural touches like large arched windows and balconies (plus a shared courtyard behind the building), but compared to the bells and whistles of the Navarro Flats, these apartments are relatively low-key.

It was the Rhinelander family’s second French Flats building in Yorkville; the first was the Queen Anne-style Manhattan, which still exists on Second Avenue and 86th Street.

With 134 years on this corner (and one disastrous fire in 1904, where firemen were credited with saving 40 women and children from a “flat house fire”), the combined Kaiser and Rhine is still a rental and blends into the neighborhood.

Empty storefronts on the first floor provide something of a ghostly feel, and it’s easy to walk past these apartments without noticing some of the 19th century architectural touches. But behind its exterior just might be the kind of large, light, airy homes New Yorkers always dream of inhabiting.

[Fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

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13 Responses to “An 1887 example of apartment living in Yorkville”

  1. petey Says:

    yup, mine was built in 1883, the first wave of brick building. it took its name i believe from the nearly Seneca village, though i need to investigate that.

  2. kevin bazur Says:

    that building is more beautiful than all of Hudson Yards

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I love the names of the buildings!

  4. Andrew Porter Says:

    The big problem with articles like this is that when Brooklyn was amalgamated into NYC in 1898, all records of buildings built earlier—for instance, mine was built in 1883—were disregarded, and their construction dates usually put at 1898.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Andrew for your comment. I don’t think this post implies that; the city of Brooklyn certainly had some early apartment buildings/French flats in the 1880s. I pulled out a few examples of early buildings in Manhattan because I felt they would be the most recognizable to readers.

  5. Ricky Says:

    The new front doors are an outright affront on the dignity of the building.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I tend to agree…would love to hear from anyone who knows what the apartments look like on the inside. Perhaps there are lots of original decorative touches to make up for the plain exterior doors.

  6. Rodney Means Says:

    Does anyone know the history of the “Steinberg Buildings?” The buildings are characterized by the large S on the granite floor entry to the buildings.

  7. eherb zydney Says:

    we’re the fire escapes added later? when do you think.

    • GITA MEHTA Says:

      They were added in 1860, by the Dept. of Bldgs. See interesting history, on below Link:

      google.com/search?q=when+were+fire+escapes+added+to+tenements&oq=when+were+fire+escapes+added+to+tenements&aqs=chrome..69i57.18359j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

  8. bpmurray9 Says:

    What about 34 Sait Mark’s Place?

  9. The oldest apartment house might be in Yorkville | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] The Manhattan, on Second Avenue and 86th Street, was built in 1879-1880. It’s one of the many “French flats” residences that were developed by the heirs of the Rhinelander family, which owned land in the late 18th and 19th centuries in what became the Yorkville section of Manhattan. (The family also developed these 1889 side-by-side Yorkville apartment buildings with the illustrious names the Kaiser and the Rhine.) […]

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