This 1883 apartment rental on Madison Avenue was one of Manhattan’s first co-ops

I’ve walked past 121 Madison Avenue, at the corner of 30th Street, many times, and it’s always puzzled me.

The red brick, the bay windows, the ornamental detailing along the facade—these architectural hints tell me that the building may have been a stunner when it made its debut, probably in the Gilded Age.

Set on the Gilded Age stylish border of Gramercy and Murray Hill, it was likely surrounded by brownstones and mansion row houses that enhanced its elegance. Thanks to the photo below from Andrew Alpern that shows the building in its early years, you can see it amid those brownstones on a tidy residential block.

121 Madison Avenue, courtesy of Andrew Alpern

Yet there’s something a little forlorn about it, as if it’s been stripped of its true beauty, its colors washed out somewhat. The heavy, block-like extra floors added to the original roof make it seem like the building is carrying the weight of the world.

As it turns out, number 121 does have a grander past. Completed in 1883 when “French flats,” aka apartment residences, were going up in Manhattan but had yet to catch on with the upper classes, the building is one of the city’s very first cooperative apartment houses—with residents owning a stake in the building rather than renting their unit.

The very first co-op building was the Rembrandt, constructed in 1881 at 152 West 57th Street but long demolished. Both the Rembrandt and 121 Madison Avenue were developed by Jared B. Flagg—described by Christopher Gray as a “clergyman-capitalist” in a 1991 New York Times article—and architect Philip Hubert.

The two were behind several other early co-op buildings, like the spectacular failure called the Navarro Flats on Central Park South, as well as the red-brick beauty at 222 West 23rd Street, which became the Chelsea Hotel in 1905. The co-ops were cannily marketed as “Hubert Homes” to help sell the idea of cooperative living as exclusive and homey, wrote Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

The marketing may have been slick, but the apartments inside 121 Madison Avenue sound quite elegant. The building featured “five grandly spacious duplex apartments for each two floors of the building,” stated Alpern. Each duplex apartment’s “entertaining rooms,” as Alpert called them, were on the lower floor, with the bedrooms on the upper level.

“The largest of the apartments had five entertaining rooms opening en suite via sliding mahogany and etched-glass doors: reception room, library, drawing room, parlor, and dining room,” explained Alpern.

This duplex design earned praise by the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide in 1883. “The elevator in this 11-story building stops at only five floors and each suite forms a complete two-story house in itself, entirely separate from any other apartment,” according to the Guide.

Early residents included bankers and lawyers, wrote Gray. But you know the story. When elite New Yorkers moved out of the increasingly commercial area around Madison Avenue and 30th Street, number 121 suffered as well. In 1940, the co-op became a rental, and its duplexes were carved into small units, wrote Alpern.

The facade was significantly altered as well, with the cornice and decorative balconies “lobotomized,” as Alpern wrote, and much of the ornamentation as well as the ground floor were gutted.

These days, 121 Madison Avenue is still a rental building, in the recently dubbed NoMad neighborhood. Its “historic, prewar luxury homes” are going for up to 10K per month, according to Streeteasy.

[Second photo: Courtesy of Andrew Alpert]

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22 Responses to “This 1883 apartment rental on Madison Avenue was one of Manhattan’s first co-ops”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Very preceptive of you to notice that this building would have had a grander past. Sadly, those top floors look like tacky blonde hair dye on someone you just know is obviously a brunette. They could have at least tried to match the color.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Tacky blonde is right—but I see these clumsy roof additions to all sorts of buildings, from tenements to large apartment houses.

  2. Andrew ALPERN Says:

    The real giveaway is that the floor heights alternate. You can see that in the vertical spacing of the rows of windows. That’s because the original architect provided greater height for the reception rooms than he did for the bedrooms, which of course were smaller as well.

  3. Greg Says:

    What a shame. Would love to see it as it looked originally, but pictures seem hard to come by.

    • Andrew ALPERN Says:

      Here (if someone can tell me how to insert it) is a period photo looking up Madison Avenue. I suspect that when the building was new, the people living in those brownstones complained that the structure was much too tall and overbearing, and was blocking the light and air and destroying the civilised character of the neighborhood, just as people now complain about the super-talls. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

    • andrew.alpern@arkitrny.com Says:

      Can you add this photo to my response?

    • andrew.alpern@arkitrny.com Says:

      Here (if someone can tell me how to insert it) is a period photo looking up Madison Avenue. I suspect that when the building was new, the people living in those brownstones complained that the structure was much too tall and overbearing, and was blocking the light and air and destroying the civilised character of the neighborhood, just as people now complain about the super-talls. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

      Can you add this photo to my response?

      • Greg Says:

        You’ll not be able to upload it directly, but you can use an image hosting service. I like this one: https://postimages.org/

        Just upload the image, and then copy and paste the link they give you. Either “link” or “direct link” will work.

      • Andrew ALPERN Says:

        When I uploaded the image and then tried to register I got a message 403 Forbidden. Now what?

      • Greg Says:

        You don’t have to register, Have a look at this, I circled what you need to copy

      • Andrew ALPERN Says:

        Here is the link.
        https://postimg.cc/z3DmKkw6

      • Greg Says:

        Thank you, that is terrific! Perhaps Esther will want to incorporate it into the article, if that’s ok with you. Much appreciated!

      • Andrew ALPERN Says:

        By all mean, incorporate it into the article. Trouble is, I have no recollection where I got the image. It’s something I scanned, so I suspect I took it from an old book or magazine.

      • Greg Says:

        Based on your image it looks like they did not really add any stories, they expanded and remodeled what was there already.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Hi Andrew, thank you very much for this link; as Greg says it’s terrific. I added it to the post. I had no luck finding an original photo so this is really wonderful.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Greg, your point about the roof, I think you may be right that it isn’t an addition but a poorly done remodeling/renovation that stripped away the Queen Anne loveliness. It’s just a couple of boxes now.

      • Greg Says:

        Indeed they really fouled it up.

  4. Andrew ALPERN Says:

    In the 1940s when this was done, no one cared much for “old architecture,” and in any event, the goal was not to beautify the streetscape but to restore a totally outdated and unrentable building to economic viability. Sad, but understandable.

  5. Barbara Pryce Says:

    Every time I walked past or viewed from bus window I was enchanted wondering about this beautiful building as well as it’s long-ago inhabitants. Irrsistable!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only one imagining that the building had a more glorious past!

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