The mysterious woman on the “little penthouse” of a 1930s tenement roof

Martin Lewis had a thing for New York City rooftops. They made excellent vantage points for this Australia-born artist’s drypoint prints, allowing him to depict nuanced moments on the streets of the 1920s and 1930s city: kids at play under the glow of shop lights, young women on the town illuminated by street lamps, and New Yorkers going about their lives unaware that someone is watching.

But Lewis also looked to roofs as if they were theater stages, capturing the cryptic scenes that played out on them. Case in point is the mysterious woman in a print he titled “Little Penthouse,” from 1931.

The little penthouse appears 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 luxurious.

The woman stands before it, stylishly but plainly dressed. Layers of the wider city are all around her: the brick fortress-like wall of a neighboring building , another row of low-rise dwellings, taller modern structures, even a skyscraper with a pinnacle or antenna illuminating the night sky.

The layers lend the scene great depth, and combined with the shades and tones of the print emphasize her aloneness. She’s the only person in the image, elevated on a rooftop but perhaps not elevated according to the society she lived in—she’s on a tenement roof in the dark, after all.

She seems to be hesitating to go inside and down the stairs into the building. Is she actually alone, or is she addressing another person out of view? Does the little penthouse lead to safety, or is she in danger? She could be a maid, perhaps, ending her day by bringing something to the roof for her employers.

Like so many of Lewis’ masterful scenes of Gotham’s dark corners and shadows, he leaves us with more questions than answers.

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8 Responses to “The mysterious woman on the “little penthouse” of a 1930s tenement roof”

  1. Shelly Says:

    I look to the light in this artwork as to what may be going on – While it does feel ambiguous, I think the message is one of hope. The woman appears to be coming from darkness (the back of her body) and heading towards the light (coming from inside the building). Also, in the b.g., the skyscrapers are lit up brightly and illuminate the night sky in almost an ecclesiastical way. So whatever our opinion of as to who this person is and what she is doing up on that roof, the scene comes across as a favorable one. Finally, is the title of the portrayal telling? It’s a “penthouse”, but a “little” one – It seems to convey that she has a better lot in life than many living in tenements but not is not at the top. Still, she is clearly surrounded by tenement buildings.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I love your thoughts on this, Shelly, thank you for writing this. Ecclesiastical sounds right to me—if you look into the print, you can see what appears to be the shadow of a church spire amid the brightly lit skyscrapers.

      • Shelly Says:

        Thanks, Esther – I did not see the church spire until you pointed it out. I also just noticed a couple of other things about the print that adds to the mystery: The woman seems to be walking on a kind of pathway coming to/from the door. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen something like that on a small building’s roof before… Also, the window shadow on the wall in the b.g. behind her looks like the shape of a cross. Both symbolic? Like you mentioned, there are so many layers in this print. Thanks again for sharing. 🙂

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Oh wow, the cross—I missed that, but it adds to the ecclesiastical qualities you pointed out.

  2. bloomingdaler Says:

    MARVELOUS posting. Thanks, Esther!!

  3. The mysterious woman on the “little penthouse” of a 1930s tenement roof — Ephemeral New York – Naked Cities Journal Says:

    […] The mysterious woman on the “little penthouse” of a 1930s tenement roof — Ephemeral New York […]

  4. chas1133 Says:

    Shelly, you have a wonderful artistic eye that is interpretive of the positive things in life. I’m sure you live your life in a similar way. One can even go further into the spiritual as directly across in the far building with the arch on top there are three windows together each depicting window panes or…crosses, lol. I love this print, btw.

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