Penthouse: the word conjures up luxury and exclusivity.
Thing is, it’s a clever 1920s rebranding of the top of a building, where no one with any choice used to want to live.
For most of the city’s history, the single-structure mansion was the preferred domicile for the rich.
At the turn of the 20th century, monied New Yorkers were increasingly occupying “French Flat” cooperative apartments.
But even then, the undesirable rooftop apartment was given over to servants. Until the city and its tastes changed in the Jazz Age.
“By the end of the 1920s, the cliff dwellers of Manhattan were beginning to appropriate for their own pleasure the once forlorn roofs of apartment buildings,” writes Donald L. Miller in his excellent new book on New York in the 1920s, Supreme City.
“The ‘Cinderella’ of New York architecture, the ‘penthouse,’ or roof apartment, had for decades been considered the least attractive part of a high building, a boxlike residence for the servant class, set among soot-scarred chimneys and wooden water tanks.”
Now, with a vertical city making air and light the most luxurious commodities of all, developers and their wealthy clients had these “cramped dormitories for the laboring classes” torn down and “replaced by new luxury quarters.”
“[Reporter Virginia] Pope saw ‘a new chapter of New York’s social history . . . being written above the roof line,'” wrote Miller. “In there roof houses ‘New Yorkers achieved ‘a detachment impossible to any dwelling set on earth,'” wrote journalist William Irwin. “There were no neighbors in sight; ‘only the tainted air above Manhattan.'”
A 1924 New York Times article foresaw this new desire for penthouses, which were still very limited in number, and only a few dated farther back that the late teens.
One penthouse in particular, “is a substantial affair of steel construction, cement floors, and wire embedded windows. Windows on four sides give on the towers and steeples, the skyscrapers and the occasional treetops of the city.
“A wide walled terrace looks up to a ceiling no one can touch, the blue sky of heaven.”
[Top photo: 55 Seventh Avenue in the 1930s, by Berenice Abbott; second: a 1940s Gramercy Park penthouse, NYC Municipal Archives; Third: a postcard from the Penthouse restaurant, Museum of the City of New York; bottom photo: a Tudor City penthouse in the 1930s, MCNY]