Posts Tagged ‘French Flats apartments NYC’

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

May 5, 2022

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]

“The problem of living in New York” explained

December 14, 2015

“In no considerable, thoroughly settled city on the civilized globe is material living attended with so many difficulties as New York.”

Problemwithnydakota

So begins a November 1882 Harper’s Weekly article that lays out why making a home in the city is such an exercise in frustration.

Lack of affordable housing and the high cost of living, of course. “Even in London, to which alone we are second in commercial importance, it is not hard to find a house or rooms within the municipal limits at any season.”

Problemofnymorrisparkad“But one of the greatest troubles of the average New-Yorker is to secure a roof to shelter him and his. He has no expectation of a home—anything like a home is reserved for the very prosperous few; the most he dares to hope for is a sojourning place for six months, or a year or two at furthest.”

“The effort he makes to this end, the anxiety he suffers, are incalculable.” Because Manhattan is a long, skinny island, land is “so dear that every square foot is naturally turned to the utmost profit.”

The article points to a possible breakthrough. In the late 19th century, French Flats were introduced to the city, rental apartments where a family unable to afford a stand-alone house could live respectably.

ProblemofnybaileyparkadThe “elegant” rentals could cost up to $4,000 a year. The cheapest flat that wasn’t a tenement could be had for $400 per year. But with the average middle-class salary $1,500 annually, neither option was affordable.

Even with the development of the Upper West Side in the 1880s (top image), rows and rows of brownstones and luxury apartment buildings like the Dakota were way out of reach.

“It is estimated that a man and his wife, with one or two children, can not possibly live here in any degree of comfort on less than $5,000 a year,” according to the article.

ProblemlivingnyctheworldadThe result? A middle class resident “must pitch his tent, as it may justly be styled, in the rear of Brooklyn, along the lines of the New Jersey railroads, among the sand knolls of Long Island, or amid the pastures of Westchester.” (The ads above attest to the rapid development of the Bronx in the early 1900s.)

“New York is a great, a most opulent city, a marvel of enterprise and progress, in all likelihood the future capital of the world,” the article concludes.

“When it has achieved its highest density, let us hope that amid its splendors and its blessings may be included a few more houses.”

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]