Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age Apartment Houses NYC’

This decaying building was Central Harlem’s first apartment house

September 30, 2022

Apartment living was still a strange new concept to New Yorkers in the Gilded Age. But that didn’t stop developers from turning Seventh Avenue between West 55th Street and Central Park South into Gotham’s first luxury apartment house district.

Opening their doors to elite tenants between 1879 and 1885 were spectacular residences like the Van Corlear, the Wyoming, the Navarro Flats, the Ontiora, and the Osborne. (Only the latter two are still standing, unfortunately.)

The Washington Apartments

A few miles north, Seventh Avenue (now known as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard) in Central Harlem was also transforming into an apartment house district in the 1880s. Rather than hoping to lure very wealthy residents, developers in Harlem were aiming for a more middle- to upper-middle class clientele.

“Between the 1870s and 1910 Harlem was the site of a massive wave of speculative development which resulted in the construction of record numbers of new single-family row houses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses,” states a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1993.

From 122nd Street

Much of this new housing was intended for the emerging class of professionals who desired quality homes within easy commuting distance of the city’s main business and shopping districts. With three elevated train lines extending to 129th Street, and electricity and phone service set to arrive by the end of the decade, Harlem was moving from a sparsely populated enclave to a fully urbanized part of the metropolis.

One financier who profited from this speculative development in Harlem was Edward H.W. Just. Born in Germany, Just came to New York in the 1830s and co-founded the Just Brothers Fine Shirt manufacturing company. By the 1880s and 1890s, the company had stores on Ladies’ Mile—the Gilded Age city’s premier shopping district from Broadway to Sixth Avenue between 10th and 23rd Streets.

The Washington Apartments are on the right, recognizable thanks to its pediment

Just began investing in real estate in Harlem, purchasing land on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 122nd Street. He hired Mortimer C. Merritt—an independent architect who designed Hugh O’Neill’s Sixth Avenue department store, with its signature beehive domes—to draw plans for an apartment house.

“Edward Just was concerned about providing solid middle-class housing in Harlem and was an advocate of the large apartment house, a building type which in 1883 had only recently begun to gain popularity and enough cache to be acceptable to New York’s middle class,” states the LPC report.

Washington Apartments, 1940

Construction commenced in 1883, and one year later the building was completed. A harmonious, eight-story Queen Anne creation of red and light brick, stone, and terra cotta as stunning as any Midtown apartment house, the Washington Apartments was the first apartment residence in Central Harlem.

Thirty families made the new building, with its signature triangular pediment, their home. “The occupants included doctors, lawyers, bankers, public accountants, and builders, many of whom had servants who lived with them,” per the LPC Report. “A number of residents had offices in lower Manhattan and were able to live in Harlem and conveniently commute to work because of the recently constructed elevated railroad.”

The LPC doesn’t specify the ethnic backgrounds of these middle-class residents, but one can assume these were white New Yorkers. Central Harlem’s transition into a predominantly African American district didn’t begin until the early 1900s.

“The real estate bubble burst in 1904-1905 when people realized that no one was sure when the subway line would be completed, and that too many apartment buildings had been created, and there was not enough demand—and even if there was demand the rents were too high for most people to afford,” states CUNY’s Macauley Honors College. “Thus to avoid losing the investment, some landlords allowed blacks to move into the neighborhoods and pay high rents, as was the norm for black tenants in the city.”

The ethnic makeup of the residents of the Washington Apartments, however, remained the same until the 1920s. “With all the changes occurring nearby, the Washington Apartments maintained its white, middle-class residents through the 1920s,” per the LPC report. “Interior changes made from 1915 through 1920 did, however, create smaller apartments so that the building, which had been constructed to house 30 families in 1883, was home to 63 families and a restaurant in 1932.”

Over the next decades, ownership of the Washington Apartments changed hands several times, allowing the building to fall into disrepair. In 1977, the city of New York purchased the almost 100-year-old dowager. “Rehabilitation began in the late 1980s,” the LPC report says.

No longer owned by the city these days, the Washington Apartments desperately need another rehabilitation. CBS News aired a report in early September on the building’s broken locks, nonworking security cameras, vandalism, and elevator problems, among other troubling issues. The residents of this early apartment house, which influenced the development and feel of Central Harlem and was landmarked by the city in 1993, deserve better.

[Third image: MCNY, F2011.33.1577; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collections]