Posts Tagged ‘Martin Lewis Little Penthouse’

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

October 3, 2022

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.