It’s a five-story, red-brick and brownstone jewel with French Gothic touches at 129 East 17th Street east of Irving Place.
This lovely yet unassuming walkup has a secret: constructed in 1879, it’s considered to be the oldest surviving intact apartment house in Manhattan.
It’s hard to imagine a time when sharing a building with other families was looked down upon in New York.
But until 1870, when Richard Morris Hunt’s Stuyvesant Apartments (right) went up a block away on 18th Street, only the poor shared permanent quarters in tenant houses, aka tenements.
New Yorkers of means generally lived in freestanding homes or row houses intended for one family only (and their servants, of course).
With space at a premium in the metropolis, however, well designed apartment houses like the Stuyvesant (the city’s first) were thought to be a solution for New York’s perennial housing shortage.
And apparently many house-hunters agreed. The Stuyvesant, a curiosity as it was being built, was fully rented at a not-cheap $120 per month almost immediately.
The financially devastating Panic of 1873 slowed the introduction of more apartment houses. Once the depression had eased, a handful of new buildings, including 129 East 17th Street, were in the works.
Designed by Napoleon LeBrun, the architect behind so many French Gothic firehouses in New York, number 129 housed five families, with one family to a floor. Each flat consisted of two bedrooms.
Early residents of note include the president of the police board, doctors, and an engineer.
Unlike the palatial apartment houses of the 1880s—the Dakota, the Chelsea, and the ill-fated Navarro on Central Park South among others—the gem on 17th Street was all about refined, small-scale living.
But like the Dakota and Chelsea, the facade on number 129 hasn’t been altered, amazingly. Since the Stuyvesant was bulldozed in the 1950s, 129 appears to have earned its title.
“Andrew Alpern contends in his 1975 Apartments for the Affluent: A Historical Survey of Buildings in New York, that No. 129 is the oldest extant ‘genteel’ apartment house in the city,” writes Daytonian in Manhattan.
[Second photo: Berenice Abbott/NYPL, 1935]