APARTMENT HOUSES. Although the term "apartment" is an American invention from the late nineteenth century, Americans were slow to accept this style of multi-unit, horizontal living.
In Europe, the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century boosted the popularity of multi-family buildings, by offering convenient, affordable, and fashionable
housing for the burgeoning urban middle and upper classes. This was particularly true in Paris and Vienna.
Parisians had embraced apartment living since the seventeenth century. In a multi-use pattern that would gain popularity in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, a typical French apartment house included a street level with commercial tenants and residential apartments on the upper floors. In this pre-elevator era, wealthier tenants lived on the first floor level, or bel étage, above a mezzanine, or entresol, and the higher the level, the more modest the apartment. Attic space bedrooms were reserved for servants.
With the exception of Scotland, where private "flats" (from the Scottish word, "flaet" meaning "story" or "floor") for Edinburgh's wealthy classes dated back to the sixteenth century, Britain's middle and upper classes shunned multi-unit living until the early twentieth century.
"French Flats" in America
Nineteenth-century middle-class Americans preferred a private, multi-story, detached house to a one-level flat in a building shared with strangers. Until the late nineteenth century, multi-unit housing was also tinged by the image of "tenements," multi-unit residences for working class and immigrant families.
Rising costs for urban property after the Civil War prompted builders to market apartments as a respectable alternative to boarding houses. These early apartments were modeled after Parisian apartments and were referred to as "French flats" to distinguish them from tenements. One of the earliest was the 1869 Stuyvesant Apartments on East Eighteenth Street in Manhattan, designed by the Paris-trained American architect Richard Morris Hunt.
Architects adapted French flats to American middle-class requirements with modern plumbing, bedroom closets, storage space, and large, fully equipped kitchens. By the 1870s, the urban housing crunch created such a boom in apartment house construction that, in Manhattan, alone, 112 apartment houses were built in 1875.
By the 1880s, apartment living not only had shed its negative connotations, but also had become a fashionable choice for wealthy families in search of luxury living at prestigious urban addresses. The introduction of the first electric elevators in the late 1880s, along with fireproof steel frame construction, pushed apartment houses skyward from their previous six-and seven-story limits.
Manhattan's Central Park, opened to the public in 1859, created a boom in luxury apartment buildings along the park's western edge. The most famous was the Dakota at Seventy-second Street and Central Park West, completed in 1884. With its sixty-five suites, some with as many as twenty rooms, the Dakota came with a wine cellar, a gymnasium, and croquet and tennis courts, and included central heating, elevator service, and its own electric generator.
Apartments Come of Age
By 1900, more than 75 percent of urban Americans were living in apartments. Apartments served as a second residence for many wealthy Americans and offered a convenient, respectable, and safe residence near work for urban singles and middle-class families. San Francisco's Tenderloin district, then a middle-class neighborhood with residential hotels and apartment houses, was popularly known as "the apartment house district."
In the 1920s, when the majority of Americans were living in cities, architects were designing apartments for a variety of family sizes, needs, and budgets. These included one-room "efficiency" and "bachelor" apartments, walkup apartments, apartments with elevators, and apartment hotels, residential hotels offering meals for long-term tenants, an adaptation of London's "catering flats."
The 1920s also witnessed a boom in luxury, high-rise apartment buildings. Wealthy New Yorkers began buying luxury "cooperative" apartments, a concept first introduced in the early 1880s as "home clubs" by New Yorker Philip G. Hubert. New York was also home to the first combination loft living spaces, called "studio apartments," for artists. In the 1950s, loft living in lower Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood became the model for late-twentieth-century conversions.
As middle-class families began moving into the suburbs, developers followed with "garden apartments" that included landscaped courtyards. In the late 1920s and 1930s, architects also added "modern" decorative elements and tropical-inspired hues to apartment house exteriors, later coined "Art Deco." One of the most famous clusters was built in the new resort of Miami Beach. The city's Art Deco district is on the National Register of Historic Places.
When high-speed elevators were introduced in the 1950s, apartment towers brought apartment living to new levels. One of the earliest luxury residential towers in the
United States was Mies van der Rohe's project on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Constructed in 1950 and 1951, the twenty-six-story, twin, steel and glass towers set the tone for apartment building construction over the next two decades.
Self-contained cities, luxury residential towers included shops, banks, and restaurants on the lower levels. Apartment towers for middle-class tenants followed suit. One of the prime examples is Lefrak City in Queens, New York, built from 1960 to 1968. Advertised as having "unprecedented amenities for the era," the complex included 5,000 apartments in twenty eighteen-story towers and offered air-conditioning, tennis courts, a pool, a playground, and a post office.
Isolated apartment towers did not work for subsidized public housing, however, evidenced by the failed "urban renewal" projects of the 1950s. Envisioned as improvements over the decaying row houses and boarding houses they replaced, many have been torn down to be replaced by multi-use, low-level residences.
Recycling Older Models
Today, apartments continue to meet Americans' changing housing needs, as the numbers of singles, divorced, childless couples, and older Americans grow. Since the 1980s, condominiums have satisfied the need for maintenance-free homeownership. Commuter-weary suburbanites are moving into urban loft units in converted retail and industrial buildings. In Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mills have been turned into subsidized housing for low-income and senior tenants. In Richmond, Virginia, developers are converting tobacco warehouses and dairies into luxury rental units.
As Americans are living longer, the demand for retirement and independent living apartments has skyrocketed. This may inspire the next wave in innovative apartment design, as the post-World War II generation moves in.
Cromley, Elizabeth C. Alone Together: A History of New York's Early Apartments. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Rybczynski, Witold. City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World. New York: Scribner, 1995.
Sandweiss, Eric. "Building for Downtown Living: The Residential Architecture of San Francisco's Tenderloin." In Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Edited by Thomas Carter and Bernard L. Herman. Vol. 3. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Schoenauer, Norbert. 6,000 Years of Housing. Revised ed. New York: Norton, 2000.
Geist & and Kurvers (1989);
a·part·ment / əˈpärtmənt/ (abbr.: apt.) • n. a suite of rooms forming one residence, typically in a building containing a number of these. ∎ a large building containing such suites; an apartment building. ∎ (apartments) a suite of rooms in a very large or grand house set aside for the private use of a monarch or noble: the Imperial apartments.ORIGIN: mid 17th cent. (denoting a suite of rooms for the use of a particular person or group): from French appartement, from Italian appartamento, from appartare ‘to separate,’ from a parte ‘apart.’