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The Perfect Apartment Building Is Hiding in Plain Sight

A century ago, unencumbered by zoning, developers built humane urban residences for the middle class.

One of the most significant consequences of the 1926 Euclid Supreme Court decision—which declared that the then relatively new practice of zoning ordinances was Constitutional—has been the ability of municipal governments to quash organic approaches to efficient land development. In many cases, this impulse has served a valuable function, allowing communities to protect themselves from nuisances, incompatible uses, and the damage wrought by bad development. But along with their clear benefits, it is important to note the potential costs of zoning policies that discourage efficient land use.

In their 2000 book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck note that between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of American families that could afford to purchase a median-priced home fell from 50 percent to just 25. During the same years, planners and others widely observed a troubling decline in the aesthetic design quality of new buildings and land uses, while lamenting the growing number of communities in which people cannot take part in basic, daily activities without a car. Significantly, a number of the contributing factors that have been cited for these trends have a common thread: a declining efficiency of land use.

Land-use efficiency has a long and practical history in town planning, beginning organically at the dawn of urban civilization, and refined in its method at least since the fifth century B.C., when Hippodamus planned the reconstruction of his native Miletus, after the Persian War. The goal of efficient land use was traditionally driven by the practical necessities of urban life in pre-industrial societies, where walking and animal use were the primary modes of mobility on land. Even with the advent of railroads in the nineteenth century, and the fast, long-distance travel that they facilitated, new towns were still built on a walkable scale—that is, their streets were laid out within walking distance of one another and the train station. Out of this practical necessity, a refined tradition developed that included resourceful devices for saving the valuable land near existing settlements, and for making the best use of the land that was already contained within them.

The industrial pollution and massive crowding of the late nineteenth century, followed by the individual freedom supplied by the automobile in the early twentieth, undermined the established, pragmatic rationales for maintaining the traditions of town planning: As cities became increasingly unpleasant, many individuals soon became free to leave them behind. In the United States, the Supreme Court’s 1926 decision in Euclid eliminated yet another support for traditional urban growth patterns: their legal inevitability. By empowering local governments to widely regulate the lawful uses of private property, the ability of individual land owners to maximize their use of every urban parcel was greatly abrogated. In Suburban Nation, Duany et al. point out two common, practical devices that fell out of favor due to their increasing illegality under Euclidian zoning regimes. The first is the age-old tradition of building inexpensive apartments over the retail space of business districts. Duany et al. write:

Upstairs apartments provide customers for the shops, activity for the streets, and nighttime surveillance for the neighborhood. They also represent one of the most economical ways to provide housing, since the land and infrastructure costs are covered by the shops; the housing can be supplied for the cost of construction alone. . . . Additionally, [housing over shopping] contributes much-needed height to retail buildings, which with only one story fail to adequately define street space.

In addition to separating what might be perfectly compatible uses, such as stores and apartments, Euclidean zoning laws have also frequently dictated that no more than one unit shall be permitted on a single lot. According to Duany, this policy has resulted in the elimination of so-called outbuilding apartments, such as those located above the garages of a detached carriage house, or those contained in a separate, smaller building, in the yard behind a primary house. Significantly, the elimination of such market-rate, affordable housing alternatives may have a doubly negative effect on the affordability of housing. By reducing the availability of new, affordable units, it has created greater competition for existing housing options.

In addition to quashing the potential for over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats, typical Euclidean zoning codes, in keeping with the language of Justice Sutherland’s opinion in the decision, often greatly constrain the development of multifamily buildings in areas beyond their immediate vicinity at the time of drafting. In the post-Euclid world, any significant changes to established land use policies generally require the highly-political, time consuming, and necessarily infrequent process of revising the official map. And in a typical zoning ordinance, each of the basic use-zones is further correlated with a schedule of so-called zone requirements. These rules typically mandate minimum lot widths, depths, and street frontages, as well as maximum lot coverages, numbers of units, and heights. While safety codes have long been used to regulate the height of urban construction, comprehensive zoning ordinances are often written in language that is so restrictive that it effectively precludes the potential for creativity by builders and architects. In short, the hands of developers are quite well tied by the common restrictions of Euclidean zoning.

The impact of Euclidean zoning on economic development is powerful: First, it ensures that the productive potential of a community’s land is controlled by legislative restrictions on both its use and its intensity of development. Up to a point, the prudent exercise of this power can be beneficial to local economies, especially where it protects local properties by averting the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses. But where the impact of zoning laws exceeds these practical goals, and results in the arbitrary exclusion of compatible uses, walkable neighborhoods, and decent, land-efficient housing, such laws can severely limit a community’s capacity for healthy economic development. And when zoning policies result in artificial shortages of necessary floor space, the resulting increase in costs can impose a high entry barrier on a local marketplace, and ensure that a larger portion of a community’s wealth must be spent on obtaining access to real estate, rather than be invested in more productive, dynamic sectors of the local economy.

In contrast to the patterns that develop under the legal and political restrictions of Euclidean land policies, the pre-zoning development patterns of late-Victorian New York City illustrate the trends that emerged in a metropolitan land economy that was driven mainly by the organic demands of the market, and large-scale adaptations of traditional town-planning devices. In the period between 1880 and 1930, when the available land in Manhattan (and, later, what would become the Bronx) was being increasingly built out with single-family brownstones, a continued demand for housing led to the gradual redevelopment of many townhouse neighborhoods with larger apartment buildings. The architects of these new buildings, who were often limited to a canvas of just a few attached lots, were required to find resourceful ways to create housing on limited parcels of land.

Accordingly, the housing stock of New York City that was built between 1880 and 1930 contains a wealth of examples of traditional land use efficiency. The buildings of that era occupied the entire spectrum of both practical and aesthetic possibilities, representing, as they did, the products of a largely unregulated urban land market awash in the tumult of industrial capitalism. In the years since the turn of the century, a number of reporters have thoroughly documented the deplorable conditions of the downtown tenements in Victorian New York, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the remarkable qualities of the city’s vast upper-middle-class apartment stock, which was beginning to take shape around the same time. The design and land use efficiency of these buildings, and the value that they concentrate on small parcels of private land, often compares quite favorably with the endless payout of strip malls, garden apartments, mundane architecture, and distorted housing costs that has accrued to much of the post-Euclid metropolitan landscape of the United States. While zoning remains a useful tool in the hands of local authorities, the argument for re-examining its standard applications, often made by New Urbanists like Duany, has grown increasingly strong.

Market-Based Efficient Land Use: Late Victorian New York City

The upper-middle-class apartment stock of New York City, dating from the late Victorian era, represents a unique historical intersection of traditional, pre-zoning, land efficient approaches to town planning, and the large-scale, extensive infrastructure of a modern urban economy. In light of the present situation, it is interesting to look more closely to the not-so-distant past, and to examine some of the better approaches to efficient metropolitan land development that were employed in that context. In 1892, a guidebook author, Moses King, published an extensive survey of the contemporary city of New York that continues to offer some of the clearest depictions and descriptions of American urbanism in the late years of the Victorian period. In a chapter discussing the city’s growing supply of middle-class apartment buildings, King offers a thoughtful analysis of the social and economic factors that had influenced the increasing respectability of apartment living. He writes:

Apartment houses, it has been said, hold more than half of the middle-class population of Manhattan Island. Real estate is so valuable, and consequently rents so high, that to occupy a house is quite beyond the reach of a family of ordinary means, and the suburbs on account of their inaccessibility are out of the question. Consequently, apartments and flats have become a necessity, and a system of living, originally adopted for that reason, has now become very much of a virtue. Apartment-life is popular and to a certain extent fashionable. Even society countenances it, and a brownstone front is no longer indispensable to at least moderate social standing. And as for wealthy folk who are not in society, they are taking more and more to apartments.

It was during this period that a sharp distinction began to emerge in the city’s apartment stock, with the traditional slum-tenement buildings on one side, and the new supply of well-appointed buildings on the other. Both made efficient use of land, but the former group took into account few other considerations, while the latter tried to balance efficient land use with an effort to meet the aesthetic expectations of more affluent tenants.

The differences between these two tranches of buildings highlight the inherent tension between the goals of achieving maximum land use efficiency and creating decent living spaces. In the pre-zoning days of the 1890s, developers of the two types of buildings became embroiled in battles over the character of individual blocks and neighborhoods. King describes the frontiers of class geography in 1892 Manhattan:

The tenements display the lowly side and often the dark side of New-York life. It is not possible to locate the tenement-house population within any closely defined limits. In general, it may be said to hold parts of nearly all the streets below 14th, except a part of the old Ninth Ward, which is distinctively the Native [-born] American section of the city, and in and about Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue, clinging to the river-front on either side, monopolizing almost entirely the East Side nearly over to Broadway. Above 14th Street on the East Side it is supreme east of Third Avenue as far as the Harlem River, with the exception of a part of lower Second Avenue and a few side-streets here and there. On the West Side it comes from the river-front as far east as Sixth Avenue, with oases of better homes here and there, and this as far north as about 59th Street. The territory above 59th Street to 125th Street has very little of this population. Tenement-houses are as a rule great towering buildings, many of them squalid and in bad repair, and devoid of any but the rudest arrangements for existence. They are packed with human beings. In a single block between Avenue В and Avenue С and 2d and 3d Streets there are over 3,500 residents, and a smaller block on Houston Street contains 3,000 people, which is at the rate of 1,000,000 to the square mile. That section is altogether populated at the rate of 500,000 to the square mile, which is as if the entire population of the city should be crowded into a space less than two miles square.

Presumably, it was with this landscape in mind that developers of new, upscale apartments sought to acquire land parcels further uptown, especially in the clean-slate blocks near Central Park, in Harlem and Washington Heights, and along the Grand Concourse. Many of their buildings took the spatial efficiency measures that had long been used in downtown tenements, and tempered them with a consciousness of form to create compact yet beautiful buildings.

The Classic Six

The New York Public Library maintains an extensive digital image database called “Classic Six: New York City Apartment Building Living, 1880-1910.” The name refers to the six-room layout that was typical in many of the city’s late Victorian apartment buildings, and the images are mostly scanned from The World’s New York Apartment House Album, an out-of-print volume that was published in 1910 by the New York World; and Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, a similar out-of-print album published two years earlier by G.C. Hesselgren & Company. Among the many plates are hundreds of color lithographs, depicting the footprints, floor plans, details, and dimensions of actual buildings that comprise the early portion of the iconic, pre-war apartment stock of the city.

These plans, which refer to bedrooms and living rooms as chambers and parlors, respectively, and which often provide for a maid’s room and a library in an otherwise modest unit, depict the urban American lifestyle of a lost time. Yet, in spite of their indulgence of dated pretensions and their frequently ornate details, these buildings contain a practical wisdom in their simple geometry, one that deserves to be recovered and applied in the contemporary search for efficient housing solutions. And, notably, like the over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats described by Duany, et al., many of these buildings’ most useful efficiency devices could never be reconciled with the typical zoning ordinances of contemporary suburbia.


One of the basic architectural features to be employed for spatial efficiency in the apartment buildings of the late Victorian period was the interior courtyard. By opening up the inside of the structure to air and light, internal rooms could be arranged to overlook a courtyard, and a larger portion of the lot could thus be covered with living space. As an added benefit, interior courtyards facilitated the aesthetic effect of having continuous façades along a street’s block face, creating a strong sense of intimately contained space on each block, and maintaining the enclosure that had previously been established by rows of attached brownstones. While the courtyard remains in use today, it is applied less frequently in the kinds of simple, basic buildings that it often enhanced a century ago. This has led to a loss of both aesthetic value and land-use efficiency in urban housing,

A good example of the ordinary application of the interior courtyard can be found in the layout of the Wadsworth Court, a six-story elevator building that was finished in 1909. Situated at the southwest corner of Wadsworth Avenue and West 180th Street, its modest, 100-by-75 foot lot is the land-use equivalent of just three standard row houses. But the Wadsworth accommodates five generously proportioned apartments on each of its upper five floors, and four large apartments, as well as a lobby and vestibule, on its ground floor. If one could presume that the chambers, maids’ rooms, and libraries of 1909 would today be, simply, bedrooms, then the Wadsworth layout manages to accommodate a total of 66 separate sleeping areas. And if a predictable portion of these are shared by couples, then the building provides enough space for about 100 people to live comfortably.

Plans showing the original layout of the Wadsworth Court. Source: NYPL Digital Archive

Today, few people who passed on the street would be likely to notice the Wadsworth as anything more extraordinary than a typical New York apartment building. In fact, its cornice is gone—replaced by mismatched bricks—and its paint is visibly fading. Its aging fire escapes have marked it for conflation with the tenements it was designed to contrast. But, in a way, its unremarkable present-day appearance is exactly what makes it interesting: These ordinary old buildings often contained simple design elements that have been shelved by subsequent generations of architects. Yet some of these devices might well be recovered in the contemporary quest to create more housing in dense metropolitan areas.

Knowlton Court, in Washington Heights: Broadway between 159th Street and West 158th Street, shown when new, in 1907 (top), and today (below). Source: NYPL Digital Archive (modified), and Google Street View.

Similar to interior courtyards, externally-oriented adaptations of the same principle were widely employed by architects of the period. Rather than being enclosed by four structural walls, exterior courtyards are generally open to the street, resulting in a building whose façade is visually separated into two or more arms. The deep setback created by this design might be furnished with landscaped gardens, paths, lamp posts, benches, and patio tables. Like the interior courtyard, the open courtyard allows a larger percentage of the building lot to be covered by extending the length of exterior walls, and providing the necessary geometry to gain greater access to light and air. Unlike the interior courtyard, it is generally less private, and it may or may not be gated from the street. A good example of two buildings whose design employs this device to maximize ground coverage can be found in Washington Heights, in a pair called the Knowlton Court. Occupying the entire east side of Broadway between West 158th and West 159th Streets, these buildings were constructed between 1907 and 1908. Together, they have four exterior courtyards, with two facing Broadway and one facing each of the cross streets. At seven stories, the Knowlton Court buildings provide at least 244 bedrooms on a parcel that measures 200 by 125 feet, or enough space to house about 300 people.

Yards, Alleys, and Airshafts

While courtyards offer a balance of function and form, providing both practical and aesthetic benefits to buildings in urban settings, their function alone can frequently be achieved on a smaller scale with more utilitarian applications of the same basic concept. Simple paved or unpaved yards, bounding alleyways, and airshafts can be designed into large apartment buildings to maximize lot coverage and provide at least a modicum of air and light to a large number of off-street rooms.

The Saxonia, at the corner of Broadway and West 136th Street in Hamilton Heights, Harlem, shown as a new building in 1907. Source: NYPL Digital Archive

A good example of the judicious application of such devices can still be found at the Saxonia, in Harlem. Designed by the architects of Neville & Bagge, the building opened in 1907 at the northwest corner of Broadway and West 136th Street, in an enclave known as Hamilton Heights. A six-story, elevator building with extensive ground floor retail space, the Saxonia capitalized on its proximity to the new City College campus, which also opened in 1907, and to the simultaneously-constructed IRT subway station at the corner of Broadway and West 137th  Street. With a façade that wraps around its block face on both streets, the retail spaces are arranged to open on Broadway, while the building’s residential lobby is entered through a vestibule on the cross street. Neville achieved internal space efficiency through a variety of devices, including both interior and exterior courtyards, an oversized airshaft (providing air and light to a number of the tenants’ bathrooms), and a narrow setback from each of the interior property lines to create bounding alleyways, which are faced with windows and fire escapes. In this way, despite being situated on a lot that measures only 100 by 100 feet, or the equivalent of just four row houses, the architects were able to provide for at least 100 bedrooms on the upper five floors, as well as seven retail stores and a superintendent’s apartment on the ground level.

Similarly, in west Midtown, the architects of the Summersby Apartments achieved an even greater efficiency with just a 50-foot lot. Their seven-story building, located on West 56th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, opened in 1910. Its façade is attached to those on either side, creating the aesthetic of a continuous streetscape, but the building edges are stepped in at a depth of 20 feet, to create a pair of narrow bounding alleys that run to the back of the structure. There, these spaces are connected by a small, paved yard that adjoins the similar yards of adjacent buildings. The crevasses of light and air thus provided are used as facings for the placement of windows and exterior fire escapes, and they allow for an astonishing eighty percent of the Summersby’s lot width to be covered with livable floor space. As a result, space enough for at least 68 bedrooms is provided in just seven stories on the land that would be required for just two standard row houses. Admittedly, the actual light and air enjoyed by many rooms under such a design is minimal. But the building’s description in the Album indicates that, even in 1910, there was a market for apartments that traded aesthetics for access to Midtown:

The Summersby is a splendidly built, fireproof apartment house, with elevator service and telephone in each apartment. The highest degree of efficiency is demanded of the superintendent and uniformed hallboys. Tenants are selected with great care, and each apartment has the advantages of a private house.

Surprisingly, in light of today’s Manhattan land costs, the building was designed to have just two large apartments on each floor. Clearly, in the alternative, a number of smaller units could be carved out of the same space to provide more housing at lower price points to smaller households.

The Legacy of Late Victorian Urban Design

The approaches applied by the architects of the buildings described above are not especially unique. Instead, they are examples of routine design elements employed in the kinds of typical, middle-class and upscale apartment houses that were built in New York City around the turn of the twentieth century. For better and for worse, these devices were applied in thousands of buildings to achieve a higher density of residential space on limited parcels of land. Late Victorian urban design employed a much greater intricacy in its building devices than the majority of today’s apartment buildings. Many of these devices continue to haunt the collective consciousness that Americans have of old city buildings: long, echoing hallways, precarious fire escapes, dim alleys, and dark, paved yards. The hard times that fell on many urban neighborhoods in the late-twentieth century further colored the perception of these devices, as their inherent creation of mystery, density, and intricacy seemed terribly ill-suited for a world of crime, poverty, pervasive danger, and neglected maintenance. Yet, some of the period’s classic devices, like landscaped courtyards, grand lobbies, sunken living rooms, high ceilings, and transom windows are remembered much more fondly, and are still admired for the aesthetic grace that they add to the older buildings—almost to the point of obscuring their practical purposes. Yet, all of this complexity, both good and bad, was built with a small toolbox of simple, geometrical adaptations that allowed for the very efficient use of limited land.

In the years after World War II, as the patchwork of postwar America developed from the application of traditional Euclidean zoning, much of the resourceful wisdom and intricate variety of urban America began to unravel under a legal regime whose mandatory, broad brushstrokes pushed builders, architects, and even small-scale private landowners in entirely new directions. As New Urbanist writers like Duany have frequently observed, post-war land development was largely removed from the historical, practical, and aesthetic contexts of traditional approaches to town planning, and the consequences of this fundamental shift can be perceived in the strip malls, garden apartments, stunted design quality, wasted land, car dependence, and distorted housing that now characterize much of the American landscape. But, in spite of this, the conventional wisdom at the heart of land-use zoning retains a broad and powerful appeal: Most people recognize that the authority that has been delegated to local governments, pursuant to Euclid, has allowed many communities to protect themselves and the economic value of their properties from the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses, each of which has the potential to blight the landscape in a nearly permanent way.

While the potential value of land use zoning is evident, it is interesting to consider whether some of the architectural devices that were employed in New York City before its advent might be recovered and applied to address today’s planning challenges across the United States. A recovery of certain design elements from that time would hold the promise of influencing a wider recovery of land-use efficiency in metropolitan housing. This would be broadly consistent with the sustainable goals of economic development, ecological stewardship, and social equity, for many of the reasons discussed above. As we revise the calcifying approaches to Euclidian zoning, and seek to increase housing stocks without destroying the complex fabric of existing neighborhoods, we should look to the intricacy of New York City’s late-Victorian approach to apartment building. We might find it contains a number of valuable secrets, hidden in plain view.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack



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