From the Ansonia to the Trump SoHo: A History of Rule-Bending Residential Hotels

The Trump SoHo: a modern "apartment hotel" with a condo twist.

The Trump SoHo: a modern “apartment hotel” with a condo twist.

The Trump SoHo, the lone protrusion in an otherwise mid-rise Hudson Square, is one of the most controversial buildings in lower Manhattan—so controversial, in fact, that it helped inspire the neighborhood’s recently-passed rezoning. Built in an industrial and commercial zone, the tower styles itself as a “condo hotel” under a loophole worked out by the Bloomberg administration. While marketed as a condo building, buyers are technically not allowed to stay in their rooms for more than 120 days out of the year, or for more than 29 days out of any 36-day period.

But, as Andrew Berman at the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation pointed out to The Observer, these restrictions are basically unenforceable (the Department of Buildings’s press office didn’t know offhand if anyone’s ever gotten in trouble for violating these provisions, or if they’re even responsible for enforcement), and now Mr. Berman has noticed something strange: the city’s own tax lot data codes the property as “mixed residential and commercial buildings”—apparently a contravention of the zoning code.

Whatever way you look at it, Trump SoHo’s slippery zoning maneuver has an interesting historical parallel in Manhattan’s grand prewar “apartment hotels.”

According to the Tenement House Act of 1867, residential buildings were subject to certain constraints on height and lot coverage—constraints that large apartment buildings routinely violated. Some developers got out of these requirements by building co-operative buildings, without rental units, but others wanted to retain the revenue and control that came with rentals, while at the same time building larger structures than the tenement laws allowed.

And thus was born the “apartment hotel.”

“The developers of high-rise apartment buildings,” wrote Richard Plunz in A History of Housing in New York City, “tried to avoid the jurisdiction of the laws by calling their building ‘apartment-hotels,’ as hotels were clearly outside of tenement legislation”—essentially the prewar rental version of what Trump did with his SoHo condo tower.

The Ansonia never would have been allowed to be built if it hadn't lied about its hospitality. (Photo courtesy Flickr/wallyg.)

The Ansonia never would have been allowed to be built if it hadn’t lied about its hospitality. (Photo courtesy Flickr/wallyg.)

From the Ansonia on the Upper West Side to the Ritz Tower and the Sherry-Netherland on Park Avenue, some of Manhattan’s most illustrious buildings were constructed using this legal sleight of hand.

“The apartment hotel,” wrote New York Times‘s columnist Christopher Gray back in 1992, “was a widespread fiction of the period,” and “tenants in fact usually set up full kitchens in the serving pantries.” (One of the reasons that apartment hotels were allowed to be built more densely than their fully residential counterparts was that there would be no cooking—a fire hazard in those days—in the units.)

By the 1920s, though, the situation had become untenable. One apartment hotel at 37th Street and Lexington Avenue was taken to court by the city when, according to a Times write-up in 1926, “in the service pantries of more than half of the twenty apartments [the building inspector] found electric stoves, sinks, refrigerators and other cooking equipment, as well as foods.”

The developer of the Park Central Hotel Apartments argued for tolerance, telling the Times: “We are building monuments to the City of New York, and the taxes on these properties will be enormous. Each of these apartment hotels is a social community in itself, so that while we are increasing property values we are also developing something that is even finer—community spirit.”

In 1929, the loophole was finally closed, and “apartment hotels” were brought into the regulatory fold with the passage of the Multiple Dwellings Law.

Nearly a century later and with the explicit backing of city planners, Donald Trump, unlike early 20th century apartment hotel builders, had no need to appeal to New Yorkers’ civic mindedness. “I want to thank all the protesters outside,” he quipped as the building rose in 2007, “for making this project so successful.”