The (Very) Best-Laid Plans: Deliciously Wasteful Prewar Design on the Upper East Side

A 1920s floor plan of a unit at 655 Park Avenue. (Courtesy of the New York Real Estate Brochure Collection, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University)

Floor-plan porn. Call it a New Yorker’s special guilty pleasure, at least when it comes to real estate. There’s nothing more enticing than studying the layouts of luxury apartments, tracing how architects once divvied up thousands of square feet. When it comes to this kind of construction—as opposed to the cramped apartments the rest of New York lives in—the placement of each bedroom, hallway, bathroom, library, maid’s room, staircase and foyer matters, a lot. If you can’t afford to live there, at least you can meticulously review the blueprint.

Nowhere is floor-plan porn more satisfying than the Upper East Side, once ground zero for the city’s most prominent residential architects, who designed buildings comprised essentially of stacked mansions. As each building rapidly rose from the 1910s throughout the 1920s, families like the Rockefellers and Astors moved in, occupying apartments containing as much as 20,000 square feet and 37 rooms. (Those were, in fact, the specs of John D. Rockefeller’s apartment at 740 Park, now a storied Upper East Side co-op.) But a shift in lifestyle since the 1920s, not to mention a current luxury market dominated by glass facades and open floor plans, has left an impact on classic floor plans of powerhouse buildings lining Park and Fifth Avenues.

Apartment buildings weren’t always the residence of choice for wealthy New Yorkers. In fact, real estate developers had to convince them to abandon their mansions to live there. 998 Fifth Avenue, a 17-unit building designed by McKim, Mead and White, is largely credited with convincing the city’s elite that apartments were acceptable places to live, according to Carter Horsley, a former architecture journalist and current editorial director of real estate website CityRealty. (On the West Side, that role had earlier been played by the Dakota.) These sprawling, elegant apartments, with wine rooms, elevators paneled in French walnut, seven bedrooms and at least six servants’ rooms, filled a gap in the market: residences befitting the wealthy but without the exhausting five-story climb endemic to single-family mansions—and without the cost of maintaining them.

Upon 998 Fifth’s opening in 1912, apartments were offered at rents up to $25,000 a year apiece. They rented quickly, housing the likes of Murray Guggenheim and a granddaughter of

20 East End Avenue offers floor plans reminiscent of those of the grand buildings of the early 20th century.

20 East End Avenue offers floor plans reminiscent of those of the grand buildings of the early 20th century.

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. “The building became so popular, other apartment buildings of that style were replicated,” said Mr. Horsley.

The introduction of the luxury apartment coincided with the emergence of the Upper East Side as a desirable neighborhood. Between 1903 and 1913, the old Grand Central Depot train station was demolished and replaced with current-day Grand Central Terminal. The switch from steam locomotives, which operated noisily above ground and took up lots of land, to underground electric trains freed up once-undesirable Park Avenue to become prime (and picturesque) New York City real estate.

And so, taking off in the 1920s, New York saw an unprecedented boom of luxury apartment development there.

Three great residential architects emerged in that time, according to Mr. Horsley: J.E.R. Carpenter, Rosario Candela and Emery Roth. Their grand Upper East Side apartment buildings often appeared nondescript on the outside, but the interiors were pure luxury. While Carpenter is credited for paving the way in luxury apartment development along Fifth Avenue, and Roth designed greats on both the East and West Sides (including the iconic San Remo towers on Central Park West), Candela is the one often hailed as the master of floor plans.

The immigrant son of a Sicilian plasterer, Candela distinguished himself in 1927 as the architect of 960 Fifth Avenue—a building The New York Times then called “literally…12 mansions built one on top another.” One apartment, on the 10th and part of the 11th floor, contained 17 rooms, including a two-story high, 60-by-25-foot living room that was said to the grandest in any American apartment.

By 1929, Candela was working on 27 different projects, including the iconic apartment buildings 740, 770 and 778 Park. In each, utmost attention was paid to the floor plans, distinguished by symmetry, spaciousness, high ceilings and light. “The floor plan was about the flow,” said Mr. Horsley. “How the foyer leads to the living room, which is connected to the dining room, which is off the kitchen, near the pantry and then the maid’s room.”

“The floor plan was about the flow,” said Mr. Horsley. “How the foyer leads to the living room, which is connected to the dining room, which is off the kitchen, near the pantry and then the maid’s room.”

There were “public” and “private” spaces—the living and dining rooms were designed for public entertainment, but the utilitarian kitchen and servant quarters were private and not meant to be seen by guests. “To have an open dining room in view of the kitchen would be considered low class,” Mr. Horsley said.

A 1926 New York Times article titled “New York Now Has Mansions in Flats,” described the uniqueness of apartments: “In the latest of cooperatives no two apartments are exactly alike… It is no uncommon thing to have the purchaser refuse to buy until he is assured that the paneling on his library walls can be removed to the apartment he has under consideration.” The article went on to describe Mrs. William Vanderbilt’s apartment at 660 Park: “Her salon will be 46 by 22 feet, her dining room almost as large, and her library 23 feet long and 18 feet wide. Dressing rooms will be conveniently placed. The ‘little house’ will be provided with seven master bedrooms.” An apartment designed for Mr. and Mrs. John North Willys at 820 Fifth catered to the couple’s art collection: “The salon is large enough to contain without crowding a Rembrandt, a Frans Hals, a Velásquez and other old masters.” As for the library, “The bookcases are set into its paneled walls, leaving sufficient room for three masterpieces.”  

PHOTO: Courtesy Warburg Realty

PHOTO: Courtesy Warburg Realty

Apartments were notable for “wasted space,” meaning extra-large foyers, linen rooms and butler’s pantries. Apartments at 770 Park came with a room where garbage pails could be steam cleaned. (Because, really, why not?) Frederick Peters, president of Warburg Realty and a self-proclaimed floor-plan fanatic, praised the large, rounded foyers at 635 and 580 Park. “The foyer experience creates the apartment,” he said. “You have spaciousness in front of you instead of a cramped little nothing.”

Although not in a Candela building, the penthouse at 1107 Fifth Avenue took the cake for luxurious wasted space. It was designed for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton, who lived in the mansion that would need to be replaced to build 1107 Fifth. She sold her home only after being promised it would be re-created on the top three floors of the building. The 54-room apartment had a wraparound terrace, 17 bathrooms, two kitchens, a breakfast room, a wood-paneled dining room large enough to hold 125 guests, a silver room, a bakery, a cold-storage room for flowers and furs, a linen room, a wine room, a pair of coatrooms for men and women, a gown closet, a playroom and dozens of staff bedrooms and workrooms for valets. The triplex, originally a rental, was carved into six co-op apartments in the 1950s.

The Crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression slowed the luxury development boom in the Upper East Side. But much of what was built in that time still stands. These buildings, some originally designed as rentals, have all since been converted into the most exclusive co-op buildings in the city.

“These apartments still sell at a premium,” said Wendy Greenbaum, a broker at Warburg currently marketing an $11.5 million co-op at 1185 Park Avenue. She believes luxury buyers often “make their mind up in advance” if they want an old-world co-op or a new condo in a luxury skyscraper. “Co-ops are not priced as high as condos, and this difference reflects the type of ownership,” she said. (According to CityRealty, there are currently 294 co-ops with three or more bedrooms on the market in the Upper East Side with an average asking price of $6.3 million. Asking prices on Upper East Side condos with three or more bedrooms average at $6.6 million.)  

Co-op shoppers also have to face the elite co-op boards of the Upper East Side, notorious for turning down potential buyers (see “Social Anxiety,” page 38). 740 Park, famous for its billionaire residents, has rejected the likes of Barbra Streisand and Barbara Walters. Co-op buildings also have much stricter post-sale rules than condos—restrictions on renovations among them. “You’re buying into a lifestyle,” said Corcoran broker Tom DiDomenico, currently marketing a $7.25 million co-op at 1120 Fifth Avenue.

And yet these grand residences often warrant renovation—lifestyle habits and needs have certainly changed over the past century. “It’s almost a given that they’re going to renovate,” said Ms. Greenbaum of today’s buyers. The distinction between private and public space is no longer a priority—buyers prefer more open floor plans with accessible kitchens, said both brokers. Servants’ quarters are no longer high priority. At the apartment Ms. Greenbaum represents at 1185 Park, the owners sacrificed a maid’s room to expand and reposition the kitchen. Buyers also tend to want more or larger bathrooms than offered in the original floor plan. At 1185 Park, those same owners combined two smaller bathrooms to make a large master bath.

“Buyers are often surprised how difficult it can be to renovate these co-op apartments,” said Greta Weil, partner at Weil Friedman Architects, a firm based on the Upper East Side. “Completely open floor plans are almost impossible in this neighborhood.”

But getting exactly what you want is rare. “Buyers are often surprised how difficult it can be to renovate these co-op apartments,” said Greta Weil, partner at Weil Friedman Architects, a firm based on the Upper East Side. “Completely open floor plans are almost impossible in this neighborhood,” she said. Co-op restrictions, combined with plumbing configurations of old buildings, and such intentional original floor plans are all challenges, she noted. “We try to temper modernizations with the beauty of the original layout.”

Present-day developers who combine the grandeur of the old layouts with modernizations tend to meet demand. When a 30-unit condo development 135 East 79th Street hit the market in 2012, buyers quickly snatched up units with floor plans reminiscent of Candela’s: multiple bedrooms, spacious living rooms, long hallways. “Before we started building, we interviewed our friends, ranging from their early thirties to empty nesters,” said Thomas Brodsky, principal at the Brodsky Organization, the building’s developer. “We wanted to know if they preferred the classical or the open layout. We found their responses to be an even mix.”

PHOTO: Courtesy The Corcoran Group

PHOTO: Courtesy The Corcoran Group

So Brodsky compromised, offering classic layouts, with dedicated rooms fit for formal entertaining on the east side of the building, and modern layouts, with open rooms and eat-in kitchens, on the west side. (Some units with classic layouts employed a modern twist on the “wasted space” idea with a flower-cutting sink or space for a mirror and desk off the powder room.)

Manhattan-based developer Corigin is also focusing on classic design at 20 East End Avenue, an 18-story, 43-unit condo now under construction in an otherwise low-key neighborhood. “In our research, we found these Carpenter and Candela buildings still command a high price per square foot, even if they need renovations,” said Corigin President Edward Baquero. The firm hired Robert A.M. Stern, whose aesthetic veers decidedly toward the classical (15 Central Park West and 30 Park Place, among other commissions), to create apartments with two to six bedrooms, large foyers, private terraces, fireplaces and butler’s pantries. Prices currently go up to $12 million for a four-bedroom unit.

The building’s amenities package aims to “create a club environment,” said Mr. Baquero. “In a 20-room apartment at 120 East End, there was a ballroom, library, music room, billiards room, wine cellar,” he said. “We wanted to replicate that, but as a common element for apartment owners, maintained by the building.” There will also be a gated porte-cochère entrance leading into a motor court with a cobblestone road.

Mr. Baquero called the design process with Mr. Stern “rigorous,” but he’s not sorry they decided to take it on. “You just know when you walk into those 1920s apartments,” he said. “It’s subtle, and no one knows why, but it feels great. There’s a warmth and elegance that makes it feel like home.”

He continued, sounding like every New Yorker who has fallen in love with the great architecture of yore: “What’s mass-produced today just doesn’t have that feeling anymore.”