Victorian whimsy

This weird and lovely apartment at 21 East 21st Street in New York dates from a time when apartment buildings were a new thing. Very long and narrow, trying hard to make the best out of the 25 by 100 feet plot.

Floor plan at 21 East 21st Street

Designed by Bruce Price in 1878, advertised seducingly as “french flats”, this is one of New York’s oldest apartment buildings. It is one of the first serious attempts to rethink middle class urban living and is as a strange combination of  Victorian representational stiffness and modern convenience – and has the longest corridor I have ever seen.

Unlike tenements, apartment buildings were designed for the affluent middle class and the architects tried hard to fit the bourgeois lifestyle into completely new surroundings. The traditional house was squeezed to only one floor on a long and narrow plot where getting natural light inside the building dictated much of the floor plan. But elevators, running water, sanitation and central heating were new conveniences that made living in the same house with strangers appealing and the address made it fashionable.

The large light rooms in the front – anteroom, parlor, dining room and big chamber – are rooms that are mainly used for entertaining guests, to have sunday dinner and maybe smoking a cigar. Behind them along the long corridor is the whole private sphere of the home: bedchambers, bathroom, kitchen and service spaces. These rooms open only to tiny courtyards or rather large air shafts in the back yard.

The emphasis put on representation and not on living comfort seems strange to a modern viewer. But the impracticality of the apartment creates infinite possibilities of living in my mind: three identical rooms that can be separated or joined according to need, the sense of space in the long corridor with light filtering in at both ends, all the things I could do in a room called parlor…

To my surprise the building is still standing. The AIA Guide describes its exterior architecture as “a marvellous example of late Victorian whimsy” and it now houses 26 apartments instead of the original five. I could only visit it via Google Street View and in its present state it looks small and ordinary, its whimsy only visible to the ones who know where to look.

Current Google Street View
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