Apartment Houses and French Flats

The city newspapers were full of real estate advertisements then, as they are now. With the development of apartment houses — some targeted for the very rich — a new vocabulary began to creep in.

These New York Times ads from 1882 are all for named buildings, which seems to have been a marketing strategy.

NYT Ads for Apartment Houses

Note that all of these ads speak in glowing terms of plumbing and steam heat, things we take for granted now. These buildings are all located in good or even excellent neighborhoods, and are priced accordingly. None of them are furnished.

In the decades after the Civil War the city’s population began to increase at an astounding rate, to the degree that  single family homes were soon out of the price range of everyone but the wealthiest.

French Flats: The St. George on 17th Street

French Flats: The St. George on 17th Street. Photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

While the kind of  tenements documented by Riis and others were  the way that the poor — especially the immigrant poor — lived, other kinds of housing were developing. Boarding houses became an institution; smaller, better built apartment buildings (walk-ups) made their appearance; residential hotels became popular with the thousands of single men who moved to the city to work.

There were a number of such hotels around Washington Square  Park, one of which — the Bendick on some maps, Benedick on others — was cleverly  named for the marriage-shy character in Much Ado about Nothing.

On the upper end of the economic scale, the French flat was coming into its own.

In the 1880s real estate developers began working hard to establish French flats as suitable and even desirable for the well-to-do. French flats were large, with luxuries like steam-heat and elevators, door bells and dumbwaiters. The more elegant (marble, exotic woods, stone sculptures, high ceilings) the higher the rent and the more likely to draw in upper class tenants. In today’s dollars, an eight room French flat would go for about $3,000 a month in 1883-1884.

The St. George Flats building was developed just off of stylish [[Stuyvesant Square]], and named for the church that dominated the neighborhood. The church was attended by some very prominent and rich people, and the developer grabbed onto those coattails. It worked pretty well, too. Six months after it opened for tenant occupancy all but one flat was leased.



W. J. Simonton whose father had been an agent for the Associated PressJohn L. Lockwood, who dealt in mineral waters; his wife, their  invalid son, Louis, and Jennie Wilson, a servant
H. W. Humphrey Cornelius Dubois, an insurance man;
United States Commissioner Timothy Griffiths, secretary to former Senator Roscoe Conkling, his wife (visitors on April 7) Walton Burgess
Kate Forsythe, an actress Edward Sandford, a laywer and son-in-law of former Governor John T. Hoffman
 A.R. Parsons organist of the Church of the Holy Trinity
William M. McPherson salesman with H. B. Claflin & Co. S. H. Gray of Heckler Brothers, flour millers
Dr. M. G. Raefle, former Deputy CoronerDr. J. R. Hobbie of the Health Department

The real estate developer was eloquent in his advertisements, promising every luxury and safety measure. He claimed that the St. George  was completely fire proof, a big selling point in a time and place when fire was something to be especially feared.

Except he neglected to insulate the steam pipes that heated the building, and in April of 1884, the St. George burned to the ground.  This incident plays a role in the sequel to The Gilded Hour.

More information/Resources:

Daytonian in Manhattan. June 10, 2014.  The 1883 St. George Residence — Nos. 223-225 East 17th Street.

Ephemeral New York. June 20, 2010. The Bachelor Apartments of Washington Square.

“A FLAT RUINED BY FIRE; NARROW ESCAPE OF THE INMATES OF THE ST. GEORGE. FLAMES CAUSING OVER $160,000 DAMAGE IN A BUILDING WHICH WAS REPRESENTED TO BE FIRE-PROOF.”  The New York Times. April 8, 1884. [At the time this entry was written, this article was available for free on the NYT website, here.]

“THE ST. GEORGE ROBBERIES.” The New York Times. April 11, 1884.

“THE ST. GEORGE FLATS FIRE.” The New York Times. April 16, 1884.

Architectural Detail, the St. George on 17th Street

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