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

Boarding Houses

boarding house ads 1883Looking for a Place to Live

Classified ads in the 1880s will make it clear how wide-spread and well established boarding house economy was.   There were  ads in every edition of every paper for decades. From Gamber’s excellent historical study:

[,,,]  if the nineteenth century was the golden age of the bourgeois home, it was also the age of the boarding house. In cities and many towns, people of all classes were at least as likely to live in boarding houses as in homes. What historians call the market revolution, a series of related developments that included the expansion of commercial agriculture, the beginnings of industrialization, the emergence of a working class dependent on wages, the rise of a salaried white-collar middle class, and massive urban growth, could never have been accomplished without boardinghouses and the labor of those who kept them. (Gamber)


A case study

The Life and Times of E.J. Phillips is a website dedicated to documenting the way a stage actress made a life and a career for herself between the 1870s and 1890s. By working the way through her letters, an unusually detailed picture emerges.

The information on housekeeping and boarding house life is especially interesting.

Letters written to her son reveal a lot about costs:

“A new agent called for the rent yesterday, and said when our lease expired in May that the rent would be $45 and they would like to know as early as possible if we intended remaining. Hattie told him that we could not tell before April whether we should or not remain.”

Broadway between 41st and 42nd Streets. “I arrived 10:30 Sunday night and came with Mr and Mrs. Massen to this hotel where Mr. Massen thought, and tried to make terms for me, but in vain. Everything is too high for me. Nothing less than $25 per week that would be fit to live in.”

Especially interesting is this Google map that takes you on a walking tour of  Manhattan as E.J. Phillips experienced it.

The Un-advertised

Boarding or lodging houses were also popular in the poorest neighborhoods, but these were not advertised in the paper. Note that the excerpt below mentions only men in connection with these lodging houses, and the price — ten cents or less (in 1868) to stay overnight in a communal room.

Source: McCabe, James Dabney, and Charles Lawson. 1868. The Secrets of the Great City; a Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City. Philadelphia: Jones Brothers, 345-346.

The Bowery and eastern section of the city are full of cheap lodging houses, which form a peculiar feature of city life. There is a very large and increasing class of vagrants who live from hand to mouth, and who, beneath the dignity of the lowest grade of boarding houses, find a nightly abode in cheap lodgings. These establishments are planned so as to afford the greatest accommodation in point of numbers with the least in point of comfort.

The halls or rather passages are narrow, and the rooms are small, dark, dirty and infested with vermin. The bedding consists of a straw pallet and coarse sheets, and a coverlet of a quality too poor to be an object of luxury. In some houses no sheets or coverlet are afforded, but even with the best of these accommodations the lodger suffers from cold in the winter, while in the summer he is devoured with bed-bugs.

For such accommodations in a room which half a dozen may share, the lodger pays ten cents, though it is said there is a lower depth where they sleep on the floor and pay half the above-mentioned price. The profit of this business may be inferred from the fact that one hundred and fifty lodgings, and in some cases a much larger number, are sold by each house, making a net receipt of $15 per night, to which is to be added the profits of a bar, where the vilest whiskey is retailed in ‘dime nips.’ The business of a lodging house seldom commences before ten o’clock, and its greatest rush is just after the closing of the theatres; but all through the night, till three o’clock in the morning, they are receiving such of the outcast population as can offer the price of a bed.

To any one interested in the misery of the city, the array presented on such an occasion is very striking. One sees every variety of character, runaway boys, truant apprentices, drunken mechanics and broken-down mankind generally.Among these are men who have seen better days. They are decayed gentlemen who appear regularly in Wall street, and eke out the day by such petty business as they may get hold of, and are lucky if they can make enough to carry them through the night.

In all lodging houses the rule holds good ‘first come, first served’ and the last man in the room gets the worst spot. Each one sleeps with his clothes on and his hat under his head to keep it from being stolen. At eight o’clock in the morning all over-sleepers are awakened and the rooms got ready for the coming night. No one is allowed to take anything away, and if the lodger has a parcel be is required to leave it at the bar. This prevents the theft of bed-clothes.

As the expenses connected with lodging houses are very light, they are generally profitable, and in some instances large fortunes have been made at the business. The one recently burned was a correct illustration of the vices and miseries of the poor; a lodging house up stairs and in the basement a concert saloon, so that the poverty engendered by the one could be sheltered by the other.

Truth in Jest

From Gunn 1857: His take on the women who ran boarding houses.
From Gunn 1857: His take on the women who ran boarding houses.

Gunn’s 1857 The Physiology of New York Boarding-houses isn’t scholarly and doesn’t pretend to be objective. He spends a great deal of time mocking what was wrong with boarding-houses (with humorous illustrations), and as a result a pretty clear picture emerges. Here is a composite of boarding-house landladies, as he sees them. In contrast, see Gamber’s Chapter 3: “The Most Cruel and Thankless Way a Woman Can Earn Her Living.”

 The Layout of a Converted Boarding House

The following illustration is from Groth 1994.


Second-floor plan for a conjectural conversion of a large single-family row house into a rooming house. Shaded areas indicate where thin walls have been added to cut up the large rooms of this 1840s house. The warren of five rooms at the front was constructed from the two former principal bedrooms and their closets.

[zotpress items=”5J2XNHIQ,FVH2SBVE” style=”apa”] From Inside the Apple: The Era of New York City Boarding Houses


Mulberry Bend, ca 1890
Mulberry Bend, ca 1890. Click for larger size.

The government of the city knew about the connection between poor health and poverty, and they knew too that the biggest part of the problem was the unsanitary conditions in tenement districts where almost all newly arrived immigrants found themselves. As is still the case, slum landlords were  adept at evading the law, and the city government was complicit.

New York Times
September 20, 1883

Miss Helen Potter telling of the needs of the tenement-house occupants.

… addressed the Senate Committee on Labor and Education yesterday… Miss Potter gave some facts as to the sanitary condition of the poor classes which have been noted during her visits. Among them the greatest evil — the one most common in the tenement house district– was a lack of water which could rarely be had in many districts above the second story of the houses.  With such poor facilities it was almost impossible for tenants to get a supply sufficient for personal uses, and wholly out of the question to obtain sufficient to wash floors, etc. Miss Potter cited a number of cases of this kind and asserted that bad drainage and sewerage, the lack of pure water, and the huddling together of large numbers of families in crowded tenements was having its effect is ruining the health and increasing the death-rate of the city.  …

Sanitary Map and Report, Fourth Ward

The Sanitary Map and Social Chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York was published in 1866 along with a detailed report on  living conditions. It is, of course, twenty years earlier than the events in The Gilded Hour, but the amount and quality of information is excellent and relevant.

Report of the 4th Sanitary Inspection District made to the Council of Hygiene of the Citizen’s Association by E.R. Pulling, M.D., assisted by F. J. Randall. Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of the New York Upon the Sanitary Condition of the City, second edition. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1866.

The website The Fourth Ward: Life and Death in New York, 1860-70 (the work of  Peter Baldwin at the University of Connecticut) includes the entire 1866 report with additional materials including high resolution, annotated images of the map itself. A short excerpt:

insalubrious district
click for a full-sized image

The diagram on the opposite page represents an area eighty yards long and fifty yards wide, including the cul-de-sac at the termination of Cliff Street. It illustrates the proximity to crowded habitations of offensive and dangerous nuisances, often observed in the lower part of the city. The diagram presents an accurate ground plan of each tenant-house which it embraces. Within this space are 20 dwellings occupied by 111 families, and having a population of 538 persons. A soap-and-candle factory, a tannery, and five stables, in which are kept not less than 30 horses, are also wholly or partially included within its limits.

A, B, C, D, E, are tenant-houses fronting on Vandewater Street. An alley four feet wide running through C forms the sole communication with the five tenant-houses F, G, H, I, J, which open into the small court R, in which stands their common privy, f, situated within three feet of the hall door of one of the houses, which is constantly pervaded by its noisome odor; c, d, e are privies situated immediately under the windows of houses F, G, H; a, b are privies belonging to the tenant-houses A and B; K, L,M, N, are tenant-houses standing back to back with two of those in the court above mentioned and with three stables to which access is had from Vandewater Street. The position of two stables fronting on Cliff Street will also be observed. The soap-and-candle factory, whose frontage is shown in the cut, is a very extensive one, and its emanations vitiate the atmosphere for a considerable space around.

T, T, T, represent a series of tan vats, in the rear of a leather factory on Frankfort Street, which generally contain a large number of green hides in a very offensive condition. The peculiar stench from this source is usually quite perceptible through the entire area shown in the engraving.

Insalubrious: Unhealthful, not providing or promoting health.

This locality lies on the borders of a former marsh known as “Beekman’s Swamp.” The appearance of every inhabitant of this region indicates a low and vitiated condition of the system, rendering it specially susceptible to adynamic forms of fever, which, during epidemic visitations, have on several occasions spread with terrific rapidity through the entire quarter. Typhus fever has prevailed during the past year to a considerable extent in some of these houses, while small-pox has been rife in the tenant-houses on Vandewater Street. It has been observed that scarlatina is especially malignant and fatal here.

In these reports neighborhoods that were sanitation disasters were labeled ‘insalubrious districts’. The report was written more than twenty years before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, but the worst neighborhoods remained exactly as they had been.

Insalubrious Districts
Insalubrious Districts


Recent immigrants were the most likely residents in these tenements.

Photo by Jacob Riis
Photo by Jacob Riis