When one thinks of living in New York City, apartment living is the default – and in fact the majority of New Yorkers do live in multi-occupant housing, ranging from luxury high rises in Manhattan to duplexes in College Point, Queens. However, apartment living is a relatively recent development in NYC history, and even today there are single-family townhouses (and even a handful of outright mansions) available in the city. What’s the definition of a townhouse versus a mansion? Well, there firm criteria do not exist, but a townhouse 25 feet wide or wider starts to be under consideration as a mansion, particularly if the façade is limestone and the overall square footage is 10,000 or above. (Also, you will know it when you see it.) In Europe, a mansion traditionally has a ballroom, but there are few of those left in New York City.
The golden age of mansions in New York City was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of those mansions in fact did hold ballrooms. The Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue at 77th Street (now the site of an apartment building) had 25 bedrooms and 35 servant’s rooms. Charles Schwab built a 75 room mansion on Riverside Drive between 73rd and 74th Streets, also now replaced by an apartment complex. The Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth and 57th, the largest residence ever built in New York City, had a two story ballroom as well as stables – and was destroyed to be replaced by Bergdorf Goodman. Some of the mansions in Carnegie Hill (all 50,000 square feet or more) faced somewhat better fates. The Carnegie Mansion now holds the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Warburg Mansion houses the Jewish Museum, and the Otto Kahn House is the location of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an independent school.
Until the end of the 19th century, apartment buildings – mainly tenements – were only for the less affluent. The middle class began to be attracted to the convenience of apartment living as the 20th century dawned, but the truly wealthy continued to live in single family homes until enough spacious apartments along Fifth Avenue (many with 12 rooms or more) were built and certain buildings became more prestigious. By the 1930’s, the tide had turned and more middle- and upper-class New Yorkers lived in apartment buildings than in single family homes, and now there are fewer than 2000 single family homes in Manhattan. However, there are considerably more in other boroughs. While a single family brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just as difficult to find (and afford) as one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it is possible to find a variety of housing choices elsewhere, such as detached single family homes in Flushing, Queens or Staten Island, and even enormous homes with lawns in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn (home of the famous holiday light displays in December). For those with the funds to spend $20-100M on their new home, the few genuine mansions available offer far more square footage (and often significantly lower real estate taxes, unless comparing to a new development condo with a tax abatement) than some of the new Billionaire’s Row apartments making the news. Similarly, a townhouse in Washington Heights near the landmarked Morris-Jumel Mansion offers considerably more space than a similarly priced 2 bedroom coop on the Upper East Side.
Townhouse living is radically different from apartment living, and there are those who would never consider living in a townhouse in the city (the stairs – no super – even having to take out and bag your own garbage!). However, for the person who does appreciate the difference, being able to own an actual home, as opposed to shares in a corporation (in a coop) or a certain number of square feet within a building (in a condo) is priceless. Real estate taxes often favor the single family dwelling, and of course there is no coop or condo board process to go through – if you can pay for the townhouse and the owner accepts your offer, you are in. I have a customer who will accept nothing else but a townhouse (specifically, between Central Park West in the 60’s or 70’s!), but many others who appreciate the convenience of an apartment in an elevator doorman building. Much as New York City neighborhoods provide a rich diversity in atmosphere to live within the city, the variety of housing types (condos, coops, and townhouses) also provide the possibility of finding the perfect home for each potential home owner – one that fits their own individuality, as well as helping them express it.