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The five ages of New York real estate

Kirk Henckels, Vice Chairman at Stribling & Associates, tells us the history of Manhattan’s prime real estate

PRE-1875: Grand and eclectic 

Prior to the 1870s, the richest stratum of New York society resided mostly in mansions and townhouses along lower Fifth Avenue. As Manhattan’s wealthiest families progressively located further uptown, and larger fortunes were made, the buildings became grander and more eclectic in style. In fact, Central Park was once the site of the city’s grandest country houses. In 1870, after returning from studying at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Richard Morris Hunt designed New York’s first residential apartment building specifically for the middle class. Located on East 18th Street, the Stuyvesant Apartments were built for one of the city’s richest founding families.


1875-1910: Wealth expansion

In 1866, the population of New York City was around 600,000. By 1900, it had risen to more than three million, heralding a fundamental shift in housing. In 1884, Edward Clark, the millionaire co-founder of the Singer sewing machine company, built The Dakota building, designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh. New York’s first iconic luxury apartment building, it was located in west Manhattan, far from the areas in which New York’s richest 400 families typically resided. But it soon attracted the burgeoning and increasingly affluent middle class, with its dark wood and marble finishes, ballroom, card rooms and restaurant.


1910-1930: The rise of luxury

In the early 20th century, mansions declined in popularity as the predominant residence for the most affluent, and there was a rise of the luxury apartment building, with its shared staff and increased services. In 1912, James T Lee developed the 12-storey 998 on Fifth Avenue. The most lavish apartment building of its day, it had panelling from France, silver- and gold-plated fixtures and an entrance gallery patterned after Hatton Hall in England. When the influential Senator Elihu Root rented a 6,500 sq ft apartment for $25,000 a year, many of the 400 richest families followed suit. The onslaught of construction of these buildings on Park and Fifth Avenues, and Central Park West, only abated in 1930 with the Depression.


1930-1990: An era ends

In the roaring 20s and early 30s, living the high life in private cooperatives became the norm for society’s elite. However, the next 70 years would no longer see construction of the luxury apartment buildings that were once built for the likes of John D Rockefeller. Instead, a plethora of mid-century modern apartment buildings appeared, mostly faceless in style and with small-to-medium-sized apartments. The era of the grand luxury apartment building was seemingly over.


1990-current: History repeats itself

As in 1900, in the late 90s huge fortunes were being made and money spread like icing over Manhattan, cementing the dominance of the modern high rise with its plethora of services. The first of the new generation of ‘buildings for billionaires’ was undoubtedly 15 Central Park West, built in 2008, with a record price paid per square foot. In this current era, locational preference seems to be reversing. Millennial wealth creators are preferring to live downtown, while condominium ownership has siphoned demand from the beautiful old cooperative buildings, spurring another huge surge in construction similar to that seen a century earlier.


Kirk Henckels is Vice Chairman and Director of Private Brokerage at Stribling & Associates