The Plight of the Postwar Apartment

The Plight of the Postwar Apartment

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To get a sense of how building design might affect the market, we asked the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel to parse recent apartment sales in Manhattan based on the decade in which the buildings were constructed. (Buildings that were converted years after they were built — say, from rental to co-op — were analyzed separately.) There were a total of 11,893 sales, using data from July 2016 to June 2017.

Devon Talbott and his family turned a 500-square-foot studio into a functional one-bedroom with two Murphy beds and a small recording booth.

Credit
Brad Dickson for The New York Times

Unsurprisingly, the city’s newest apartments, dominated by luxury condos, got top dollar, with a median sales price of $3.05 million, almost twice that of units in buildings constructed during the previous decade. The best bargains, however, weren’t found in the oldest apartments, but in the 1950s stock, which sold for a median $737,500, the lowest of any decade. Time was kinder to apartments built before World War II, which reached a sales peak of $1.5 million for apartments in buildings from the early 1900s.

The midcentury price drop is not just a matter of taste, but also of substance. “By postwar, the size of apartments were shrinking, the ceiling heights were down, and the number of rooms declined,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University.

After World War II, a surge in housing demand and the development of previously underused land around the city’s elevated train lines, especially on the East Side, brought a wave of new rental buildings, he said.

One of the early successes was Manhattan House, built in 1951: a sleek, light-brick building in Lenox Hill, set back from the street with a large green space and private balconies for some residents. Now a condo, the building frequently has $3 million-plus listings.

The model was perhaps too successful, as developers cashed in on the white-brick look with derivative designs on the cheap. “It’s second-class architecture,” said Andrew Alpern, an architectural historian and author, of the era that eschewed the structural hallmarks of prewar design, like double masonry walls for sound insulation and windows in bathrooms and kitchens.

“For a while, they were despised by people who thought they had the right to despise them,” said Carol Herselle Krinsky, a professor of art history at New York University, about the early reception of postwar brick buildings. Even now, she added, “things haven’t changed much.”

H.R. Vanoosten Morris is listing his two-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath apartment in the Sovereign for $2.295 million.

Credit
Brad Dickson for The New York Times

As the New York Times lamented in a 1979 article, “Tower after tower of white or brown or red brick is the norm, with cramped rooms that are not so much well laid out as they are squeezed in for maximum profit.”

But these buildings, by and large, were not meant for the elite, historians said. Built mostly as rentals to meet pent-up demand, they catered to the middle class — or at least what passes for middle class in Manhattan.

And they remain some of the most affordable apartments in the city. More than two-thirds of sales in 1960s buildings over the past year were for less than $1 million — more in that price range than in buildings from any decade. Apartments from the 1960s were also among the most popular with the past year’s buyers, accounting for more than 14 percent of the analyzed sales, second only to those from the 1920s (16.3 percent of sales).

Many of the postwar buildings that were built as rentals were converted to co-ops in the 1980s, and they deserve recognition in their own right, said Jonathan J. Miller, president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, which analyzed the data.

“We could talk all day about the cranes dotting the sky today, but it pales in comparison to the conversion and new-development frenzy of the 1980s,” he said. Because most of the buildings being converted were originally rental, the units tended to be smaller and more affordable — especially compared to the luxury condos being sold today.

That combination of factors is why midcentury apartments remain one of the cheaper ways to get into hip neighborhoods, said Jaclyn B. Treinkman, an associate broker with Compass who recently listed an apartment in a stout 1959 building in Greenwich Village for $550,000. Similar but newer apartments in the area might list in the $700,000 range, she said.

How the Decades Sold

Apartment sales in Manhattan, July 2016 – June 2017, for each decade built.








“It was homey-slash-ugly,” said Devon Talbott, 30, an actor who owns the apartment with his family. The unit was configured as a studio, with red walls and dated finishes, when Mr. Talbott and his family bought it in 2007 for $465,000. But the comparatively low price, he said, allowed them to transform the roughly 500-square-foot space into a one-bedroom with two Murphy beds, a sliding partition wall and a small recording booth for Mr. Talbott, a voice actor for the Japanese animated series “Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V.”

The renovation, designed by Elise Kodish of Anne Zuckerberg Associates, incorporated 1960s and 1970s motifs like painted glass cabinets and a modernist chandelier hung above Macassar ebony wood cabinets with a tiger-stripe pattern. Mr. Talbott, who is now working on a horror web series called “Fear,” is selling because his family is moving to Brooklyn. But their fondness for postwar redos remains: They plan to keep a smaller studio that Ms. Kodish also revamped in a white-brick 1960s building across the street.

The postwar pedigree is a lure for others as well. The Sovereign, a 47-story tower in Sutton Place built in 1974, was designed by Emery Roth & Sons, an architecture firm known for prewar developments like the San Remo towers. Its International-style lobby — complete with Venini crystal chandeliers, iron-mesh curtains and rosewood paneling — remains largely unchanged.

In the building’s heyday, celebrities like Freddie Mercury and Calvin Klein lived there, said Jessica G. Ushan, an associate broker with Brown Harris Stevens who has sold more than 200 apartments in the Sovereign since the 1990s. The rock-star edge has dulled a bit in recent years, with more empty nesters than pop artists calling it home. But the building’s staying power is in its design.

Half the units have floor plans resembling the Classic Six or Classic Seven layouts of prewar apartments, with distinct living and dining areas and a maid’s room, Ms. Ushan said, while the other half are L-shaped, with a more modern, open floor plan. The under-nine-foot ceilings may be lower than those in most new development, but they are offset in part by the private balconies — and by the prices. As Ms. Ushan said, “It’s about half the price of a new condo.”

H.R. Vanoosten Morris, 52, a retired asset fund manager, is selling a two-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath unit in the building for $2.295 million. His husband, Neal Prince, who died in April and was an architect known for his interior design of the InterContinental Hotels, bought the unit in 1978. Mr. Prince kept the original Classic Six floor plan intact because he thought the formal dining and living rooms were ideal for entertaining. The space still has the designer’s antique-green marble flooring, mirrored walls and custom-built glass-and-metal dining table that seats at least 12, which will stay with the apartment.

Sander and Carol Ross in their two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom apartment in the Dag Hammarskjold, which they bought for $1.775 million in 2014.

Credit
Brad Dickson for The New York Times

Ms. Ushan said the buyer will likely want to renovate the kitchen, which is dated by today’s standards, and possibly open the adjacent pantry and maid’s room to create a larger open space. But she is not discounting the vintage appeal.

“Some things get so old, they get new again,” she said, noting that some buyers seek out retro décor with an eye to giving it a modern spin.

For other buyers of postwar apartments — particularly those built later — age is just a number.

“I guess the ’80s is a long time ago now, but it doesn’t seem like it,” said Sander Ross, a retired tax attorney. In 2014, he bought an apartment with his wife, Carol, the general counsel for a publishing company, at the Dag Hammarskjold, a concrete-and-glass condo built in 1984, for $1.775 million.

The 43-story tower in Turtle Bay, near the United Nations, was one of the first luxury condos built in the 1980s, said Richard Balzano, an associate broker with Douglas Elliman who sold the couple the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath apartment.

“It was very much ahead of its time,” Mr. Balzano said, with features like nine-foot ceilings and building amenities like a children’s playroom and an indoor pool on the top floor — unheard of today, because developers now put the most expensive units at the top of the building.

The apartment needed work. Mr. Ross and his wife raised the ceilings, which had been lowered by a previous owner to house lighting, installed taller doors and gutted most of the space, at a cost of about $400,000. “I don’t think a co-op would have allowed us to do this kind of thing,” he said.

For their effort, they got a condo with some of the amenities of a newer building at a fraction of the price. (The median cost of a 1980s apartment last year was $1.19 million, compared to $3.05 million for new construction.) The unit has a balcony that overlooks several parks, and the master bedroom has a dead-on view of the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City. They’re not planning to sell.

For Ms. Chwals, the serial home buyer in the 1960s West Village co-op, living in a midcentury building also meant a break from new-condo monotony.

“I liked that it wasn’t the sleek, post-Carrie Bradshaw version of New York,” she said, referring to the television series “Sex and the City,” which aired in the late 1990s and early 2000s. More to the point, she thought the prewar stock in her price range was tiny and overpriced.

Over the years, she has learned to appreciate the plainness of her building, the way an artist sees a canvas. “Because it’s a box, there’s no loyalty to preserving someone’s architectural vision,” she said of the renovations that she and her husband, Walter Lee, have done.

Ms. Chwals, 37, who works for an arts education nonprofit, made her first purchase there: a studio apartment, in 2004. In 2010, she and Mr. Lee, who is also 37 and works in financial services, bought a two-bedroom. Then they bought an adjacent studio to create a combined three-bedroom home with room for their two young daughters. Now they’re selling that three-bedroom apartment, which is listed for $3.795 million with James Morgan of Compass, to move into a larger duplex in the building.

In the three-bedroom, the couple took down interior walls to create a largely open floor plan. Working with the design firm Studio g & a, they used bright wallpaper, big art and colorful carpets to decorate the unadorned space. The living and dining areas flow together, and a sliding walnut door closes off a dressing room. The windows are not floor to ceiling, as in newer buildings, but Ms. Chwals sees that as a plus: “You’d end up living with your shades drawn, anyway.”

There is also something comforting about not living in the “it” building on the block. Over the years she has become friendly with her neighbors, who range in age from young parents to retirees.

“There’s a real sense of community that I don’t think we’d get if we were in a shinier new building,” she said.

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