The latest French ideas for apartments

The five-story Stuyvesant Apartments in 1869, shortly before opening. It was built by Rutherford Stuyvesant at a time when row houses were the rule for the middle and upper classes.

The gold standard for the New York apartment house is the big, lumbering 1884 Dakota, often called the first real apartment house in the city. But to cognoscenti, another building makes a run for that distinction, the 1870 Stuyvesant Apartments at 142 East 18th Street, an oddball little five-story walk-up with an impeccable pedigree, demolished half a century ago. But instead of the Stuyvesant, should it have been named the Rutherford?

Peter Gerard Stuyvesant was a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, a colonial governor of Dutch New York who had a farm at the northeast end of what is now Stuyvesant Street. When Peter Gerard died in 1847, he left no children, and his will settled a fortune upon 5-year-old Stuyvesant Rutherford (sometimes spelled Rutherfurd) as long as he took the Stuyvesant surname. Sources vary as to their relationship, but the boy’s mother was a Stuyvesant descendant, and Peter Gerard is often referred to as his great-uncle.

Take his name the heir did, in 1863. About the newly minted Rutherford Stuyvesant we know little. On an 1863 military roster he gave his occupation as “gentleman.” He traveled abroad in 1865, although to destinations unknown. He married in 1870; his wife died in childbirth in 1879.

At midcentury, New Yorkers who were comfortably off, but not rich, often lived in row houses. Built deep on narrow lots, they had many stairs to climb, which servants resented. The apartment house, offering knee-friendly one-floor living, was common abroad but slow to catch on here, suffering from its association with the working-class tenement, with its communal toilets and windowless rooms.

In 1869 The Real Estate Record and Guide predicted that the “average American is not prepared to live openly in part of a house” and would prefer a long commute to the suburbs.

In November 1869 The New York Tribune carried a notice that “Mr. Rutherford Stuyvesant’s new building … is now rapidly approaching completion. It is an attempt to introduce in this city the style of house-building almost universal in Paris, that of including several distinct suites of rooms under a single roof. This is wholly different from the plan of the tenement house.” What motivated Stuyvesant, then 27, is not known.

But he hired the architect Richard Morris Hunt, already famous for bringing back from Paris the latest in French ideas, and Hunt worked out a Victorian Gothic design in brick and stone, with a Parisian-style mansard roof.

Opened in 1870, the new Stuyvesant had a common doorway serving two tiers of apartments, two apartments per line. Each had an awkward layout of three bedrooms, and a parlor, a servant’s room, a bathroom and a kitchen all the way at the rear; cooking smells wafting throughout an apartment were considered a tenement hallmark.

The earliest tenants included the sugar importer Albert De Lamontaigne and artists including Worthington Whittredge. Also resident were at least two architects, Peter Bonnett Wight and Maurice Fornachon, an assistant in Hunt’s office. Many tenants had servants.

According to the 1869 annual report of the Department of Buildings, the rent decreased the higher the floor, from $120 a month on the second floor to $76 on the fifth; there was no elevator. The rents yielded an annual income of $23,000 as against an outlay of $200,000 for the building and land; estimates for expenses are not known. The book “New York 1880,” by Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman, calls the Stuyvesant the “foundation stone” of the apartment movement, and this claim has never been seriously challenged.

The apartment house, known at first as a French flat, took off as developers mined a completely new market. According to the Avery Architectural Library’s digitization of The Real Estate Record and Guide, that term appears not at all in the 1860s, but 126 times in the 1870s. Although The Record and Guide criticized the Stuyvesant’s facade as “rambling and incoherent,” it also reported that every apartment had been snapped up before the building was completed and that hundreds of applicants had been turned away.

Despite his project’s success, Stuyvesant built only minor buildings in New York thereafter, and never with any architect of Hunt’s stature. The Stuyvesant itself was soon eclipsed by buildings including the Dakota, but it lasted quite nicely for 90 years in a comfortable old-shoe twilight. It was demolished for a new structure, Gramercy Green, built in 1960.

Rutherford Stuyvesant married a second time in 1902, and was survived by several children when he died in Paris in 1909. When his grandson, Peter R. Stuyvesant, died in 1970 at 34, his obituary in The New York Times said he had been the “last direct male descendant of the famous Dutch governor of New York.” The Stuyvesants and Rutherfords were among the most socially prominent of the old New York families. In the 2012 Social Register, 32 people are listed under Rutherford; under Stuyvesant, there are none.

Sourced from Nytimes

Morgan Glick

I write about New York and NYC real estate ventures, investments, tips, and community projects.