Postwar, Prewar and Everything Before

The New York TimesNovember 01, 2012
IT is a sliver of a word, and a nonspecific one at that, but in New York City real estate, “prewar” speaks volumes.

The term, applied generally to apartment buildings built before World War II, conjures images of high ceilings, thick walls, plaster ornamentation and generous layouts. That much, most New Yorkers who have apartment-hunted probably know.

But what about pre-prewar and pre-pre-prewar? And when it comes to postwar, what of 1950s versus 1960s, and “white elephants,” and the hard-to-categorize buildings started before the war and finished afterward?

These historical categories matter for buyers and renters who have a particular style of apartment in mind, city real estate experts say, because in New York, nothing determines what an apartment looks like so much as when it was built. And the typical characteristics that go with either a prewar or a postwar apartment can also reveal a great deal about an apartment’s resident.

“In Manhattan more than anywhere in the world, people buy what reflects them,” said Darren Sukenik, a managing director of luxury sales at Prudential Douglas Elliman. Most critical for buyers are the apartment itself and the three blocks around it, he said, adding, “You really have to wear it like a loose garment, and it has to suit you.”

Style aside, Mr. Sukenik said, there are practical considerations. Most prewar apartments in Manhattan tend to be co-ops, requiring larger down payments and co-op board approval. If buyers set on prewars can’t qualify for a co-op, Mr. Sukenik might steer them toward exceptions like the row of condominium buildings on West 12th Street that was developed by Bing & Bing in the late 1920s.

Prewar buyers face better odds of finding the right apartment if they focus on specific neighborhoods, like the Upper West Side and the West Village, where the older buildings predominate.

“It’s like finding a zebra,” Mr. Sukenik said. “There are certain countries where there are zebras.”

Less expensive zebras can be found in other neighborhoods — including Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, areas that Mr. Sukenik calls “Manhattan Lite.” First-time buyers, he said, can find typical prewar touches like sunken living rooms and beamed ceilings there — or in a less sought-after Manhattan area like 55th Street and Seventh Avenue, for example — for a fraction of the cost of similar apartments in more expensive neighborhoods.

Buyers with even more specific tastes face still more decisions. Mickey Conlon, a senior vice president of the CORE Group, said some prewar apartments can be further categorized as pre-prewar or even pre-pre-prewar. The former, he said, refers to apartments from before World War I, typically with even higher ceilings of 10 to 12 feet, multiple fireplaces and more ornate detailing.

As for pre-pre-prewar, or before the Spanish-American War in 1898, Mr. Conlon said: “At that time, apartments were still a fairly new concept, so most of the layouts tended to be extremely large. A lot of 14-room, 20-room apartments.”

Sadly for fanciers of huge old apartments, he said, many have been chopped up into multiple dwellings over the years, although some devoted buyers have gone to great lengths to recombine units to recapture the original intent. But reassembling such an apartment, or even fixing one up, with potential repairs to plumbing, wiring, and fixtures, is not an easy task.

“A lot of these older apartments, unless they’ve been completely gut-renovated, do represent much more of a project than most people are ready or willing to take on,” Mr. Conlon said. “If you’re scraping and restoring moldings, whether it’s plaster or wood, and restoring wood floors, there’s tremendous cost.”

That is a major reason many people prefer newer buildings, said Tom Postilio, a managing director of CORE. “They want to have sleek modern glass and move in with nothing but their toothbrush,” he said, “and not have to think of tearing down walls, let alone redoing electrical panels.”

In that case, new construction obviously works best, brokers say, and such units also tend to be in buildings with lots of amenities. But as with prewars, the question with new apartments is whether the buyer can afford the premium prices they command, said William Bolls, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group.

Better deals among postwar apartments, he said, can be found in tall buildings that went up from the 1970s to the 1990s, like CitySpire on West 56th Street, or the Worldwide Plaza complex on the West Side between 49th and 50th Streets. These towers, typically done in red brick, often have amenities like roof decks and large fitness rooms, but lack some current design touches that would cost more money. Open-minded buyers can find a good match, Mr. Bolls said, even when the aesthetics seem challenging.

For example, though many apartments of this earlier postwar era have Formica-heavy kitchens that can feel outmoded, he said, “sometimes there’s great value in there. Because you have the amenities and the doorman, but you just have to put in a new kitchen and bathroom.”

Among postwar buildings, the more distinctive are those from the 1950s and ’60s, including the many white-brick buildings on the Upper East Side. They tend to have lower ceilings than prewars, Mr. Bolls said, and their hardwood floors are often parquet rather than plank.

The buildings, known to detractors and some fans alike as “white elephants,” have their drawbacks; some have reportedly had leaks and crumbling of their distinctive brick. Still, Mr. Sukenik said, some buyers like their spare, Modernist style and generous floor plans.

They are also, he said, a good place to find the type of apartment known as a Junior 4 — a one-bedroom with a small dining area that can easily be converted to a small second bedroom. The units, roughly 750 to 850 square feet in size, add value because they remain practical to an owner longer. “People grow in their apartments,” Mr. Sukenik said. “Usually the life span in a one-bedroom is about three years. In a Junior 4 it can be five to seven years.”