By STEPHANIE BUCK / Posted on November 16, 2017

Before the 1920s, New York City rooftops were nothing more than damp hovels. Pipes snaked between grim water towers. Chimneys spewed sheets of dark soot. Broken glass rustled with every gust of wind. But the servants put up with it because it was home. In fact, they occupied the city’s first penthouses, poorly insulated clapboard structures constructed off-book and high out of sight.

Then—wait for it—wealthy young bohemians took note, and moved in.

Apartment building at the corner of 97th and Broadway.


In the early 20th century, Manhattan was running out of space. Four-story mansions had long outspent their practicality, and architects were pioneering apartment living. But as more people were able to crowd onto the island, prices shot up and supply dwindled. Even well-to-do families needed to get creative. Rather than lay off their live-in servants, they simply put ’em on the roof.

Apartment buildings installed small wooden houses between the water towers and chimneys, where staff and superintendents lay their heads. According to city ordinances, these small buildings needed to be tucked in several feet from the walls of neighboring buildings, to allow for light and ventilation. They couldn’t extend above a certain height, and they weren’t allowed to take up more than half the roof’s square footage. Other than that, they were good to go.

“Such penthouses are really a necessity in apartment houses of this kind,” wrote The New York Sun in 1912. “Many families find they need extra servants’ rooms, and this is the only place where they can be provided unless they are put in the cellar which is of course not desirable.” Of course.

The building at 945 Summit Avenue in the Bronx was once the headquarters of H.W. Wilson, a publishing company, known for its Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. The lighthouse was part of the company logo, symbolizing the mission of H.W. Wilson: “To give guidance to those seeking their way through the maze of books and periodicals, without which they would be lost.” It’s now the headquarters of Tuck-it-Away storage.


Most importantly, though, these penthouses were not to be rented separately, according to city tenement codes. The tenants below paid extra for skyward space, but the persons living there held no lease.

Soon, newly built luxury apartments around Central Park began to advertise servant penthouses as a chic amenity, like a bespoke gym or deliberately kitschy shuffleboard den today. In 1919, builders Jacob Axelrod & Sons erected four buildings between 60th and 66th on Columbus Avenue, on the Upper West Side. But rather than expand the two- and three-bedroom apartments themselves, they insisted on installing separate — and trendy — servant penthouses. In The New York Tribune, Axelrod bragged that maid service would be furnished by the building, a first for luxury renting.

But as apartments grew taller, fashionable renters themselves developed a new taste for higher views. Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz took up the top floor of the 34-story Shelton Hotel on 49th and Lexington, where they painted and photographed the jagged skyline below. Other Jazz Age elites threw bootlegged soirées or hosted after-theater dinners on summer rooftops. It was there that they noticed how quaint and cozy their servants’ quarters were, that their maids had managed to spruce up the sooted alcoves with potted plants and humble furniture.

Mansard Roof Ski Chalet, located between 77th and 78th Street.


Watch the pedestrian slowly walking along the side streets with eyes upraised. Nine times out of ten he is looking for two rooms and a bath among the clouds,” reported the The New York Times in 1924, when it estimated fewer than a dozen penthouses were open to rent in the city. All of young bohemia wanted them.

The apartment staff that had formerly occupied the rooftop quarters? Gone. Tenants demoted and evicted their live-in servants in order to illegally sublet the penthouses upstairs. One inscrutable young man with an appetite for fresh air managed to score a penthouse by claiming he was the building’s superintendent. His salary was listed at $1 per year. The actual superintendent was banished to the cellar, with zero pay raise.

13th Street and 3rd Avenue.


At first, these new penthouse dwellers were content with, and even charmed by their shabby abodes. The thin wooden walls were tolerable. Maybe they installed wire-reinforced glass in the windows, or built trellises with twisting green vines. Anyway, the fresh air and unimpeded views made up for the squalor. It was like their own private hammock above the dirty, bustling streets below. “By day, the clouds, whose existence most New Yorkers have entirely forgotten, shake out their pastel-tinted puff just overhead,” sighed theTimes.

The ordinance prohibiting penthouse rentals was summarily lifted in 1925. “Since then, no new apartment of any size or pretense has been reared without its penthouse,” wrote G.D. Seymour in a 1928 column. The trend transformed New York City rooftops: laundry lines, tarpaper, and air shafts were eliminated or disguised, in favor of tiled terraces, pagodas, and even swimming pools. Reporter Will Irwin later noted that the new penthouse class had cultivated a “detachment impossible to anyone else on earth,” with “only the tainted air above Manhattan” to keep them company.

“That there’s only one roof to a house is an indisputable fact which sets the penthouse dweller apart from as well as above his underprivileged neighbors,” wrote Jane Korby for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1929, so soon forgetting that the first occupants of those spaces were, in fact, among the least privileged.