This wonderful opening line from Keats’s poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” also accurately describes my excitement (Philistine that I am!) every time I open the Select Register to look at a floor plan! In many ways I became a real estate agent, back in 1980, because of my love of floor plans. What makes them so great? I will try to classify my obsession:
- Through floor plans you can trace the history of the deployment of space in Manhattan. Manhattan is one of the world’s great apartment cities. From the late 19th century, when multiple dwellings first entered the architectural vocabulary of New York, until now, the way we think about our lives and what is important is reflected in how we use space. 5 maids’ rooms? Not any more! Few people have that sort of staff. Efficiency kitchen? SO 1950s and 1960s. Today everyone hangs out in the kitchen. Formal dining room? In the first few decades of the 20th century, it was the second largest room in the apartment. Now for most owners it is a multi-purpose TV/play/eating space. And the foyer – an important element of early apartment plans, it was then abandoned as “wasted space” for decades before making a triumphant comeback in the condo construction of the last 10 years. Architects have figured out that “wasted space” is rarely wasted-that it gives a sense of space and connection to everything around it.
- Through floor plans you can observe the ebb and flow of wealth and how it expresses itself. The early apartment buildings were tenements, definitely not planned for the wealthy or even for the middle class, since they lived in houses. Early grand apartment buildings like 998 Fifth Avenue, built by McKim, Mead, & White, struggled to find tenants. 998 had to offer cut rate rents to appeal to the rich man’s ever present sense of economy. And 998, with its towering ceiling heights, 40’ entrance halls and sweeping staircases, and multiple reception rooms all with fireplaces, resembled a private house as much as an apartment building possibly could. It wasn’t until the 1910s and 1920s that a truly specific New York apartment style was born, with buildings like Emery Roth’s San Remo and Rosario Candela’s 720 Park providing a variety of apartment sizes for wealthy clients who might need only one bedroom but still wanted maids’ rooms, a formal dining room, and a paneled library. Later, glass towers like Trump Tower and Museum Tower catered to globe hoppers, some American but many not, who found midtown a convenient address but who lived elsewhere, or nowhere, commuting between continents.
- Through floor plans you can watch the refining and redefinition of New York architecture. The tortuous plans of the early apartments, usually just a long hall with a series of rooms off it, are often echoed by their heavy neo-Gothic or Queen Anne facades. As the interior gives way gradually to the far more pleasing central foyer layout, there is a coincident move towards the iconic Manhattan apartment buildings which grace our skyline to this day. The beautiful interior planning of the Beresford, or the Normandy at 86th and Riverside, or 1220 Park, are echoed in the graceful exterior shapes with which the buildings occupy their lots. The sleekness of the International Style and its aftermath find residential expression I such buildings as Museum Tower or 860 and 870 United Nations Plaza, where neutral curtains were provided in every window so the visual line and sweep of the space would not be broken by chintz! And today postmodernism shows itself in every prewar imitation, every red brick and banded limestone exterior; their interiors have updated and imitated the foyers, dining rooms, fireplaces, and setbacks of buildings conceived and created 80 years ago.
But my greatest fascination with floor plans lies in what they allow me to imagine about people’s lives. How wonderful to walk down that 30’ gallery towards the dining room for a dinner with friends. How beautiful to pause halfway up that semi-circular staircase to gaze out over the skyline of New York from the fan window. Our apartments embody us; they tell our stories. And for thirty years I have had the privilege of bringing those stories to the customers and clients I serve.