“Prewar apartment” is a term you’re likely to see if you’re apartment hunting in New York City. It’s one of those little details that can be buried among other property features, like hardwood floors or high ceilings. For some, prewar apartments are highly desirable, and landing one—especially in a competitive rental market like NYC—can feel like winning the lottery. But the term “prewar” is a bit ambiguous, and its meaning isn’t exactly common knowledge.
So, does prewar refer to a real war, and if so, which one? Also, is this an only-in-New York kind of thing? And, perhaps most important, what makes a prewar apartment so special in the minds of buyers and renters? We went to the movers and shakers in the New York real estate market to find out.
What is a prewar apartment?
According to Jamie Safier, a luxury real estate agent at Douglas Elliman in New York City, “prewar” generally refers to buildings that were constructed between 1900 and 1939, before World War II.
“Some folks include buildings before 1900, but typically, this is the usual range, with the exception of Victorian and Colonial buildings, which mostly describe brownstone-type structures,” he says.
The term refers to the architectural style of the building, and Safier says prewar apartments have special details that you won’t find in newer construction.
“There are generous layouts, grand proportions, high ceilings, thick walls, beautiful old herringbone wood floors, wood-burning fireplaces, and decorative plaster moldings and ornamentation,” says Tania Isacoff Friedland, a broker at Warburg Realty in New York City.
Carole Cusani, a real estate agent at BOND New York Properties, also says they’re solidly built, making the noise factor between apartments almost nonexistent.
“They do not make buildings like these anymore,” says Cusani, who lives in a prewar apartment.
The appeal of prewar apartments
Prewar apartments are frequently considered luxurious pieces of real estate.
“The buildings that were designed by the masters of the era, like architects Rosario Candela and Emory Roth, boast these names for both status and the higher price tags that they fetch,” says Seth Levin, real estate broker at Keller Williams Tribeca in New York City. “I have been selling real estate in NYC for two decades, and there is definitely a loyal tribe that will only live in prewar buildings.”
Buyers also like the stylistic elements of prewar bathrooms and kitchens, which, Friedland says, have come very much in vogue.
“Oftentimes, when buyers renovate, they will maintain the integrity of the time period in which the building was built when selecting their interior decor,” she says.
For example, they’ll use white ceramic subway tiles in kitchens and bathrooms, and marble basket-weave floors in bathrooms.
“This gives a space a fresh feel while keeping with the original style from nearly 100 years ago,” she explains
And it’s about more than just the apartments themselves.
“The buildings often feature grand, ornate lobbies with a full staff,” says Levin. “The ornate details also continue into the elevators and hallways.”
Do prewar apartments exist in other parts of the country?
Of course, there are plenty of apartments across the country that were built during this period, but there’s a reason why this term is associated with New York City real estate.
“Prewar apartments have certainly been made famous by Manhattan architects and their timeless impact on the city’s skyline,” Levin explains. “Prewar buildings have also benefited from being synonymous with NYC nostalgia and the golden age of the 1920s.”
The existence of prewar apartments in other cities may depend on when the city was developed, says Friedland. “It’s extremely relevant in New York City, because there was so much construction and change in [the city] during this time period.”
However, according to Cusani, several cities, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, are lucky enough to have prewar properties nestled in their city limits.
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