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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Defining Luxury a Century Ago: 998 Fifth Avenue

Yesterday, Curbed reported that the penthouse at City Spire (150 West 56th Street) has been listed for $100,000,000 (yes, one hundred million dollars). If it sells for the asking price, that would make it the most expensive apartment sale in New York history.

This got us wondering: what was the most expensive apartment in the city a century ago? Not surprisingly, the answer is 998 Fifth Avenue. Erected in 1911, it is still one of the grandest apartment buildings on the Upper East Side.

As the New York Times reported in 1910, the neighborhood was being "invaded" by the 12-story McKim, Mead, and White apartment building. (Up till then, Fifth Avenue had resisted large-scale luxury apartment buildings, those being the domain of the ne'er-do-wells on the Upper West Side.) The building was to have only eighteen apartments, none smaller than 17 rooms. According to a contemporary advertisement, each unit had a separate servants' hall with six servants' bedrooms. The buildings amenities seem rather pedestrian: concealed radiators, a jewel safe, cold storage in the basement. The building did boast refrigeration, but the Ansonia on the Upper West Side had been offering that almost a decade earlier.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Rents in the building -- virtually all apartment buildings in the city at the time were rentals -- started at $10,000 and went up to $26,000 per year, which the Times noted was the most expensive in the city. (Other sources note the top rate was $25,000.) It can be challenging to accurately convert 1911 dollars into today's money, but one easy method is to use the consumer price index. Using the CPI, a $25,000 apartment would today rent for approximately $588,000 a year, or $49,000 a month. That seems like a lot of money, but it's a lot less than whatever a 30-year mortgage on $100 million is going to be. Those $25,000 apartments today sell for $20 million and up -- with common charges of over $11,000 monthly -- making 998 Fifth a real bargain in 1911.

By the way, not everyone paid top dollar: the building was listed by Douglas Elliman and Elliman convinced Senator (and former Secretary of State) Elihu Root to move in at the cut rate of $15,000 a year. As Robert A.M. Stern, et al, note in New York 1900, "once Root, who had earlier established the respectability of a Park Avenue address...moved into 998, others immediately followed." Around the time he moved in, Root won the Nobel Peace Prize, which can't have hurt in Elliman's PR campaign for the building.

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Read more about the dawn of apartment living in New York

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