Real Estate

Is a $199,000 Penthouse on E. 84th a Bargain or a Bad Idea?

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty

Last week, a charming little penthouse on the roof of 103 East 84th Street, a prewar co-op full of classic sixes that trade for around $2 million, came on the market. The place, a studio with a kitchenette and small bathroom measuring just over 13-by-13 feet, with a private terrace, certainly isn’t grand. But neither is the asking price of $199,000.

What’s such a reasonably priced little penthouse doing in a doorman co-op on a prime Upper East Side block between Park and Lexington? “There are a few of these apartments on the Upper East Side that were added to the top of prewar buildings as staff quarters,” says Miriam Flink-Herman, the Douglas Elliman broker who shares the listing with her colleague, Josh Rubin. “I don’t see it often as a lot of the penthouses were turned into grand apartments. They all have kitchens. It’s just a cute little penthouse.”

No one thought the roof — hot, dirty, windy — was a desirable place during the early years of apartment living. “The roof was a workplace for maids doing the laundry,” says architectural historian Andrew Alpern. Maids in the early-20th century were so plentiful that apartments often had several rooms to house them — River House, on East 52nd, had an average of three — and even that wasn’t alway enough. Upscale buildings often had additional staff apartments, either individual rooms or efficiencies like these, sometimes dormitories with shared bathrooms. The staff apartments on the highest floors and the roof, often little more than freestanding shacks set back from the edge, “were often the worst built and least desirable,” according to a 1979 New York Times article about the demolition and conversion of old penthouses intended for domestic workers.

The status of penthouses changed around 1920, according to Alpern, when publisher Condé Nast convinced the landlord of 1040 Park Avenue to scrap the maids’ rooms planned for the roof and incorporate the space into his top-floor apartment. Nast loved to entertain, and his apartment eventually sprawled to 30 rooms and a ballroom, minting the idea of penthouse living as a glamorous, cosmopolitan thing.

The introduction of gas dryers also played a role, late historian Christopher Gray told the Times, making basement laundry rooms possible and freeing up rooftops for other purposes. That and the disappearance of live-in maids. By 1979, maids’ rooms were a rarity even in the most high-end new apartment buildings, and people in older co-ops were using their maids’ rooms as offices, extra bedrooms, and storage spaces. The few live-in maids who remained, meanwhile, could command nicer accommodations. (Henry Kissinger reportedly combined the three maids’ rooms in his River House unit into a single staff suite.)

The little penthouse at 103 East 84th is one of five in the building, according to Flink-Herman, the broker, two of which have been incorporated into the three-bedroom units downstairs. And there is a catch: The maintenance is $2,627 a month, a daunting enough sum that the seller is offering to kick in a $1,000-a-month subsidy for the first year. “That is the only drawback,” says Flink-Herman. “Otherwise, it would have sold for a lot more.” (Earlier this year, the apartment was listed for $375,000 before several cuts to the current price.) In fact, she says, the other two stand-alone penthouse studios were once combined into a single apartment but have since been changed back, as the maintenance was just too steep. The elevator also stops one floor below the roof, so residents have to climb a flight of stairs to get home. Even so, there’s not much out there for a buyer looking to spend less than $200,000 on a Manhattan apartment. StreetEasy shows 17 studios and one-bedrooms, almost all far uptown, almost all “restricted sales” — that is, HDFCs with income caps and one investor-only unit with a rent-stabilized tenant in place.

“It’s rare to have an old staff room be its own apartment,” says Christine Miller Martin, a real-estate agent at Compass. Most were incorporated or combined into larger apartments, and the stand-alone ones that remain are often held by other residents in the building — bonus rooms that trade with other apartments. Depending on the building and the associated maintenance costs, they can be either coveted or a hard sell.

Alpern agreed that staff penthouses are unusual these days — the ones that remain have largely been repurposed, albeit sometimes by other staff. At 998 Fifth, for example, the super didn’t like living in the basement and combined a number of maids’ rooms on the roof into an apartment. But he was doubtful the penthouses at 103 East 84th were built as maids’ quarters— the building’s three-bedroom apartments are not so grand that residents would have needed space for more than one live-in maid. More likely, he thought they were originally part of the apartments below. The original 1917 certificate of occupancy notes a penthouse level but no other details. By 1954, five penthouse apartments were listed. This one, PHD, has been on and off the market a number of times over the years. It last sold as an estate in 2017 for about the same price it’s asking now. The current seller, a Connecticut woman who used this as a pied-à-terre, is moving to Manhattan full time and upgrading to a larger space. Not surprising: This one is just shy of 200 square feet.

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