Moving On Up
The Gilded Age of NY Condos
What’s old is new again at a slew of new Upper East Side condos redefining Pre War luxury for the 21st century.
Since the early 1920s, entrée into the storied co-operatives of the Upper East Side—the 740 Parks and the 960 Fifths—has been seen as the ultimate symbol of social arrival and financial aspiration for New York buyers.
Thanks to the stringent nature of their co-op boards—who demand potential buyers maintain multiples of the purchase price in liquid assets after closing, severely restrict financing, and subject candidates to rigorous social and educational standards—gaining acceptance into these rarified dwellings is as prestigious as getting your child into Harvard
But the prize, for those who pass scrutiny, is access to impressive limestone buildings with elegant facades; hushed lobbies guarded by white-gloved doormen resembling Cerberus; and sprawling apartments with 40-foot living rooms, 10-foot ceilings, marble floors, wood-burning fireplaces, paneled libraries, and a warren of servants’ rooms off the kitchen.
Anyone walking in Central Park today will see gleaming new supertall condo towers piercing the Midtown skyline that couldn’t look more different—inside and out—from 740 Park Avenue, the venerable co-op developed by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s grandfather in 1930, based on designs by Rosario Candela, the starchitect of his day. All are listed at artery-bursting prices and include lavish amenities, from swimming pools to dog-grooming salons, even a Turkish hammam—perfect for foreign buyers with cash to stash.
But for native and wealthy New Yorkers, the most-desirable new luxury buildings on the market right now are further uptown, and east of the Guggenheim and the Met. Here, savvy developers have been busy copying the look of the old, with the sky-scraping scale of the new.
Three new residential buildings in the 80s on Madison Avenue—at 1045, 1165, and 1228—are due for completion in 2022. Blessed with addresses just a sliver beyond the Carnegie Hill Historic District’s eastern boundary, they haven’t had to contend with the same rigid Landmarks Preservation Commission formulas for acceptable style and scale as their well-heeled neighbors, less than half a block away.
Stylistically though, this new guard is clearly taking cues from Manhattan’s celebrated pre-war residences. Score an invite to a party to 1045 Madison Avenue, for one, and you’ll find its facade faithfully imitates that of 740 Park, from hand-laid limestone to terraced setbacks.
Once inside, the grand proportions, soaring ceilings, and architectural details that once made pre-war co-ops so desirable are also in abundance. Large entrance foyers, bedroom corridors, and entertaining rooms artfully divided into public and private spaces come standard in every unit.
The difference though, a century later, is that these reimagined Gilded Age apartments aren’t co-ops at all. Instead, they’re condos—which means anyone with the funds can buy in, without submitting to an intrusive board review and approval. And they’re selling faster—and often for higher prices—than their Fifth and Park Avenue peers right now.
It’s no secret that well-off buyers have tended to opt for NY condos over co-ops in the last decade, a trend that only increased during Covid. According to realtor Donna Olshan, who publishes a weekly Luxury Market Report covering Manhattan apartment sales over $4M, “this is not a cyclical trend but a secular shift.”
The typical condo buyer has changed over time, however. According to Compass realtor Alexa Lambert, “the audience for new luxury condominium buildings has changed so much in the past few years, from being the alternative for people who couldn’t pass—or didn’t want to deal with—a co-op building, to people actively choosing them for their design, amenities, views, all-new everything, and unique and special apartments with floor plans that don’t exist or are very rare in older buildings.”
And with traditional modernist architects such as Robert A.M. Stern and Peter Pennoyer helming new UES developments, lifelong New Yorkers now have choices that resemble Mummy and Daddy’s apartments, but with luxe add-ons and an intelligently updated layout. And on the thirtieth floor rather than the third? Moving on up.
“Architectural elegance plays a significant role in the choices affluent New Yorkers make about their homes,” says Coldwell Banker Warburg President Fred Peters. “Robert A.M. Stern and Peter Pennoyer have brought back the foyers and hallways that helped create a sense of place in the older co-ops of such luminaries as Rosario Candela and Emery Roth. But they have also updated the concepts for modern living. This is no longer your grandmother’s [Pre War] apartment.”
The most significant update: The open-plan kitchen. Unrenovated pre-war apartments have wonderful entertaining rooms with a view on the front, but dark and cramped kitchens in the back. Yes, they could be updated, but not without Board approval first, a process that, in itself, can take months to complete. Meanwhile, Stern and others are now positioning kitchens the front of the house, with grand proportions equal to those of the living room.
What’s more, the square footage previously reserved for multiple servants’ rooms has instead been reallocated to bigger primary and secondary bedrooms—all with ensuite baths, of course. (Because no luxury buyer would dream of asking their offspring to share a bath today, perish the thought.)
“A large percentage of our buyers are moving from well-regarded co-operative buildings,” says Lambert, who has handled sales at both The Benson and 200 East 83rd Street, another brand-new RAMSA-designed residence going up at the corner of Third Avenue. “The quality of design and construction of the condominium buildings has improved dramatically to the point that they can appeal to buyers as an alternative to a renovation.”
The only catch? Those buyers will now be living on commercial avenues, such as Madison and Third, instead of hushed and stately Fifth or Park. But who cares, when they can have move-in ready addresses with the grandeur of 740 Park, the mod cons of billionaire’s row, the layouts of the best house in the Hamptons, and never have to show anyone but the IRS their tax returns.
Hero photo: The facade of 1228 Madison, a new Gilded Age condo designed by Robert A. M. Stern, expected to be complete in 2022. Image courtesy Street Easy.