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Curbed University: Into the Prewar-Postwar Divide

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Left, the Dakota, in all its prewar splendor; right, the Manhattan House, still kickin' it postwar (but soon to go condo!)

We’re spending the first week of Curbed University’s fall session breaking down the inventory in the New York housing market. Today, a brief discussion of the Maginot line that is the prewar-postwar divide.

Let’s start with an easy one: the answer is World War II.

Moving on! Sheathed in limestone and brick, prewar buildings have long symbolized a certain kind of New York City class. Inside, the rooms are often big and architecturally detailed, rimmed with crown and floor moldings and separated by hardwood floors and thick, neighbor-proof plaster walls. And there are those fireplaces and high ceilings to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

This sort of superior construction and quality floorplan can still fetch a premium on the market. All else being equal, a prewar apartment will cost about 12% more than its postwar counterpart, according to research conducted by Curbed University Adjunct Professor Jonathan Miller and NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

Of course, WWII was some time ago, and some of these buildings have lost their shine. So, while there’s still ample stock of impressive prewar, the date of construction is not always shorthand for the quality of the apartment. (The date of construction is also not necessarily shorthand for whether the apartment is “prewar.” Tenements, brownstones, and other low-risers built before the War don’t get the “prewar” tag in NYC real estate parlance.) It’s always best to kick the tires. Kick the wires and pipes while you’re at it.

Similarly, there’s no uniformity to the postwar stock. But generally speaking, these apartment buildings, erected in the decades immediately following the War didn’t have the good bones of their predecessors. “There was a rush of construction to satisfy demand,” Miller says. “Post-war apartments were less expensive to construct.” The classic postwar building is white-brick and tiered (hence the nickname, “wedding cake”) and its charms are less evident. But while thin-skinned and low-ceilinged, the apartments inside likely have more up-to-date electrical and plumbing. Some also have amenities not seen in prewar buildings (hello, garage!) and a more forgiving policy when it comes to renovating.

In the ‘80s and‘90s, as floor-to-ceiling glass and bamboo floors began to replace white brick and parquet, new condo developments gained some standing in the apartment arms race. Whether these apartments are “postwar” is a question for debate; by some counts, the “postwar” apartment era to ended in the ‘70s. Further muddying the waters is the recent trend to claim “prewar” as a marketing concept devoid of all time-based considerations. Witness 535 West End Avenue, an ultra-luxe new development offering “21st Century Prewar Residences.”

It’s enough to make us wonder whether this is a classification system that has lost all meaning. So what do you say? Got any prewar or postwar apartment-hunting or -owning experiences to share? To the comments, please! Back tomorrow with some more thoughts on new construction.
· Curbed University [Curbed]