A guide to identifying the types of residential buildings in NYC

We’ve put together a little glossary that discusses the common types of NYC buildings, what makes each building unique, and a few pros and challenges of renovating each type of space.


Not to overstate the obvious, but New York City has a lot of buildings. And, like the neighborhoods in which they’re constructed, they’re often incorrectly categorized. (How many times have you heard someone say they live in Tribeca only to confirm it’s actually Chinatown. Ah, NYC problems.)

Here in the city, you’ll often have an overzealous realtor calling a building a brownstone when it’s really something completely different. Or maybe you’ll have a friend that boasts about her brand new loft, but it’s simply an apartment with an open floor plan.

Anyway, we've got some thoughts on the matter of naming and categorization. Check out our round-up below!

 

Brownstones

Not every historic building on every charming tree-lined block that looks made of stone is actually a brownstone. Those who enjoy a small bit of etymology will enjoy knowing that in order for a building to be a brownstone, the exterior stone must be… brown! (Of course, some brownstones are painted other colors, but this does not de-classify the building due to its new exterior shade.)

Brownstone has been a popular building material for several centuries, and the material has been quarried across the country, from Wisconsin to New Jersey.

Built originally as single family homes, these buildings often include a trademark stoop, a garden floor entrance, and a main door at the top of the stairs, leading to the second level. At the time of construction, this was often seen as a more proper and hygienic architectural detail, as the NYC streets were “foul with animal waste.” (Though honestly, this still seems relevant?)

These days, it’s common to see subdivided brownstones across NYC–many of which, if occupants are lucky, retain the original charm of fireplaces and bespoke millwork.

Brownstone renovation pros:

  • Owned privately

  • You have the option to rent subdivided spaces like the garden apartment, top floors, etc.

  • Usually comes with a rear yard!

 

Brownstone renovation challenges:

  • Repairs are to be made on your own

  • No management services to help with building care

  • Difficult for accessibility 

 

Pre-War

Built before World War Two (and typically after the turn of the century), pre-war buildings often feature thicker plaster walls, higher ceilings (usually nine feet or higher), hardwood floors, built-ins (like bookcases or shelves), and ornate details.

Pre-war buildings embody defining look of NYC streets–a grand, bold, solidly constructed homage to the industrial and capitalist boom that swelled the city’s population before the Great Depression. Pre-war buildings are often run as co-ops–and are often concentrated in the Upper West Side. One famous example of an idyllic pre-war is The Dakota, the can’t-miss architectural landmark on Central Park West.

A note about Pre-War living, however, is that these buildings were obviously built under old school societal conventions. If you’re purchasing a pre-war apartment, note that many floorplans did not prioritize rooms that we now consider to be crown jewels in the modern home–like the kitchen, for instance. Pre-war apartments also rarely have central air conditioning, as the technology was not largely available in NYC until the 1970s.

Pre-War Renovation Pros

  • Classic details

  • Doorman and maintenance help

  • Can be easier to make plumbing changes and adjustments


Pre-War Renovation Challenges

  • Tiny kitchens

  • Older electric 

  • Often has bad cell service


 

Post-War

You guessed it: post-war buildings were constructed after World War Two! These buildings often afford more flexible layouts for those who want to renovate and encompass everything from all-glass high rises to red- and white-brick co-op buildings. Amusingly, contemporary apartments that are built to look like pre-war are still, unfortunately, categorized as post-war.

 

Post-War Renovation Pros

  • More glass and light in the space

  • Typically comes with existing heat and AC

  • Larger living spaces

 

Post-War Renovation Challenges

  • More difficult to change plumbing

  • Interiors tend to look more generic

  • Flimsier construction

 

Walk-Up

As the name implies, these buildings do not have elevators and often times leave the intrepid individual a bit winded by the time they reach the top floor. Typically up to six stories in height, these buildings are “tenement style” constructions, often found in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. Unlike brownstones, these taller buildings were built to house multiple families, and they’re typically the least expensive type of non-subsidized housing available in NYC.


 

Walk-Up Renovation Pros

  • Typically more affordable

  • Lower density living arrangements – ie. it's quieter!

  • Free exercise ;)

 

Walk-Up Renovation Challenges

  • Stairs

  • Stairs

  • More stairs

 

Townhouses

Originally built as opulent single family residences, these grandiose spaces include amenities like basements, terraces, and gardens. These days, however, many townhouses have been converted into multi-family dwellings with the luxury addition of elevator transport.

Most townhouses function as co-ops or condos after subdivision. Others simply remain as jaw-dropping mansions or have been repurposed into museums, such as the Neue Museum on Fifth Avenue–formerly known as the William Starr Miller House.

 

Townhouse Renovation Pros

  • Private ownership
  • Like brownstones, you can subdivide and collect rent from unique spaces

  • Also like a brownstone, there is often ample exterior space

 

Townhouse Renovation Challenges

  • Repairs are to be made on your own

  • No management services to help with building care

  • Difficult for accessibility 

 

Lofts

High ceilings, paned windows, raised sleeping platforms, and abundant light often define these classic NYC spaces–homes that have been converted from warehouse and factory buildings and transformed into airy domestic spaces. It’s also worth noting that this writer, as a child, dreamed of having a loft of her own in order to really enjoy an “authentic” New York City experience. (Spoiler alert, this writer does not live in a loft.)

These days, the definition of a loft is commonly expanded to any apartment with high ceilings and an open floor plan, regardless of the building’s industry-related genealogy.

 

Loft Renovation Pros

  • Lots of light

  • Open plan and canvas to create customized layouts

 

Loft Renovation Challenges

  • Less interior privacy

  • The space can often be loud

  • With all those windows, there's a chance the space will be drafty!

Thinking about beginning a major home renovation? Don't worry, we've got your back. Bolster is the first general contractor to become a financial partner in your home renovation. We hope you'll get in touch to begin your project!