Photo by myself on the Upper West Side, at 78th Street and West End Avenue.
I love the variations you can find among townhouses. Here, a gracious arch frames an opening. There is a sculptural quality to this entrance that I find compelling.
Townhouses were called tenement buildings at one time. They are called 'walk-ups' by New Yorkers, to mean that the building is divided up into apartments on each floor that you walk up to.
Having a townhouse to yourself is a lovely fantasy. The New York Times recently printed that single-family townhouses comprise between 3 and 4 percent of the available habitable real estate in Manhattan. So good luck on having a whole townhouse to yourself!
Widthwise, these buildings were made to be just wide enough for a parlor and a straight run of stairs. They're typically four or five stories high. Five floors are just enough to make it humanly possible to come home with a bag of groceries, trudge upstairs and then find that you forgot the milk.
I knew someone who lived on the seventh floor of a walk-up, who routinely threw large parties (!). His poor guests trudged up the six flights and the poor smokers soon trudged all the way down again to get their fix.
Five floors are also an ideal distance for plumbing, because New York City water is just pressurized enough within the pipes to get to the fifth floor without relying on a pump.
Buildings taller than five floors use water tanks located on the roof. You see these water tanks silhouetted on top of older buildings. A pump in the basement pumps water up to the rooftop tanks, which use gravity to get the water down to apartments when needed.
The above photo shows a handrail that is completely illegal by today's US building codes. These days the vertical struts of any railing have to be at most 4 inches apart, which is about the size of a baby's head.
Other countries have their own building codes. You see improbable railings in Europe that would allow babies, the sight impaired and their households to fall through.
Related posts: Building for a Greener Environment, 42nd Street and Things to Come.