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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Low Down on Walk Ups

Brick Townhouse, UWS
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.


Carolyn said...

I love the look of the Townhouses.

I watched Dirty Jobs a couple weeks ago and they did a segment on the water towers in New York. Very interesting.


Profile Not Available said...

I always love reading your posts! I lived in a similar "walk up" in Chiago, except I walked down...to the "garden" apartment under the front stairs. Would hate to live up top and discover I had forgotten anything!

Kitty said...

Hi Carolyn
Oh, I have to watch that segment. I'd love to know about chimney sweeps, too, lol.

Hi Kelly
I love these smaller buildings, too, and I can't imagine living in a huge tower.
I bet the ones in Chicago are nice.

Mab said...

Love the curve of the arch in this.It looks so inviting.

Eva said...

kitty, you got me curious now: Why can the vertical struts of hand railings be no more than 4 inches apart? Is it a problem that people fall through them? One would think that there is a bigger problem with people falling down the stairs, know what I mean? :-)

I love your eye for architectual details. And I have always had this dream about once having my own brownstone building on Manhattan. I love them :-)

Kizz said...

Eva, I think it's about kids getting their heads stuck between the rails but that wouldn't be a problem on this one so I don't know.

Kitty, what's up with the sort of irregular brick work on the column in the foreground? Is that just natural shift in the worksmanship or is there a reason that bricks are sort of poking out here and there?

Mr. Parson said...

we have a lot of these in Baltimore too, most are a little smaller and mostly single family homes.

I've never seen one with such an arch though, that is very distinguishing.

Anonymous said...

I"ve always wanted to own a proper townhouse - one with steps up to it, and iron railings and loads of floors.

Funny what you said about the railings. My sons' school has black iron railings around the playground and yesterday they had to get the fire brigade out because one of the youngest pupils got her head stuck.

Mom Knows Everything said...

That's a cool looking railing, but not safe at all.

Anonymous said...

Interesting information. I like the townhouse. Your photo is great!

Kitty said...

Hi Mab
I love the arch, too. You rarely see it used in these situations.

Hi Eva
Kizz is correct - the railings should be spaced so that a baby's head can't go through. Whomever wrote the law decided that was 4 inches.

There are other rules about the heights of railings and steps that help people from falling down.

I love these buildings, too. They look perfect to me.

Hi Kizz
Sometimes bricks protrude from the face of the building for decoration's sake. You'll see this as part of a pattern or randomly, for texture.

In this case I think it's poor worksmanship. I think the post was repaired. You can see the grout is discolored in that area, where they didn't match the original grout color.

Hi Adam
We'll have to check our Baltimore. Sounds like an interesting city. One of my favorite shows was Homicide, which took place there.

Oh no on the kid. How embarrassing? 20 years from now they'll be recounting the story.

Hi Tammy
I agree, I love the railing. It's so unusual.

Thanks Tam!

Ineke said...

Do you have any idea what a townhouse might cost

Kitty said...

Hi Ineke
I have no idea. I'm not sure what the going rate is for townhouses in Manhattan. 5 million sounds too low. 10 million?

I'll do some research!