What Is a Prewar Apartment?

Prewar apartment

StudioLAB

A prewar apartment is a term that pertains to apartment buildings constructed before World War II. Prewar buildings are generally considered to be those constructed between 1900 to 1939, but buildings that date back to the 1880s are often included in the prewar category.

While prewar apartment buildings can be found in many cities, the term is most commonly used in New York City real estate parlance. Iconic prewar buildings have helped to define the architectural look of neighborhoods in the Upper West Side and the West Village of Manhattan, but prewar buildings can be found throughout neighboring boroughs. 

Prewar brownstones in Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Busà Photography

Common Features of Prewar Apartments

Prewar apartments were built during an urban population boom and range in size and style. The largest and most luxurious prewar apartments were conceived as so-called mansions in the sky to lure the wealthy into the city, while more modest prewar apartment buildings were constructed for middle class residents or artists. But the ideal of an elegant prewar apartment constructed by legendary prewar architects such as Emery Roth or Rosario Candela is an apartment with character, charm, and good bones. Some sought-after attributes of these luxury prewar dream apartments include:

  • Elegant proportions and spacious layouts
  • Intricate architectural details
  • Delicate millwork such as crown moldings, baseboards, and ceiling medallions 
  • Built-in bookcases and closets
  • High, beamed ceilings
  • Original solid hardwood floors, often laid in a herringbone pattern
  • Lots of large windows
  • Solid construction with elements including solid wood doors and hand-finished plaster walls
  • Archways
  • Fireplaces
  • Brass door handles
  • Traditional formal rooms
  • Separate kitchens
  • Decorative tilework in bathrooms, kitchens, and fireplace hearths
  • Large foyers
  • Buildings with grand, spacious lobbies
Prewar apartment
StudioLAB

Pros and Cons of Prewar Apartments

People who love prewar apartments enjoy most of the characteristics listed above, namely living in a building with a sense of history and possessing old world character and charm. Unlike spaces built in the post-war period and up to the present day, classic prewar apartments retain a timeless appeal and only get more expensive and desirable with age. Prewar buildings are solidly built, with fewer apartments per floor, and construction details like plaster walls help to insulate them from noise.

But old buildings require maintenance that can range from renovations to full-blown historic restorations by skilled tradespeople. Living in prewar buildings often means dealing with the costs of fixing, replacing and updating old pipes and faulty wiring, or stripping layers of lead paint obscuring delicate moldings. It can mean correcting careless past renovations or updating spaces to suit modern tastes.

Because of this, many NYC architects and interior designers walk a delicate line when approaching prewar renovations, in order to preserve historic charm while adapting to 21st century lifestyles. This may include enlarging bathrooms or opening up a cramped closed-off kitchen to living and dining rooms to create a modified open plan space.

Prewar apartment
Renovated prewar apartment designed by NYC-based StudioLAB StudioLAB

Prewar apartment buildings can lack the services and amenities that contemporary buildings increasingly feature, such as climate control or in-house gyms. A lack of central AC means that prewar buildings façades are often marred by the sight of AC units cluttering the windows. And noisy steam heating means that it’s difficult or impossible to regulate the temperature in winter. Historic single-pane windows are beautiful if not energy efficient. And small doorways and tighter corridors mean that prewar buildings may lack the accessibility required of buildings constructed after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Iconic NYC Prewar Apartment Buildings

The Dakota prewar apartment building in NYC
Eyfoto / Getty Images

The Dakota is a fabled Upper West Side co-op built in 1884 on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, home to John Lennon before he was famously murdered in the building's archway. It remains a New York City landmark and a touchstone for Beatles fans who gather to mourn him on the anniversary of his death.

The Apthorp in NYC
Emilio Guerra / Getty Images

The Apthorp is an Upper West Side condo in Manhattan that was built between 1906 and 1908. It has been a designated New York City landmark since 1969, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. This monumental prewar building, built around an interior courtyard, has been home to celebrities including Nora Ephron, Al Pacino, Cyndi Lauper, and Joseph Heller.

San Remo building, NYC
San Remo building, NYC Noam Galai / Getty Images

The twin towers of the San Remo, a 27-floor luxury co-op located a block away from The Dakota between West 74th Street and West 75th Street, loom over Central Park. The striking prewar apartment building was constructed in 1930 by legendary Hungarian-American architect Emery Roth.