What Is A Railroad-Style Apartment?

Railroad-style apartment
A remodeled NYC railroad-style apartment by designed by Daniel Rauchwerger and Noam Dvir of @bond_architecture.

Eric Petschek / BoND

A railroad-style apartment is a dwelling traditionally found in older tenement buildings or subdivided brownstones with a layout consisting of succeeding rooms that lead into one another often via a central hallway from front to back. This means you have to walk through one room to get to another, as if moving through the cars of a train (hence the name).

Railroad-stye apartment
NYC tenement railroad apartment in the 1930s.

New York Public Library

History of the Railroad-Style Apartment

The design of railroad-style apartments was a response to overcrowding in cities in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. Railroad-style apartments were built into the early 20th century in tenement buildings and subdivided brownstones primarily in urban areas such as New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington D.C. but can be found elsewhere.

Railroad-style apartments were constructed at a time when building regulations around sanitation, light, air, and privacy were not yet standard and amenities such as elevators were not part of the package. While today’s architects and interior designers have used creative solutions to make original railroad-style apartments livable and even desirable in the 21st century—principally by focusing on creative ways to divide the space, create built-in storage, and let in more natural light to the apartment core—railroad-style layouts are generally considered awkward by modern standards and tend to be less desirable.

The term “railroad apartment” is often described in the same breath as “shotgun-style” apartments and homes found primarily in the southern United States, where they were the most popular house style after the Civil War and into the 1920s. Shotgun homes, whose roots are traced back to Haiti, have narrow front profiles and long rectangular silhouettes. Whereas railroad-style apartments often have a central hallway similar to that of a series of train cars (or a side hallway with multiple entry points in the style of a train sleeper car), narrow railroad apartments that aren’t wide enough to fit a central hallway often skip it in favor of dividing curtains or archways. In a shotgun-style apartment or house, the rooms are connected directly to one another without hallways.

While there is debate over the origin of the "shotgun" moniker, modern real estate folklore claims it's a reference to the fact that a bullet fired from the entrance could theoretically travel in a clear shot to the back.

Railroad- and shotgun-style apartments and homes are modest dwellings but they do share some DNA with the historical “enfilade” style found in European palaces chiefly from the Baroque period going forward, in which one room leads into the other, creating perspectives and a sense of grandeur. The enfilade style of interior architecture is also common to museums in which one gallery leads into the next.

Railway-style apartment floorplan
Railway-style apartment floorplan by Daniel Rauchwerger and Noam Dvir of @bond_architecture.

Eric Petschek / BoND

Characteristics of a Railroad-Style Apartment

  • Commonly found in tenement-style, walk-up, multi-family buildings
  • Long and narrow rectangular floor-through layouts
  • Rooms flow into one another generally with hallway(s)
  • Railroad layouts may include one central hallway, room-dividing archways, or in some cases a hallway off to one side with multiple entry points
  • Tall ceilings
  • Windows at the front and/or back but not in the long middle portion
  • Few closets and little storage
  • Range in size with generally 3-5 rooms
  • Bedrooms often placed on the far end for flow and privacy reasons
  • Kitchens often in the middle
  • Living spaces frequently at the front
  • Bathrooms might be off to the side of the bedroom(s)
Railroad apartment tenement building NYC

Busà Photography / Getty Images

Railroad-Style Apartment Pros and Cons

Pre-war and earlier railroad-style apartments often offer the charm, character and period details of historic buildings such as moldings, fireplaces, exposed brick walls and original pocket doors. They're also a great choice for first apartments or those on a budget because their unconventional layout typically puts them at an affordable price point. And, because they are generally considered less desirable and less functional than more conventional layouts, they often offer more space for the money.

One thing to keep in mind with the layout, however, is that is does make privacy a challenge, meaning that railroad apartments are generally more suited to today’s singles and close-knit couples than roommates and families. There can also be a lack of airflow and a lack of natural light, particularly in the middle of the apartment.

  • Compact, efficient living

  • No wasted space

  • Charming and full of character

  • Often more affordable than other apartment styles

  • Appeals to modern minimalists

  • Generally located in buildings without elevators and other amenities

  • The layout makes privacy a challenge

  • Lack of natural light

  • Narrow, cramped rooms

  • Lack of airflow

Railroad-style apartment
A remodeled NYC railroad-style apartment by designed by Daniel Rauchwerger and Noam Dvir of @bond_architecture.

Eric Petschek / BoND

Tips For Decorating a Railroad-Style Apartment

  • Clear clutter and take advantage of vertical space for built-in storage or open shelving
  • Keep furnishings and decorative objects to a minimum to maintain an airy feel
  • Use modular space-saving furniture such as Murphy beds, wall-mounted desks or convertible dining tables
  • Incorporate sliding panels, French doors, or curtains for privacy between rooms or embrace open-plan living
  • Focus on compensating for lack of natural light with wall-mounted sconces and hanging lights with a delicate profile to keep floors clear and to create layered and balanced lighting
  • Maximize natural light and open up a narrow floorplan with mirrors and metallics
  • Hang mirrors directly opposite one another on long side walls to create depth and perspective
  • Consider replacing swinging closet doors with sliding doors
  • Separate zones with arches
  • Paint walls, trim, and ceiling in the same light neutral color to create a sense of cohesiveness and spaciousness
  • Forego heavy window treatments in favor of naked windows or solar shades depending on privacy needs