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Rooftop of a penthouse

The History of Penthouses: From the Undesirable to the Visionary Privilege


How penthouses went from being unhealthy and ugly to luxurious homes for artists and visionaries.

Spacious, ventilated and suspended above the noise of city streets, penthouse apartments are now the most desirable residences of cities. Inhabiting one of these means being elevated in the region of roofs––that privileged territory that allows one to observe the horizon and breathe in pure air; aspects we often forget we miss until we feel them again. But before existing as such, building tops were considered uninhabitable and dirty. Nobody, except for a handful of workers, would set foot in one.

The paradigm shift occurred in the 1920s in New York, after WWI, when the “emancipation of the heights” arrived as a necessary symptom for a rattled society. Until 1922, spaces directly below a building roof were contaminated with soot, debris and construction materials, and were therefore considered unrentable. They were usually used as utility or laundry rooms. Elevators, also, were still a novelty and untrustworthy to take tenants to those heights. It is no coincidence that in that same post-war decade of industrial modernism Manhattan needed jazz, the improvement of parks and a more transparent region located in those heights it had already conquered with the skyscrapers. The need for cleanliness and to experience the world in a different form led to a complete reversal in the vertical hierarchy.

Black and white photo of a penthouse balcony.

Along with the rapid improvement of elevator systems, architects used the opportunity to improve the top-floor spaces of buildings: they built beautiful apartments with huge windows facing cardinal directions, with terraces interspersed with gardens that seemed to isolate all the noise and hustle and bustle of the streets down below. The summit was no longer relegated to workers and utility rooms: it was a place coveted by artists and the rich and famous alike, who before then preferred the first floor as they had access to the street and saved a flight or several up the stairs. In 1922-23, the great architect Emery Roth built the 15-story twin towers Myron Arms and Jerome Palace on Broadway and 82nd Street, and it was for these that Steven Ruttenbaum coined the term penthouse for the first time in his biography of Roth. Later, in 1925, Roth built the Ritz Tower with its numerous terraces emerging among the clouds, and this was the culminating point when New Yorkers turned their gaze toward the sky: the bele étage of the 20th century was born to, literally, expand the horizons.


Penthouse balcony overlooking Central Park.

For better or worse, the history of spaces is always the history of thoughts. The inspiration of heights, as the Romantics knew all too well, pervaded the imagination of city dwellers eager for air and light, and the world realized that these two elements, which were so underappreciated by architecture, had major health benefits. Likewise, the penthouse point of view meant a physical and mental detachment from the mundane noise, and therefore a beautiful change of perspective. The 1920s brought about the panoramic view as an important source of speculation: observing treetops, silent trains in the distance and the skyline of a city is enough to incite reflection. It is not for nothing that we call visionaries those far-sighted ones who have certain domain over things, who can see the future. Broadening horizons is much more than a familiar metaphor: it is a necessary act to stuff one’s eyes with light, to understand the world and to obtain cleanliness.

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