For many of us, there comes a point when our buildings become so familiar we hardly even notice them anymore. We rarely look up to admire the cornices or contemplate the brickwork around a doorway. The tile floor in the entry hall goes unnoticed on the way to the mailboxes at the end of each day while our rooftop views become so second nature, we barely look up from conversations we have with friends.
Every building in New York City tells a story, however. The hundreds of mid-rise prewar buildings, for example, which rose up to become part of the city’s skyline in the decades leading up to World War II, share similar characteristics. In their sameness, they give us a sense of history, telling a tale of where this city has been and how, despite how much things change, an awful lot still stays the same.
So perhaps it’s time to take a look at your building again and take a few moments to examine these brick and mortar entities that sometimes seem as alive in their detail as the people who inhabit them.
What Makes Them Special
Although New York City is filled with enough variety to satisfy even the most jaded architecture buff, one particular type of building holds an iconic place in the city’s housing history, standing apart from its counterpart both in terms of style and longevity: the prewar mid-rise. Generally speaking, the term “prewar” refers to structures between 12 and 15 stories in height built in the years before World War II—in particular, the years 1915 to 1930. Typically, the buildings are characterized by “structural steel, encased with heavy masonry and ornamental stone,” says Eugene Ferrara of JMA Consultants & Engineers PC in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
“Prewar buildings are perhaps the most popular in the [mid-rise] range,” adds Eric W. Cowley, PE, of Cowley Engineering, PC in Bedford. “Prewar structures were not efficiently constructed, but they have stood the test of time…and they certainly are beautiful.”