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Divvying Up

I mentioned an odd number (16 feet, 8 inches) yesterday as a reasonably common width for a New York rowhouse. It’s worth a moment to explain why. The standard lot in the numbered grid portion of Manhattan – i.e., everything laid out after 1811 – is nominally 25 feet wide along the street and 100 feet deep. Sometimes there might be minor variations, but that’s the default size. If you were a developer in 1880 buying land and converting it to housing you had two main options: buy a bunch of contiguous lots and built 25-foot-wide Old-Law tenements[efn_note] Anachronism alert: no one called them that then, because no one knew the New Law would be passed in 1901.[/efn_note] or buy a bunch of contiguous lots and build a row of houses. The first option required less money and made you a landlord, the second required more money up front but you could sell the houses and move on.

Relatively few New York rowhouses are 25 feet wide. What was commonly done was to re-divide the lots to create narrower slices, to fit more houses on the land and to make the individual houses less expensive. As a result, the common widths of rowhouses are based on simple fractions of 25 feet. Buy four lots (for a 100 foot width), divide them into five lots and you can build five twenty-foot houses. Buy three lots and divide them into four, and you have 18-foot, 9-inch houses. And buy four lots and divide into six (or, less commonly, buy two lots and divide into three) and you have 16-foot, 8-inch houses.

The two good-looking, 16-foot, 8-inch houses above are probably survivors of a longer row. The window grouping at the upper floors is rare, and is a bit awkward when combined with the more ordinary first floors, but that is some fine brick and stone work.