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Density Rules

I recently put up a picture of Charles Schwab’s house under construction circa 1905. A picture of it as completed (after construction from 1902 to 1906) is above. It certainly earns the word “mansion”, as it was 75 rooms, and its grounds covered the full block from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue, 73rd to 74th Street.

One of the peculiarities of twentieth-century development in Manhattan has been the complete elimination of this type of mansion as a form of residence for the wealthy. There are still any number of single-family houses in Manhattan, most of which are rowhouses of some type. There are some larger houses, some purpose built and some rowhouses that have been expanded, but nearly all fill the width of their lots. “Mansion” is one of those words, like “skyscraper” that can mean whatever you want, but to me it implies some grounds other than a rear yard. The Schwab house certainly had that.

Schwab went bankrupt in 1929 and later died after offering the house to the city government as a potential mayors’ residence. It was demolished in the late 1940s and replaced by a high-rise apartment house, called the “Schwab House,” in 1950. Putting aside aesthetics and history for a moment, going from this:

to this:

was an enormous increase in density. To put it another way, there are now, as there were then, very wealthy people living in Manhattan, but most now live in apartments. We have seen in recent years prices for the biggest, fanciest, and (often) physically highest apartments go from eight figures to nine. Most of the remaining very large houses are no longer residences: many are consulates or have been converted for commercial use. The cost of vacant land in Manhattan is about $5,000,000 per acre (because of the potential to develop it into valuable buildings), and a regular city block is between 1 and 2 acres, depending on the avenue spacing. There are almost never vacant blocks now (unlike in 1902), so someone wanting to replicate the Schwab experience would have to buy a bunch of buildings and tear them down, spending far more than five million just to get a vacant lot.

In short, even wealthy people don’t want to spend the amount it would take to have a mansion with extensive grounds in Manhattan.