Have you ever heard the term ‘French Flat?’ It sounds rather chic, doesn’t it? That’s because it was meant to. In New York City in the mid-to-late late 19th century, respectable, middle- and upper-class people were supposed to live in private homes. The poor and working-class lived in “tenement houses” (derived from “tenant houses”), which they rented, and which usually had deservedly negative connotations. They also lived in boarding houses, or old single family houses that had been divided up into multiple apartments, or “tenementized”.
But as the city became more densely built up and land was at more and more of a premium, new houses for those in the middle or upper-middle part of the income spectrum became less attainable, but tenements or boarding houses or carved up old houses were not always an appealing alternative. So where were those in the middle supposed to live? This was a very big question in urban centers at this time, and some looked to European models to solve the problem. And although in actuality there is no difference between an apartment building and a ‘French Flat,’ it became a distinctive term to, in part, address this quandary.
The term “French Flat” generally referred to multiple-family dwellings for the middle- and upper-middle class and helped to distinguish it from a tenement. Such a term was used to entice would-be residents who could afford living space nicer than a tenement but couldn’t afford a single-family house in Manhattan following the Civil War. Initially, there was resistance by this segment of society to multi-family living. Some critics questioned the ability to maintain upstanding morals in such crowded and communal residential environments. However, as members of the wealthier class began to embrace high-end apartment living by moving into such buildings as the Stevens House (232 Fifth Avenue, 1870-72, Richard Morris Hunt) and the Osborne (205 West 57th Street, 1883-85, James Ware), there was a gradual trickle-down of acceptance by the middle class as well. By 1880, the French Flat, catering to the middle class, was a fixture in New York City architecture and housing.
One such French Flat in our neighborhood is the Jeanne d’Arc Apartments at 62 Seventh Avenue/200 West 14th Street. Built in 1888-89 by Henry Meinken and designed by James W. Cole, it was built with a commercial first floor and the upper four floors featured two apartments each. It also had both a main stair and a service stair. The redbrick façade has window openings with carved brownstone lintels and sills and some of the windows are capped by pediments or scalloped Brownstone half-basins. The grand entry is centered on the 14th Street façade with caryatides supporting a balcony with a balustrade and at the corners, two griffins stand guard. The overt French reference of this building is made quite plain with the statue of Joan of Arc centered above the entry.
Out of curiosity, we looked up the 1900 Federal census for this building and there is a real mix of families. There were five households listed at this location at that time, one of which had two boarders. Two of the households had live-in servants (one each) and the occupations ranged from sugar salesman to saleslady. Appropriately enough, one resident was from France!