As a real estate agent, I see a lot of apartments. I mean A LOT of apartments. We’re talking several hundred apartments every year. And as an agent who resides in Inwood and specializes in Inwood Real Estate, I see a ton of pre-war units, generally those built before 1939.
Side note: Did you know the vast majority of Inwood apartments were constructed between 1915 (the opening of the IRT extension – that’s the 1 line now) and 1939? If you want to know more about the history of Inwood and see some amazing photographs from its early days, you should visit Cole Thompson’s website, MyInwood.
Just walking the streets of Inwood is like an early 20th Century architectural tour! What’s really cool about my job is that I get to see what’s inside most of those glorious pre-war gems; from the amazing terrazzo-filled lobbies to the original nickel-plated Art Deco elevators; from the stunning exterior brickwork to the labyrinthine basements that still bare ominous "fallout shelter" signs. But it’s what’s inside that is often the biggest surprise.
First item on our historical residential oddity tour…
We see a lot of these little doors in our daily previews of pre-war Inwood real estate. They’re usually about 2’X 3’ in dimension and almost always situated near the kitchen, although I just saw one at the back of a closet. No kidding. You open the closet door and see behind the shelves…another tiny door sealed shut. Typically, they’re painted over with 50 layers of paint (the first 30 of which might be lead-based, so don’t let your young child go after it with an orbital sander. I mean who’s dumb enough to do that? Please don’t report me to CPS.)
They’re also oozing with mystery. Is it the door to some Narnia-esque passageway? A sealed-up vault containing a stash of Gilded Age Tiffany jewelry hoarded by the founders of Brooks Brothers (who were one-time residents of Inwood, by the way)? Or maybe it’s the door to the 71/2nd floor in Being John Malkovich?
Actually, it’s a dumb waiter. No, not the kid from last weekend who didn’t know the difference between a Gruner and a Sauvignon Blanc – this dumb waiter is a kind of small freight elevator or lift intended to carry groceries and other small objects up multiple flights of stairs. Seems cool, right?
A tiny elevator that the local grocer can use to send your groceries upstairs without having to lug them up your four flights of stairs? All he has to do is go into the basement, find your apartment line’s dumbwaiter, and ring the correct floor. Then you, a pre-war housewife in your pre-war house dress, simply open the little door, and yell down, "send it up, Ralph! You remembered the Olvaltine, right?" Or something like that. What am I, a 1930s screenwriter? Clearly not.
So why aren’t they still in use? Well, let me ask you this? Do you have a personal grocer named Ralph from whom you buy groceries on credit? A guy or gal you trust enough to give the keys to your basement and thereby access to your apartment any time of day or night? I don’t know. If our dumbwaiter still worked, I think I’d give Fresh Direct the keys to our basement.
Oddity number two….
A lot of these little guys are still around in my neighborhood. Again, a small mysterious door, this one a bit smaller, maybe 12"X12" and always situated just below the kitchen window. Whenever I’m showing clients older apartments that still have one of these, they inevitably ask, "what the heck is that?" To which I typically reply, "oh, that’s the cat litter box, of course" or "oh, that’s your standard Pokemon card collection case. What? You’ve never seen one?"
In reality, these sturdy-yet-oddly-placed relics are iceboxes. Mechanical home refrigerators didn’t really make the scene until the 1940s, and remember, we’re talking pre-war here - mostly 1915 to 1935. So, if you didn’t own one of these futuristic and miraculous refrigeration devices yet, how were you supposed to keep your perishables from perishing?! How would you keep your buttermilk from turning into Gruyere cheese? (I’m not a food scientist, so I don’t know if that’s possible. And if it is possible for buttermilk to turn into Gruyere cheese why would anyone stop that – but I digress). At any rate, I find it odd that these "iceboxes" are almost exactly the right size for a six-pack of cold beer – or sarsaparilla root beer during prohibition. Did you just Google sarsaparilla? Because I sure did. Three times.
Strange Doohickey number 3….
This one to me looks like an individual key chain holder. But then I thought, "what’s with the big round button looking thing in the middle?" Are you supposed to hang your keys on the tiny little hook, then ceremoniously press the middle button to remind yourself where you left your keys? Was it some kind of weird practical joke? That little hook enticing your 1920s guest to hang his or her Fedora, fur stole, empresario’s cape, what have you, only to have seltzer water spray out of the little nozzle in the center? As practical as that might seem, that’s not what it was for. This was actually an early intercom.
Super fun and sophisticated if you ask me. Every time someone rings your buzzer downstairs, you get to pretend to be the captain of the Titanic calling down to the engine room. If we had one of these in our apartment, the UPS lady would get sick of hearing me shout, "ENGINES FULL STOP! ENGINES FULL STOP!"
Odd thingamabob number 4…
Ok, this one’s not that odd at all. In fact, people use them still. A lot. I just really like them and every time I show an Inwood apartment that still has one, it warms my heart. They’re pulleys used to connect clotheslines. And when I see clothes drying on one of these lines stretched between two buildings, I’m buoyed not just by the romantic nostalgia of days gone by and scenes from West Side Story (so, maybe I start singing "Maria" in my head every time I run across one – what of it?).
I’m also warmed by the thought that throughout New York’s history, we’ve all been in this together, this life of hard work, of struggle, of dreaming big. These clotheslines, as mundane as they are, have to be strung and shared between two separate apartments, usually in two separate buildings. Two separate families would share this line and quite literally air their dirty laundry together. Two separate mothers (it was always the mothers, right?) would pin their family’s most intimate apparel to the same shared line and dry it under the same city sunshine. With a shared clothesline, you must get to know your neighbors pretty well, from the brand of skivvies the husband prefers, to what size school uniform the baby daughter’s grown into now.
It’s sad to say, I see fewer and fewer of these communal clothesline pulleys as more apartments get renovated, many with in-unit washers and dryers (and who doesn’t want that, right?), or the building installs a laundry room in the basement. I get it. It’s modern. It’s easier. But I just hope we keep some kind of lines to connect us, don’t you?
Check out more of Bohemia Realty Group’s Ben Livingston here!