The history of New York’s railroad apartment

Posted On Thu, January 28, 2021 By

Posted On Thu, January 28, 2021 By In Features, History

Photo © 6sqft

Apartments comprised of a series of directly connected rooms—without a hallway—are a common feature of the New York City housing market. Generally, this layout is described as a “railroad apartment.” With origins in the city’s turn-of-the-century tenement lifestyle, the layout today comes with its share of pros and cons. At their best, this apartment layout offers considerably more space at a lower cost than a conventional layout and desirable pre-war details. At their worse, this layout offers nothing but a dark and dank space that can be especially awkward when shared by roommates rather than couples.

The history of the railroad apartment

Before we get started, it’s important to note that depending on where you are in the United States, the “railroad” may, in fact, refer to a very different type of layout—namely, an apartment with a series of rooms connected by one long hallway. Indeed, in many other U.S. cities, most notably New Orleans, “shot-gun apartment” is the more commonly used term for an apartment where rooms are connected without a hallway, and in some cities, these apartments are also described as “floor-through apartments.”

Like many other peculiar apartment features in New York City—for example, showers and bathtubs in kitchens—the railroad apartment arose out of necessity, not design inspiration. Most notably, these apartments were constructed as a convenient way to create the most living space possible on narrow city lots at a time when the demand for housing was extremely high. Unfortunately, when most railroad apartments were constructed in the mid- to late-19th century, there were also few building regulations. This meant that elements one typically takes for granted—for example, adequate light, air circulation, and privacy—were never part of the design.

Anyone who has lived in a railroad can attest to the fact that no matter what you do to bring these apartments up to modern standards, they often continue to carry forward at least some of the problems that faced tenants in New York in the late-nineteenth century. This no doubt explains why everyone from interior designers or sociologists continue to depict the railroad in generally negative terms.

In her 2000 book Open Your Eyes, interior designer Alexandra Stoddard concludes, “Railroad apartments violate the attributes of human scale and proportion.” As she explains, “Though railroad flats are large in terms of square feet, their proportions are extremely awkward—they are much too long for the width.”

In his 2018 auto-ethnography Growing up Working Class, sociologist Thomas J. Gorman describes his own experience of growing up in a railroad apartment: “Railroads apartments offer absolutely no privacy. Someone could stand on one side of the apartment (my parents’ bedroom) and look through my parents’ bedroom and the living room (which my parents called the “parlor”) and into the dining room…Maybe someone thought that the layout, and its lack of privacy, was a way for the working class to practice birth control.”

But are railroad apartments really all that bad? 

The pros and cons of renting a railroad apartment

When it comes to space, railroad apartments nearly always have more to offer. First, given their awkward layout, these apartments tend to be priced at a lower dollar per square foot than other types of apartments. Second, by eliminating hallways, one naturally ends up with more generously sized rooms. In a city where every square foot counts, this can make a significant difference.

Another notable feature of railroad apartments is their pre-war details. Indeed, many of these apartments still have attractive details ranging from original moldings to pocket doors to fireplaces—features that usually come at a much higher price tag. But once again, if you’re not “railroading” with your intimate other, the layout is rarely a perfect match.

Chris and Felicity share a railroad apartment in Greenpoint. The friends met at the Fashion Institute of Technology and when they moved off-campus, they were lucky enough to take over a lease from the longstanding tenant who had locked into 2006 prices. In this case, the owner did not raise the rent, which means the roommates, in 2017, were paying just over $1,000 per month each for more than 1,000 square feet. But the apartment is still not perfect.

“Felicity took the big room at the front, which is fine since she has a lot of stuff,” says Chris, “But she lets me borrow it when my boyfriend comes over.”

Felicity explains, “It’s not ideal, but Chris was so sweet to give me the larger room, so if he has a night guest, well, it’s just less awkward if we just switch rooms, which is a bit weird, but that’s just the way it is. I really don’t need to be stumbling through his bedroom when he has a guy over at night.”

Both roommates emphasize that despite this odd arrangement, they love their apartment. As Chris explains, “We have a living room, a large dining area, and a separate kitchen—we can actually host dinner parties, which is something most of our friends can’t do, though I’m not sure I could live like this with anyone other than Felicity.”

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2017.


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