Pre-war no more. Why Millennials Are Turning Their Backs On Classic NYC

What’s old world charm for some is dated for others. Millennials are going to extreme lengths to live where they want and how they want.

By Jeff Vasishta March 16, 2017

What may be classed as classic, prewar or vintage for some is just plain old “old” as far as millennials are concerned. That’s why so many younger buyers are ripping out original details such as bookshelves and crown moldings from century old apartments in some of Manhattan’s more prestigious neighborhoods and replacing them with contemporary straight lines, with an emphasis light and airy. It doesn’t come cheap — usually 100’s of thousands of dollars. The architectural equivalent of stepping aboard a World War II bomber plane and finding yourself inside a spaceship. It begs the question, if it was new they wanted, why not by a glassy, newly build condo. Turns out these millennials don’t want ‘new’ new. They like old buildings in fancy neighborhoods. They just can’t stand the interiors.

Related: Stats Say Millennials Are Staying With Their Parents In Ever Increasing Numbers

There’s a certain logic in the renovations. On face value, what’s there to like about beat up apartments with multiple layers of paint, clunking steam radiators and old school flooring when you can replace it all with spa-like finishes: Carrera marble, recessed lights, built in appliances and oversized doors?

Kipton Cronkite, a salesman at Douglas Elliman, told the New York Times. “Clean lines are really important to millennials and they’re looking for an apartment that doesn’t necessarily remind them of their parents or grandparents.”

They “tend to be very conscious of the aesthetics and also the function” of finishes, Jos Dudgeon, a principal of  Tristate Sustainable, a general contractor in Manhattan, said of millennials. “Moldings, profiles, traditional cabinets — they’re not really interested in that. They’re really interested in something more modern and definitely more linear.”

But simply updating a century old apartment is not easy for contractors. For a start, there’s the business of getting work permits and arranging for parking. Most co-ops and condo buildings have strict rules about the hours workmen can ply their trade and ask a G.C. about parking a van or truck in Manhattan, especially in the more expensive neighborhood and they shake their head ruefully. Disposing of garbage, with no dumpsters can also be an issue.

Related: Queens’ Astoria Is The Millennial Choice But A Construction Boom Means It Could All Change

The apartments themselves can be a headache. To replicate a new wall, as seen in modern buildings is difficult without putting up fresh sheetrock over the existing walls. But that will decrease space and a New York is all about space. So, instead, a skim coating specialist will come in and spend days feathering out wall with compound so they are seamless and new. It all adds up to a very pricey undertaking. In fact, the cost of a high-end renovation in a Manhattan apartment could very well amount to the down payment of another one, or an entire single family house in the suburbs.

Needless to say, finding an already modernized apartment in an old building is manna from heaven for many brokers and buyers. But there’s a fine line. Go too far in the renovation and there is no uniformity with the actual building — a potential turn off for future buyers.

“Because it’s not consistent, it’s an outlier,” Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel said “The market wants an apartment that’s consistent with the building,” he added.

It’s one of the reasons that more and more pre-war buildings are doing reconfiguring themselves, overhauling the entirety of their buildings, ripping out all existing apartments and rebuilding within the shell of the former structure. It’s what the developers of 101 West 78th Street, a completely gut renovated 23-unit apartment complex that screams contemporary on the inside but exudes classic on the outside.

Related: New York’s Next Best Neighborhood For Millennials Is…Philly?

“We’re proud to be the stewards for this remarkable, pre-war property, preserving the graciousness of space and detail while bringing it into a new era of modern, luxury living,” said developer Tom Shapiro, GTIS’ President. “We’re offering a rare opportunity – a combination of superior location, old-world architecture and modern design. It is unparalleled.”

While stripping a pre-war apartment of old finishes is understandable under most conditions, doing the same to a brownstone is not. Cove moldings, ceiling to floor fireplaces and pocket doors gives a brownstone its authenticity. While some brownstones have already had their original details removed, making renovations take on a more contemporary feel, those with original details intact sell for much more and are coveted by buyers, millennials included. Savvy developers have taken to replicating traditional finishes to bump up sales prices as has happened to the most expensive brownstone on the market in Bed Stuy. The Brownstoner reported that developers Christiaan Bunce, a principal at the design firm KGBL, and Adam Dahill, a mortgage broker have completely retrofitted 1 Verona Place, which is on the market for $3.25 million. Bunce designed the custom-milled moldings, and door-and-window casings used throughout.

“I think of our homes as Modern Victorians,” Dahill told the website. “Old world craftsmanship, with details that never go out of style coupled with modern day fixtures in kitchens and baths.”

All of which adds weight to the saying, if you’ve got it, flaunt it and if you haven’t buy it.

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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