If the comments on this sort of creepy Curbed item are any indication, New York real estate savants are unfortunately ignorant about one of the more fascinating buildings in the city, the Webster Apartments, on the westernmost reaches of 34th Street.
Commenters who protest, "How can this be legal? All women
housing," and, better still, "creepy. where's this building? why is
it 'all women?'" do themselves a disservice by not visiting the Webster's
fine Web site, where one can see charming pictures, I'd guess circa 1987, of
the "fashion merchandisers, designers, artists, lawyers, teachers,
actresses, technicians and many other business and professional women" who
reside in this odd throwback.
Your City Mouse is (formerly) one of those "other business and professional women." I don't recall meeting any technicians or lawyers during my four-month stay there a few years ago, shortly after the end of the first fussy sublet that brought me to the city. I do remember lots of pretty, young, enthusiastic intern types. This, after all, was what the building was designed for – housing bright-eyed young things as they got their starts in the big city. The founders of the residence, the brothers Charles and Josiah Webster, established it in 1916 “solely for the purpose of providing unmarried working women with homes and wholesome food at a small cost to them.” It also provided cheap housing for the burgeoning workforce at the megastore just up the street, in which the brothers had inherited a majority ownership from their cousin, Roland H. Macy.
The residence, ostensibly open to unmarried ladies
“regardless of their religious belief or nationality,” continues to fulfill its
mission, more or less, to this day. After a brief application process,
including furnishing proof of employment, Webster women are assigned a weekly
rental rate based on their income. I think mine, calibrated to the highest
level, was around $220 a week, two relatively wholesome meals per day included
– plus, of course, the blissful privacy of a roughly 100-square-foot room of
I've been trying to write about the Webster for the longest time, but it was a strange period in my life and I always end up abandoning the project, getting lost in the maudlin journals I kept that winter. Somehow all those complicated, sad, lonely, yet desperately hopeful feelings I was grappling with upon my arrival to the big city got tangled up with my feelings for the building itself. It was a place where you could catch a glimpse from a certain angle – the utilitarian, aqua-painted 1930s fan secured to the wall above the bed; the fire safety cards by the elevators instructing ladies to "gather your purse and your gloves" before exiting the building in case of an emergency; the creaky metal contraptions, apparently designed for indoor clothes drying before the age of dryers, lining the walls of the laundry rooms; the heavy metal skeleton key that accessed the tiny room’s door as well as the “trunk room” for extra storage – and be transported easily into the past.
Sitting at my white-painted metal desk writing letters to
So you see why I run aground trying to write about the damn place – I just can’t do it without slipping into the voice of Thomas Wolfe. O lost!
But onward. On the other end of the age spectrum, the Webster in my day was inhabited by a coven of postmenopausal lifers. These women had somehow been grandmothered out of the clause specifying a maximum length of stay of up to a year – in fact, I was told some of these dames had lived there for decades. Sometimes you could get a glimpse into one of their rooms along the narrow corridors, piled to the rafters with all of their belongings as well as a contraband cooler. The plastic Igloo was the true sign of a lifer, as far as I could tell – no cooking was allowed on the premises; one took her meals during specified hours in the ground-floor cafeteria, but some of these thrifty ladies had apparently devised a way to preserve leftovers or food from the diners in the area.
Anyway, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you I was anxious about my position on the Webster age spectrum, going through the fourth or fifth of my probably countless midlife crises. I found myself in an uncomfortable space somewhere between the loud, sociable, full-of-promise interns (whose constant complaints about the place – its “gross” old fixtures and “creepy” staffers and general uncoolness – always piqued my latent hostility toward them), and the quietly dignified aging set, whom I admired for their practical spirits but whose very presence, of course, served as a reminder of what might happen if I didn’t get my act together very, very soon.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I associated a certain odor that hung around the halls of the Webster -- a mix of decades-old stale smoke and something like wet dog, mixed with whatever industrial cleanser was used to swab the communal bathroom and shower facilities – with the older ladies. I desperately hoped the smell didn't cling to me and tail me outside the building.
Just as the Curbed comments suggested, the gender segregation of the Webster was the first point of interest for everyone I told about my residence. Some variation of “do you/do others ever sneak boys in,” always came up immediately in conversations about it. And I’d laugh along and explain the rules – no boys allowed, except by prior arrangement and then only at designated times in the publicly accessible sitting areas or piano rooms off the lobby – and these explanations were met by further comments about Bosom Buddies, and Sapphic affairs, and passing guys off as your dad/brother/shrink, and on and on, none of which I ever found as amusing as my interlocutors seemed to.
Having left a long-term relationship down south, I was reaching the far end of the age at which a woman could respectably be defined as young and unmarried (certainly by Charles and Josiah’s standards). I had a new job I wasn’t sure I liked, and new acquaintances I wasn’t sure liked me, and I really hadn’t been single for any length of time since age 17, and I was worried about the clinging odor of the Webster, and I seemed to have lost all knowledge of how dating worked, or even flirting, for that matter, and I hadn't been able to shake an unattractive habit of talking about my ailing, elderly cat back in North Carolina every five minutes or so. So for me, the segregation was probably for the best – as thrilling as it was to be kissed by a rakish flirt on 34th Street, the Empire State building glowing white up above, it was equally thrilling to tell him, sorry, no boys allowed!, and spare myself certain heartbreak by ending our date chastely on the curb.
And so I spent a good deal of my time on my own. I tried to
pour my romantic energies into the city, telling myself I was falling in love
with the far west side of
Maybe it was this anonymity that mattered most to me about the Webster, a sense of safety that kept me sequestered there for four months when I could have found myself a proper rental earlier. In any case, by the time spring started to thaw things out, I’d found my current apartment across town.
As much as I protested I’d miss southern Hell’s Kitchen, miss the weird
little Dyer Avenue area, the desolation of 10th Avenue on a Sunday
afternoon, walking over the railyards, I haven’t made it out there too often since my move. In a way, I
kind of like thinking of the Webster, and the time I lived there, as imaginary. Only in an imaginary world, real estate observers might say, will New York's mercenary