There are some features of pre-war NYC apartments. Most of these can’t be found in newer NYC apartments, renovated apartments, or anywhere else in the world. They are relics of a specific time and place – Old New York.
The unique scent of a kitchen cabinet on the upper west side. This is fast disappearing. At one point, you could have blindfolded me and put me near a kitchen cabinet anywhere in the world, and I could have told you if I was in an apartment on the upper west side. There was a unique scent – not good, not bad, just unique. It always disappears after renovations. Because it is no longer with us, I assume it was some heady mixture of lead paint and asbestos. I miss it.
Flint Sparker Old apartments never had stoves with pilot lights. If a new stove was brought in, the super usually turned off the pilot light at once to prevent explosions. You’d need a box of matches, or even better – a flint sparker. They are a little intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, you feel what it must have been like in the Stone Age. You are huddled round the fire pit, striking a flint onto a rock to get the spark that kindles lifegiving Fire. Sure, you’re in a seedy shoebox kitchen in NYC with a substandard tiny stove more
suitable to a houseboat than an apartment – but still. You are one with the history of Man.
Light pulls. Old apartments that needed rewiring always had light pulls dangling from the ceiling fixtures, even if there wasn’t a ceiling fan. Every hardware store used to sell glow-in-the-dark light pulls, so you could see them from afar. No one sells them any longer – maybe they were actually radioactive? Who knows? They didn’t keep you from tripping over the cat as you headed across a dark room, but they looked charmingly like a loose firefly in your kitchen.
Ice boxes Pre-war kitchens all had ice boxes. These weren’t just tiny refrigerators: they were actually built into the outer wall of the kitchen, with some drainage holes onto the street below. You’d buy a block of ice from the iceman, and he’d put it into your icebox. You could then store perishables such as milk, meat, and fish on the ice as it slowly melted over the course of a day or two. Once electric fridges came in, the ice box was useful to store cleaning supplies, soup cans, shoes, or liquor bottles.
Milk delivery slots Not the same thing as an ice box. The milk delivery slot was only for the best apartment complexes – the kind where every apartment was a 4 bedroom with a living room, dining room, eat-in kitchen, and a maid’s room, before those apartments were carved into 4 2-bedrooms, 2 1-bedrooms, and a studio. The milk slot was a square two-way door, about 1 foot wide and 1 foot high, that pierced the wall next to your apartment front door (some apartments had back doors, too – another story). A tiny metal door opened into your apartment, and another one on the outside opened into the hallway of your floor. The milkman would arrive, open his side of the door, read your note, and deliver your milk order. You’d get up, unlatch your inner door, and voila! Your milk was there and ready for the ice box. These days, milk delivery slots have been boarded up and painted over. If you still have one, they are useful for slipping a small child through in case you lock yourself out.
Inside keys Not the same thing as a slam lock. These are totally illegal, and for a good reason. I have no idea why any apartment was ever built with these. You needed an inside key because your apartment door had a 2-way lock. This meant you needed a key to get into the apartment AND out of it. You could easily play clever tricks on your apartment mates by hiding the inside key and then locking the apartment as you left in the morning. You would
then be homeless, because no one was amused. It’s an obvious fire hazards, and at some point became illegal. I assume two-way locks were considered a good idea when babysitters were a luxury item hired only by the most wealthy or overly-cautious of families, and parents didn’t want their kids to leave the apartment while they were out shopping. Like I said, it’s a bad idea.
Mail drop slots Most office buildings and many apartment buildings still have these, but they are closed off now. Back in the day, you could drop your (paper-based) letters and bills into the mail drop next to your elevator. In theory, the mail would drop neatly into the post-office pickup box in the lobby below. In theory. In practice, mail was always getting stuck in the mail drop, and then the Super had to go to each floor and block off the mail slot to prevent more
envelopes from coming down. Then he had to find the blockade (usually somewhere between floors 7 and 19), take off the glass front of the mail slot, and poke the blockage with a stick until he got all the letters out. The digital age ended that fun forever.