February 6, 2020
The Wilbraham Hotel: One of New York’s Last Standing Bachelor Apartments
The Wilbraham on 30th Street has been an iconic part of NoMad since the 1890s and a witness to New York’s changing social landscape over the course of the twentieth century. The now-landmarked spot once served as a so-called bachelor flat — an exclusive residence for the city’s “single professional men of means.”
The Wilbraham is one of three such bachelor apartments still standing in the city, along with the Benedick on Washington Square East — named after Shakespeare’s charming protagonist in Much Ado About Nothing and famously mentioned in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth — and the Gorham on Broadway and 19th Street, former home to the silver manufacturer of the same name ( 889 Broadway).
The concept of bachelor apartments surfaced in the late nineteenth century in response to New York’s steadily growing community of unmarried men. As the number of single men spiked to 45% of the population in 1890 compared to only 13% just two decades prior, these shared male-only residences served as a convenient and affordable housing solution. As an added benefit, its tenants were able to avoid the social stigma of living alone or with an unmarried woman.
Scottish-American businessman William Moir recognized the investment opportunity to be found in catering to New York’s wealthy and single men needing to meet standards for respectable living. He was inspired to purchase two brownstone townhouses on Fifth Avenue and commission David and John Jardine to design them. Fascinatingly, John was also involved in designing equipment and gunboats to aid the Union Army during the US Civil War as well as several branches of the New York Public Library.
The impressive eight-story structure was created in the refined Romanesque revival style with a red brick, brownstone, white limestone, and cast-iron facade. The Wilbraham stands out on the street, with eye-catching features such as rusticated columns, elaborate carvings, an imposing stone archway bearing the hotel’s name, and a copper-covered mansard roof. The first two floors were advertised as a retail space, attracting high-brow businesses such as the Gilman Collamore & Co glass merchants.
While the thought of a bachelor pad might evoke certain vivid images for a modern audience, the rooms inside were fashioned to be tasteful and elegant. Unlike typical apartments, each tenant had a suite containing only a bedroom and parlor. There are no kitchens in these flats, because residents took their meals in a communal dining area on the top floor, where meals were prepared by staff cooks.
Men of ages 28 through 80 resided there, representing a range of distinguished professions including doctors, lawyers, professors, and fine goods manufacturers. They not only enjoyed the amenities in the hotel, which included the most modern electric lighting options of the time, an internal communications system, and an elevator, but also the neighborhood’s plethora of choices for dining and entertainment.
It is little wonder the area was so appealing to single men, as it was home to the theater district, some of the best hotels and bars in the city, an array of popular gentlemen’s clubs, and the coyly named Satan’s Circus, the city’s red-light district. Yet the Wilbraham’s male-only heyday was short-lived, as women increasingly joined the workforce in the early twentieth century and were able to strike out on their own and arrange independent housing. The residence officially opened its doors to female tenants in 1927.
As the years passed, the building was designated a landmark in 2004 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. The Wilbraham retains its charm and remains in residential use today.