Why is the top-floor apartment called this?
Originally, “penthouse” referred to a small building on top of another building. From the French word apentis for “attached building.”
The penthouse was literally on the roof, set back from the walls of the building. Thus, the person occupying the penthouse got the benefit of usage of the flat space of the roof.
Interestingly, the penthouses were original servant’s quarters.
In fact, before the ‘20s New York City rooftops looked pretty bleak: pipes snaked between water towers and chimneys spewed dark soot. The tops of buildings were actually reserved for servant’s quarters, poorly-insulated clapboard structures often built illegally and intended to remain out of sight.
Newly-built luxury apartments around Central Park began to advertise more formal servant penthouses as a building amenity. But as apartments grew taller, fashionable New Yorkers developed a new taste for the amazing views that came with. In a change of preference, these residents evicted their servants in order to illegally sublet the penthouses upstairs. In 1925, the city changed the laws to fully legalize penthouse living, and the rest is history.
Over the years, it morphed into a name for the top-floor apartment in a building, even if that floor was no different than the other floors in terms of footprint or configuration.
In 2014, the NY Times did an article about how real estate developers were adding “true” penthouses to the tops of existing buildings.
“The penthouse market is a unique submarket in the city,” Mr. Hollander said. “There are certain buyers that want absolute privacy and must have outdoor space, and they want to be at the very top of the building; those spaces are always in high demand, because there just aren’t that many of them.”
(I tried to do some research on how the word related to the naming of the pornographic magazine Penthouse, but – as you can imagine – there are a lot of search results for that, and very little of them have to do with the history of the name. I have to assume that rich men live in penthouses, and it’s assumed they do things up there that relates to the content of the magazine?)
Why I Looked It Up
We were staying in a Marriot Courtyard in Lincoln, Nebraska, and my daughter asked if the hotel had a penthouse. I said no, then got to wondering where the word came from.