Place  /  Dispatch

At the Webster Apartments: One of Manhattan’s Last All-Women’s Boarding Houses

A look inside an enduring home for women 100 years after its doors first opened to residents.

I am greeted by the same sight that greeted tens of thousands of young women before me, the same sight that greeted a younger self when my cab from JFK pulled up a decade ago, that greeted the department store girls arriving in the city with their belongings in trunks a century before that, and all the residents between and since: a red-brick facade towering over West Thirty-Fourth Street, its name proudly chiseled into stone, THE WEBSTER APARTMENTS.

In 1923, the New York Times described this facade—“its white trimmings, its wide and numerous windows.” Now the trimmings have dulled to gray. From the sidewalk, I can catch a glimpse of the chiffon curtains in those wide windows.

Charles Webster was the cousin of Rowland Macy and head of Macy’s department store. Upon Webster’s death in 1916, he left one-third of his wealth to build and maintain a hotel for single working women in Manhattan’s retail district—somewhere the Macy’s shop clerks could lay their heads at the close of each day’s shifts. Rent would be kept low enough for their meager earnings, with the apartments not run for profit. And so the Webster’s doors opened in November 1923 and, from then, its four hundred bedrooms were always occupied at near full capacity.

It was one among many such boarding houses established during New York’s great era of commerce and industry. But over the next century, as other women’s residences closed one by one, the Webster stood tall on West Thirty-Fourth, a monument to the old ways of living. Still women-only, still affordable—until, that is, the building was sold off last April.

I lived at the Webster roughly a decade ago, while working as an intern in a museum design firm just off Wall Street. It was the low rent that brought me there: $285 a week for a room, including bills, breakfast, and dinner (up from $8.50 to $12 weekly in 1923). The fact that the building was women-only seemed, to me, a historic quirk—a small sacrifice to live somewhere so central, so affordable on my intern’s wage. At the same time, I’d just turned twenty, I’d never lived outside of the UK before, I didn’t know a single person in the city. Perhaps I’d find friends among the other twentysomething interns staying at the Webster. Certainly, my mother was pleased I ended up there, safe among other women.