Walkabout: Meals in the Attic

(Photo: kitchenclarity.com. Large 19th century kitchen)

In the course of looking for topics for this column, I come across some interesting little snippets that give us an insight into what life was like in Brooklyn and New York City, a hundred years ago. I recently came across this short article called Architecture and Servants, in the Real Estate Record and Guide, January 28, 1893:

The importance of the servant girl as a factor in our modern life is illustrated in no better way than in the effect she has on the planning and construction of the modern dwelling house. It is not enough that the quarters allotted to the domestics have been immeasurably improved in the last ten years; nobody begrudges them that, but their demands extend to the other parts of the house and must be complied with or they will leave, and this last threat has been enough to assure the fulfillment of their demands. Possibly the most startling of the dominance of the servant girl is to be found in the entire abandonment of the idea introduced a few years ago of having the kitchen on the top floor.

This idea had many advantages and it found a quick acceptance. The culinary odors which penetrated even the houses of the best construction under the old plan of a basement kitchen were entirely done away with, and the kitchen was completely cut off from the rest of the house. Doubtless the roof kitchen would have been very generously adapted had not the cook objected. It necessitated climbing too many stairs, she said, notwithstanding the fact that a dumb-waiter always communicated with the kitchen, and it cut her off from company. She demanded the establishment of the old basement kitchen, and the owners and builders of private houses quickly succumbed. Architects say they are not allowed to plan dwellings with kitchens on the top floors anymore.

OK, wha?? This is the first I have ever heard of this trend, to have kitchens on the top floors. In all my travels, and in all the upper class and upper middle class houses I’ve been in, I have yet to see an original kitchen on the top floor of a single family house. We are all familiar with the brownstone and row house kitchens. The original kitchen is always found on the basement, ground floor level, in the back of the building. If the house is large enough, there may be a butler’s pantry, or built-ins built into a middle room or passageway, and a dumb-waiter to bring food up to the formal dining room on the parlor floor level. The front room downstairs was traditionally a less formal breakfast/dining room. Free standing houses, especially large mansions, also usually had the kitchen in the basement, with dumb-waiters to carry food to the parlor level. Depending on the climate, there could also be a summer kitchen, totally separate from the house, housed in a small building attached to the house. Guests never saw the kitchen, or anyone in it, except serving staff.

I would imagine if any of Brooklyn’s homes had kitchens on the top floor, they would have been moved back downstairs, long ago, which is why we haven’t seen any. I’m curious to find out if any of the readers in the Brownstowner community have ever seen an original top floor kitchen, or if you have one now, or if you have them in your original blueprints.

About time the servants of yesteryear won one.

(Photo:ourwardfamily.com. 19th century maids)

0 Comment

  • I’ve never seen one. We have one, but of course ours is an original two-family, and we also have the usual original first-floor rear kitchen as well.

    Great photo.

  • This is interesting indeed, and while I can’t think of anything in my experience to add to the top floor kitchen concept, it does make me think about the evolution of the kitchen in the 20th century. Today we see quite the opposite of the kitchen as realm of the lowly servants, and indeed the kitchen is the center of activity in the household and often creates opportunities for displaying success as exemplified in high-end commercial appliances, high quality cabinetry and other fancy finishing touches. Furthermore, gourmet, imported food items, and professional quality cookware become statements of the homeowner’s worldliness, experience, and skill in preparing delicious meals for family and guests.

  • When I was new in NYC, I often saw older Village residents lowering strong wicker baskets on ropes to the sidewalk. Deliveries were placed inside and pulled back up to the top floors. My great-grandmother told us about Brooklyn rooftop parties – a bucket containing money for beer and a tip was lowered to the street and neighborhood boys would race it to a bar room tap to be filled, then hauled back up to the roof.

    I’d imagine grocery transport to the top floor would have been the worst part of it. Food vendors came to you in those days, and I’m sure that heavy orders were carried into the house. The prospect of a horse-smelling delivery guy carting ice or coal up to the fourth floor was less appealing than having him bring materials into a ground floor kitchen.

  • only a clueless elite architect with absolutely no idea of how kitchens function or what goes into preparing a meal would even think of putting a kitchen on the top floor of a four or five story townhouse in order to eliminate cooking odors. That is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.
    It did not catch on.

  • Prior to air conditioning, the top floors of brownstones (heated by the black tar on the roof) were much hotter than the lower floors.

    In the summer, this would have been hellish, though I suppose that the owners of such houses probably left for the summer if they were able.

  • In Nepal the Newari people (and perhaps others) traditionally have their kitchens on the top floor of their often quite tall townhouses. I was led to believe this was because of the sacred nature of the cooking area.

  • Putman, that’s interesting. Odd, but interesting.
    I am imagining, big blocks of ice being hauled up five flights in NY. or racks of glass bottles, barrels of flour, big racks of meat, dead geese and turkeys. Dunno, seems gross. best to keep the kitchen near the egresses. Also plumbing would be an issue in the old days, “wet over dry” has never been a good idea.

  • Speaking of hauling heavy loads up the stairs: Our house originally had a dumbwaiter that communicated between the two floors of the owner’s duplex apartment and the third floor tenant apartment. It was located off the rear hallway, close to both kitchens. I imagine it was mostly for hauling ice, coal, and ashes up and down, not for cooked meals. It always struck me as a little odd though, since it goes between two private apartments.

  • I have a friend with a circa 1860 house in Jersey City. That house’s origianl kitchen was on the top floor. And then another was added on the basement floor at a later date, after the house was inherited and lived in by 4 sisters. It turns out he 4th sister was feuding with the other three and made her own apartment on the ground floor.

    In Richmond in the Fan, there are multiple grand old 4- story apartment buildings. I think they were built in the teens and twenties. These buildings typically had two apartments per floor, with front and back porches. The alley-facing back porches were equipped with these big hook, pail and pulley devices for deliveries to kitchens at the rear of the building. there were also stairs leading down from the rear porch to the alley. When I lived in one of those apartments we used the pulley for garbage.

  • Oh wait, I see my original comment did not post.

    I said I’ve never seen a one-family house with the original kitchen on the top floor.

    We have an original kitchen on the third floor, but it’s an original two-family house. There is another kitchen from the same era in the usual place in the rear of the first floor.

  • The help should never be seen above the parlour level except to empty the chamber pots.

  • What I actually find interesting about the kitchen pictured above is how aesthetically speaking – many “renovated” kitchens today actually look like this – just with cleaner subway tile and stainless steel appliances and throw in a Carrara marble countertop

  • im cringing thinking how much roach and rat feces were all over those dumbwaiters and dumbwaiter shafts! ew, pretty cool article tho MM!!! ive always always been fascinated with dumb waiters. lived in an apartment in north jersey once that what we believed to have been one at one time.


  • my house has a kitchen on 3d floor, but its not original by any means. I was told it was originally a servant’s kitchen so grandfathered into zoning.

    Many ditmas park houses have a similar room, but it’s usually converted to another use such as laundry, bathroom, etc..

  • Got one sort of. We bought a prospect heights brownstone that had been owned by one family before. The house had barely been updated in any way. The old bachelor who’d died and left it in his estate had kept things very much as they were when he was born in the house. It had an original kitchen on the ground floor with the huge original cast iron stove.

    But it also had a room at the top rear of the house that was clearly used as a kitchen and laundry room a long time ago. It had a huge old soapstone double laundry sink that would have allowed the wash to be run out the window on a line to dry I guess. It also had one of the oldest gas stoves I have ever seen. I assumed that maybe they had given a servant their own quarters with a kitchen at some point or maybe they had a border in at a very early date. Your guess is as good as mine.

  • Ownhs, that could have been an original two family. Look for an original bathroom on the bedroom/parlor floor, and identical mantles in each apartment’s parlor.

  • Rob, you lived in an apt that was formerly a dumbwaiter?