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In the hustle and bustle of modern city life, it’s not uncommon to see apartment buildings towering high into the sky, offering residents a view of the surrounding skyline. But what about those who prefer a more historic and quirky living experience? Enter the railroad apartment, a type of housing that offers just that.
With roots tracing back to the 19th and 20th centuries, a railroad-style apartment was a response to maximizing space in narrow and often overcrowded tenement buildings. Unlike a typical apartment, where rooms are connected by hallways, areas in a railroad-style space are arranged in a straight line. (You know, like cars on a train.)
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Railroad apartments might’ve served a very utilitarian purpose way back when, but how to they measure up nowadays? Curious to see what today’s dwellers think of the old-school layout, I interviewed two real renters to share what they love — and, okay, don’t love — about railroad-style apartments. If you’re eying a railroad space yourself or eager to enhance your real estate IQ, here’s an inside look at the real deal.
Pro: They often have traditional, charming features.
When author and editor Hannah Orenstein was looking for a new apartment in 2021, she was on the hunt for a prewar building with charming details and modern amenities like “sufficient closet space and a dishwasher.” Fortunately, she hit the jackpot with a one-bedroom in Williamsburg that dates back to the 1930s.
“It’s like a vintage-y log cabin infused with classic New York fixtures,” she explains. “I fell in love with this apartment because of the charming details: there’s a lot of exposed brick, wood paneling and trim, tin ceilings, [and] crown molding.”
Though railroad apartments come in all sizes and styles — especially if you’re looking at a newer building — older properties are likely to feature sweet details that were popular in the 19th or 20th centuries. After all, a little bit of charm can go a long, long way.
Pro: They’re multipurpose.
Meanwhile, blogger Dana Berez fell in love with her Midtown Manhattan apartment for its unlimited potential. “As soon as you walk in, you can see the entire length of the apartment, which makes the space look visually bigger,” she shares. “The layout provides so many different spaces and vignettes, even though technically it’s a studio apartment.” Unlike her previous apartments — which were considerably smaller — Berez’s railroad apartment was the first time she could have a living room, office, and eat-in kitchen.
“I moved into the apartment during a time when I would be spending more time at home,” Berez adds. “The unique layout provided different vignettes that made it feel like I could move from space to space and not feel like I was stuck in a shoebox-shaped apartment.”
Though railroad-style studio apartments might offer a more flexible layout, Orenstein says the format is a bit dictating in her one-bedroom. “The one thing I find a little awkward is that my bedroom is in between my living/dining room and my kitchen,” she says. “If I’m hosting anyone, that means cooking in the kitchen and carrying the food through the apartment to the dining table.”
Thanks to her railroad-style apartment, her home is always on display, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Orenstein says: “It’s a good incentive to keep the whole place tidy! “
Pro: There’s ample storage space.
With most city units, square footage is at a premium — which means it’s important to make the most of every nook and cranny. Obviously, a railroad apartment is no exception. Since this type of dwelling doesn’t waste precious space with massive hallways, you can bet that the area is efficiently allocated.
“There are three full-sized closets with extra storage on top perfect for large bulky items like suitcases, seasonal items, paper products, [and more],” Berez says.
Speaking of storage, Orenstein particularly loves the “floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelves that line her bedroom. “As an author with an overflowing personal library, this last detail really sold me,” she adds.
Con: Natural lighting is at a minimum.
When it comes to a railroad-style apartment, there’s no shortage of amazing amenities. Storage? Space? Style? Check, check, and check. However, the one thing that this place falls short on is natural sunlight.
“I am very big on having as much natural light as possible — especially because I work from home most of the time,” Berez says. “My bedroom is the only space that receives full sun, while the rest of the space doesn’t get any natural light.”
While natural sunlight can really make or break your space, Berez did come up with a few workarounds. “Installing light fixtures transforms your space to something uniquely yours,” she recommends. “I currently have a light fixture from IKEA above my dining table and it just grounds the space and makes it feel like a home.”