What is a Railroad Apartment?

A railroad apartment is defined as a residential unit which contains a series of rooms all of which are lined up with each other, from the front door to the back wall. The rooms in a true New York City railroad apartment are connected by a single hallway that runs the length of the residence, with each room accessible through a doorway off the hall.

Sometimes you'll find a railroad apartment with a series of aligned rooms that are connected directly with one another, without the hallway, usually delineated either by some sort of light-enhancing fold-away set of doors, such as a pair of windowed French doors, or by a more traditional, single-direction, latchable or lockable door. Though such apartments are often referred to as railroads, technically these residences, lacking the long hallway, are shotgun homes.

Railroad apartments can be virtually any size, from a Junior 1 to a Junior 4 to a one-bedroom, a two-bedroom, or even a three-bedroom residence. Railroad apartments are most often found in New York City's oldest residential buildings, especially in brownstones and so-called tenement buildings, as they initially appeared in the mid-1800s as a solution to overcrowding.

Railroad apartments of the traditional type, with the rooms connected by—and, so, separated from one another by--the long hallway, is an ingenious layout to deal with two very common living situations of New York City's great waves of immigration around the turn of the 20th century: multiple single men living together, all immigrants from the same country, who don't need much space in their home because they spend much of their lives working; and multi-generational, extended families who would take over two or three rooms or, if they were lucky, an entire apartment.

The railroad apartment of the traditional design affords a measure of privacy, because you can't see into one room from another; an easy sense of communal living, because you are, after all, sharing the same home (as well as kitchen, living area, if any, and, of course, bathroom, when these became common); and is an efficient use of space, especially if you have two, three or four people living in each bedroom. The vast majority of these original New York City railroad apartments are long gone, of course, but the layout remains a viable design for modern living, especially with (smaller) families and roommate situations.

Today the railroad apartments found in brownstone buildings are more often of the "shotgun house" variety, with rooms just piled one after the other with no separation. These railroad apartments are often prized by single young professionals as well as couples, because they tend to be less expensive than their counterparts in high-rise buildings; because brownstones themselves tend to be on pretty blocks, in desirable neighborhoods; and because the layout affords nifty design solutions to its intrinsic challenges.

Many railroad apartments of this sort have the kitchen area in the front, a smallish middle room, and a wider room in the back, with the two sets of windows looking out, if you're fortunate, onto a backyard, garden or patio. Whether to put the bed in the middle room and save the large room for a living room, or combine the first two rooms into a living/dining area, and saving the large back room for your bed, is the central dilemma faced in railroad apartment living, and one that has many clever, elegant solutions

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