One of the last vestiges of New York City’s dormitory-style women’s housing, the century-old Webster Apartments, has packed its bags and sold for $52.5 million.
The sale of the historic Webster building was first floated in May of last year, with residents given notice to vacate by December 31, 2022. The purchase by new owner 419 WEST 34TH STREET DII LLC, which appears to be controlled by a Brooklyn-based not-for-profit housing organization, completed earlier this month. The Webster team posted on their Instagram account that they did not believe the building would be torn down by its new owners and added: “We are excited to share that another nonprofit is purchasing our building but do not have any further details to share at this time.”
The LLC named in the purchase was confirmed by The Real Deal to be Educational Housing Services, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1987 that helps students and interns find housing in New York and which already has nearby housing at The New Yorker at W34th Street and 8th Avenue.
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The Webster team confirmed that their organization has moved across town to the FOUND Study Midtown East at 569 Lexington Ave (bw E50/51st Street), a New York branch of a national organization providing student and intern housing. It is unclear if The Webster will maintain its previous pricing structure — where tenants pay rent on a sliding salary scale — or adopt the FOUND building’s current room rates.
Before the sale, the building originally opened at 419 W34th Street in 1923, providing a century’s worth of young women moving to New York with the option of living at the Webster — with the rare offering of significantly below-market rent and two hot meals a day in a convenient Midtown location. A roof deck terrace, a library and a screening room were later paired with modern amenities like in-building laundry and free WiFi.
The building’s W34th Street address wasn’t a coincidence either — as it was a Macy’s Department Store executive, Charles Webster, and his brother Josiah (cousins of Macy’s founder RH Macy), who contributed the funds needed to build the 13-story, 370 unit residence hall. The retail store — the largest of its kind in the late 19th and early 20th century — employed thousands of young, unmarried women who needed affordable housing. Charles, who died in 1916 after a financially prosperous career as a senior partner at Macy’s, elected to bequeath most of his fortune toward the building of a residence hall “for occupancy by unmarried working women regardless of their religious belief or nationality and wherein they find comfortable and attractive homes,” per the Webster’s mission statement.
“I request the directors…to purchase…a plot of ground in the vicinity of the large retail stores in the Borough of Manhattan,” read his will. “I direct that the said apartments shall not be conducted for profit, but solely for the purpose of providing unmarried working women with homes and wholesome food at a small cost to them.” Seven years after Charles’s death, the Webster Apartments were completed and his brother Josiah served as the organization’s first president, eventually leaving his fortune to the residence upon his passing in 1942.
The Webster’s first tenants were Macy’s sales clerks, but by 1935, as many as 84 shopgirls from department stores around the city had taken up residence at the building, where rent could be as low as $8.50 a week for a lower floor and $12 for an upper floor. Women living at the Webster apartments had free rein to use the building’s sewing machines and had access to an in-house infirmary, as well as a wide range of “books selected by a trained librarian.”
While the Webster’s population didn’t reach the Hollywood heights of other women-only residences like the Upper East Side’s Barbizon Hotel — known for housing everyone from actresses Liza Minelli, Phylicia Rashad, Cybill Shepherd and actress-turned-future-First-Lady Nancy Reagan to prominent writers like Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath (who wrote a fictionalized version of The Barbizon into The Bell Jar) — the dormitory did see the likes of Uta Hagen, the German-American actress and theatrical pioneer known for originating the role of Martha in the Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, founding the HB acting studio and writing the seminal book Respect for Acting. Years later, the Webster took up the “revival” of The Rehearsal Club, an audition-based women’s housing organization previously located on W53rd Street and known for sheltering the likes of Carol Burnett and Blythe Danner.
There were also famous visitors — like billionaire Warren Buffet, who in the fall of 1950 was just a student living in the YMCA housing at 356 W34th Street. Buffet cold-called The Webster to ask out his college classmate Vanita Mae Brown, though the organization’s history notes that the relationship didn’t work out. “Dating Vanita was like walking a leopard on a leash to see if it would make a good pet,” read one biography of the businessman.
One key barrier to dating a Webster resident was its firm rule against hosting male visitors — while guests were permitted in “beau lounges” (now primarily used as co-working spaces), men were strictly prohibited from entering guest rooms throughout The Webster’s 100-year tenure. A 2009 New York Times article describes a male visitor being kicked out of a resident’s room, the author musing: “This is not a tale from the 1950s. It is straight out of 21st century New York City. With an amused smile but an earnest tone, Ms Lienhard (who warned the embarrassed tenant that she would get “no second chances”) recalled the incident the other day as just one small drama from a slice of life that many people assume vanished from the city decades ago.”
The antiquated policy never stopped residents from clamoring to live at the Webster, rules and all. Another New York Times article from 1974 declared: “Residences for young women. Aren’t they passe, or just too, too quaint? Who wants that kind of shelter in the city these days? A great many girls and young women, that’s who. What’s more, only a few of them want their dormitory-like existence to be co-ed.”
“Going to the Webster felt like going back to a very prim-and-proper time,” said former resident Liz Lane, an Alabama-based artist who lived at The Webster during a college summer internship with Ellen Tracy Dresses in 2010. She fondly recalled the old-fashioned pink and green wallpaper as well as the dormitory’s infamous “no-men” rule — which didn’t just apply to suitors. “Men were not allowed anywhere but the first floor, including when my dad came to visit!” Despite the somewhat archaic visitor policy, Liz told W42ST that she had a great summer staying at the Webster. “Getting to meet other young young women at The Webster and really getting to know the city was one of the best parts of that summer internship,” she said. “It was a such a unique, quirky place, but it facilitated a lot of good conversations.”
And while at one point it seemed that The Webster Apartments might remain as one of the last “women’s residences” in Manhattan — as others like Chelsea’s Jeanne d’Arc Residence have since shuttered and the Centro Maria Residence in Midtown West has moved to the Bronx — the organization is definitely going “co-ed” at their new digs, leaving behind the long legacy of a now nearly bygone era.
Former residents, now composed of mostly students or young professionals, reminisced on a post about the Webster’s upcoming move, crediting their time at the complex as “some of the best memories of my life,” said one previous tenant. “I still have close friends from my time staying with you,” as another added: “Thank you for bringing me amazing friends. Thank you for your location! Don’t get me wrong. That first month was very tough being so close to the Lincoln Tunnel entrance. Thank you for being so close to Broadway. Thank you for being in a location that was SUPER helpful for a new New Yorker. Thank you for letting me experience Manhattan snowy days. Thank you for that beautiful rooftop and the incredible views of the Empire State Building. Thank you for the meals and thank you for being my first NYC home.”