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A penthouse apartment or penthouse is an apartment on the highest floor of an apartment building. Penthouses are typically differentiated from other apartments by luxury features. The term penthouse originally referred to, and sometimes still does refer to, a separate smaller "house" that was constructed on the roof of an apartment building.
The idea of a penthouse apartment was born in the 1920s, called “The Roaring Twenties”, when economic growth brought a construction boom to New York City, the heart of the American economy. The high demand for living in urban areas and the wealth of Americans led to luxury apartments on the top floor or floors of a building.
One of the earliest penthouse apartments in the city was publisher Conde Nast’s duplex penthouse at 1040 Park Avenue. The original 1923 plan for the building provided three units on each floor with additional maids’ rooms on the roof, but in 1924 the building’s upper spaces were constructed to provide a grand duplex for Nast. Connected by a staircase to the rooftop entertaining salons, the corner unit at the top floor was redesigned to be private family quarters. The whole unit was decorated in the French manner by Elsie de Wolfe. Completed in 1925, Conde Nast’s duplex penthouse was used for many lavish parties, which were made famous as much by guest lists as by the entertainment.
In architecture, the term penthouse is used to refer to a structure on the roof of a building that is set back from the outer walls. These structures do not occupy the entire roof deck. High-rise buildings will often have penthouse structures enclosing mechanics such as those in an elevator machine room.
While European designers and architects long recognised the potential in creating living spaces that make use of rooftops and such setbacks, in US cities, exploitation of these spaces began in earnest in the 1920s. It was a matter of news when the development of a rooftop apartment at the Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park was announced in 1923, and this was followed by rapid development of luxury penthouse apartments in the following years.
When used as private outdoor terrace spaces, setbacks can allow for significantly larger and more protected spaces than cantilevered balconies. Due to the desirability of this outdoor space, buildings may be designed with such setbacks on more than one of its uppermost levels, to allow apartments on several levels to feature such terraces. Not all penthouses have such terraces, but they are a desired feature. One such space may be divided among several apartments, or one apartment may occupy an entire floor. A penthouse apartment/condominium may also provide occupants with private access to the roof space above the apartment, instead of, or in addition to, terrace space created by an adjacent setback.
Penthouse apartments have not only the advantages of a regular apartment such as security and convenient location but also all those of a house such as size and design.
Similar to apartments, penthouses are usually located in the heart of busy cities yet offer a sense of being situated far away from or above noisy and crowded urban life. Such locations provide easy access to hotels, restaurants, malls, and schools. Overcoming the issue of small space in regular apartments, penthouses are usually large.
Features not found in the majority of apartments in the building may include a private entrance or elevator, or higher/vaulted ceilings. In buildings consisting primarily of single level apartments, penthouse apartments may be distinguished by having two or more levels. They may also have such features as a terrace, fireplace, more floor area, over-sized windows, multiple owner suites, den/office space, jacuzzi, and more. They might be equipped with luxury kitchens featuring stainless steel appliances, granite counter-tops, breakfast bar/island, and more.
Penthouse residents often have fine views of the city skyline. Access to a penthouse apartment is usually provided by a separate elevator. Residents can also access a number of building services, such as pickup and delivery of everything from dry cleaning to dinner; reservations to restaurants and events made by building staffers; and other concierge services.
Penthouse apartments are considered to be at the top of their markets, and are generally the most expensive, with expansive views, large living spaces, and top-of-the line amenities. Accordingly, they are often associated with a luxury lifestyle. Publisher Bob Guccione named his magazine Penthouse, with the trademark phrase "Life on top".
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