A Rooming House for Career-Minded New York Women


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Sarah Berkes

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Liz Barclay for The New York Times

Sarah Berkes was delighted, if also very surprised, to find that a place like the Webster Apartments on West 34th Street still existed in New York City. The stately rooming house for “career minded professional women” where she has lived for a little over a year is one of the few of its kind left in the city.

Ms. Berkes had wanted to work in fashion her entire life, so she was ecstatic when, last November, five months after graduating from the University of Washington, she got a job offer from a sportswear company in Midtown. Her enthusiasm was tempered only by the facts that it was a Friday, they wanted her to start on Monday, and she was living with her grandparents in Belvidere, N.J., a two-and-a-half-hour commute to Manhattan.

When Ms. Berkes stopped to share her good news — and predicament — with a friend, the friend’s receptionist recommended she check out the Webster Apartments, where she had lived during an internship the previous year.

Ms. Berkes lived in sorority houses throughout college and Webster sounded “almost identical — except here, I’d get to have my own room.” There would also be a few more housemates: Webster has 375 single rooms.

Now 24, Ms. Berkes arrived last year to tour the elegant red brick building with a completed application in hand. Her only regret was that she had to wait a week to move in.

Two meals a day, social and professional development activities, and light housekeeping (rooms are dusted and supplied with fresh linens weekly; trash cans are emptied every few days) are included in the rent, along with utilities and Wi-Fi, ice and access to a library, several screening and sitting rooms, a sprawling garden and a rooftop terrace. There are also six “beau parlors” where women can entertain friends and, even to this day, suitors — men are not allowed in bedrooms, or even above the first floor.

“The no boys upstairs — most girls here from the U.S. were in sororities, so it’s no surprise,” said Ms. Berkes, who added that it’s not uncommon for girls to spend the night at their boyfriends’ apartments — there is no curfew. She admitted that she doesn’t necessarily volunteer information about her living situation on first dates, but if things get more serious she explains.

Name: Sarah Berkes

Age: 24 Rent: $1,200 a month, which includes two meals a day, housekeeping and social events, most with an educational or professional bent (a recent program paired a résumé workshop with free manicures). Occupation: Sales assistant at the Moret Group, a sportswear company. Bathrooms: Each floor has five or six showers and six stall toilets, shared among 25 to 30 women. Rooms have private sinks. Residency requirements: Women of all ages can apply as long as they are employed at least 35 hours a week or have an internship or fellowship of at least 28 hours a week. Full-time employees must make between $30,000 and $85,000 a year. In the lobby: A long-distance telephone booth (it still works, but it’s mostly used for photo-ops) and the building’s original glass-and-brass mailboxes. The food: “Really good,” Ms. Berkes said, describing her breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and an egg-white omelet with tomato and spinach. She was particularly impressed by a Halloween-themed meal in which the kitchen staff simulated a dead body using a mask and trays of ribs, and sausage for intestines. “Who thinks of that?” she said.

“At first they’ll be like, ‘Interesting…’” she said. “But when I tell them I get two meals a day and have someone clean my room, they’re like, ‘That’s so cool!’”

Ms. Berkes pays $1,200 a month in rent. Monthly rates average between $1,100 and $1,800 and are determined on a sliding scale pegged to the resident’s income.

Charles B. Webster, a cousin of the Macy’s Department Store founder, left the bulk of his estate to create the nonprofit women’s residence after his death in 1916. Webster sympathized with the plight of shopgirls — women of modest means who often lacked friends or relations in the city — and felt that they should have access to comfortable and affordable housing close to their jobs, as well as to nutritious food and to a means of social and professional self-improvement.

Women can live at the residence for up to five years — though it’s common for groups of girls to move out earlier and get apartments together. Ms. Berkes, who met her three best friends in the second-floor movie room watching “Bachelorette,” said there was talk of one day moving out together, but no one wanted to leave just yet.

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The room Ms. Berkes lives in at the Webster Apartments in Midtown Manhattan.

Credit
Liz Barclay for The New York Times

“Even when my mom came to visit me last month and stayed on a cot in my room, she was like, ‘I don’t want to go back home!’ She met all my friends, the food is so good and she was like, ‘It’s so fun!’”

Ms. Berkes’s room measures approximately 13 by 8 feet and is furnished with a single bed, desk, chair, dresser and bookshelf, as well as a telephone, closet and sink. She has decorated it with Christmas lights, a poster of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and a watercolor of high heels she painted at a Webster event where they served bruschetta made with vegetables from the garden. “How cool is that?” she said. “I get to have a backyard and a garden in the middle of Manhattan!”

In Washington, where she grew up, fashion jobs were mostly limited to Nordstrom and Eddie Bauer. She spent the summer after college agonizing over whether she should move to New York in the fall or save money for a year. For her birthday in September, her parents surprised her with a plane ticket.

They gave her another parting gift as well — a copy of “The Devil Wears Prada,” by Lauren Weisberger, which she displays in a place of pride on her bookshelf. The phrase “I Love NY” has been “sculpted” by folding the book’s pages to create the message. She loves the author and the story, but most of all, she loves Manhattan. When she made her first giddy call home after landing her job, her parents recommended getting an apartment in Brooklyn because it would be more affordable.

But only Manhattan would do. “ I was so obsessed with it,” Ms. Berkes said. “I had to live in Manhattan. I was so excited when I went to get my license and it said New York, New York.”

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