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In Tampa Bay, penthouses aren't just for those at the top anymore

This penthouse in Clearwater’s Grande on Sand Key condominium is on the market for $4-million. It is a penthouse in the traditional sense of the word as it is on the top floor. [Courtesy of Cary John, Florida Visual Marketing]
Published Jun. 12

Back in the days when people dressed up to take a plane trip or dine in a fine restaurant, "penthouse'' meant something unique and special.

It was the luxurious, one-of-a-kind abode on the very top floor of a building, a private aerie whose occupants were literally above it all.

No more. As a growing number of buyers choose condo living in Tampa Bay and other major metro areas, there's been a proliferation of places marketed as "penthouses.''

Parkshore Plaza in St. Petersburg has five. The Grande on Sand Key has four. The new Virage in Tampa has two. Some bay area penthouses are really several floors below what traditionally was considered the penthouse level. One is so small it has less square footage than the balconies of really big penthouses.

The flexible definition of penthouse was highlighted by the recent $6.849 million sale of a penthouse in the Ovation condo tower on St. Petersburg's Beach Drive. That was the second highest price ever paid for a Tampa Bay condo. The most was $6.9 million — for the penthouse right above it. And there are two penthouses beneath it, for a total of four penthouses in one building.

Is the word "penthouse" used too liberally?

"I will say that the fellow who bought the penthouse that set the record was interested in the penthouse on the top floor,'' said Frank Malowany, the Realtor on that transaction.

READ MORE: Downtown St. Petersburg condo tower penthouse sells for a record $6.9 million cash

Mathieu Benoot, whose family owns a realty firm on Beach Drive, is among those who agree with the dictionary definition of penthouse: "An apartment on the top floor of a tall building, typically luxuriously fitted and offering fine views.'' Benoot notes, however, that buyers get excited when they hear "penthouse" regardless of how big or on what floor the unit is located.

"Their ears perk up,'' he said. "It makes them feel exclusive.

"Penthouse'' originally referred to a little house on the roof of a building. It might have been used as a mechanical shed, servants' quarters or an actual residence that was "whimsically designed to look like a suburban house surrounded by picket fences,'' said Matthew Lasner, an associate professor at Hunter College and author of High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century.

"Even when used as homes,'' he added in an email, "they were rare enough to be considered a quirk, with newspapers exploring this oddball kind of city living. Few buildings had them and no building had more than one.''

Penthouses in the modern sense originated during the Roaring 20s in New York City, a metropolis growing up as much as out. There was a height limit then on regular apartment buildings so some of the first penthouses were in grand hotels like the 41-story Pierre and the 38-story Sherry-Netherland overlooking Central Park.

"Posh hotels would have a residential section to them where people leased apartments by the year,'' said Carol A. Willis, founder, director and curator of the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan."They had very fancy penthouses in the tower section … but they didn't have kitchens and they were serviced by the hotel below.''

READ MORE: The 25 most expensive homes sold around Tampa Bay in 2018

The largest and most opulent penthouse of the era belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton of the Post cereal family.

The heiress had been living in a mansion on a Fifth Avenue site where a construction company wanted to build a 14-story apartment house in 1925. To persuade Hutton to move, the company agreed to recreate much of the 54-room mansion on the top three floors of the new building. The resulting penthouse had 17 bathrooms, 12 fireplaces, two kitchens, a dining room big enough to seat 125, a cold-storage room for furs and a wrap-around terrace on the top floor.

Hutton didn't like to mingle with the masses, so she entered through a private entrance on a side street. (At the same time her Manhattan penthouse was under construction, Hutton also was building the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach now owned by President Donald J. Trump.)

As condominiums became popular in New York City in the 1980s, developers realized they could command higher prices for units at the top of a building. They clustered larger apartments on the upper floors, calling them "penthouses'' to distinguish them from other units.

"The word lost all connection to its etymology … and now is just a shorthand for larger, pricier, upper-floor units,'' said Lasner, the professor.

READ MORE: Developers buoyed by sales at Tampa's new Virage condo tower

That is generally true in the Tampa Bay area. Example: In the past five years, three units on three different floors have been marketed as penthouses in the 400 Beach condo tower in downtown St. Petersburg,

There's No. 2505 on the 25th floor, described on the Multiple Listing Service as a "luxury penthouse condominium with sweeping panoramic views of Tampa Bay.''

There's No. 2605 on the 26th floor, which one Realtor alliteratively touted as "pristine private penthouse in the sky.'' It sits two floors below what once would have been considered the true penthouse — No. 2805 on the top floor.

At least the two lower-floor condos — each with about 4,000 square feet and costing more than $2.4 million — are large and pricey. That's not always the case in the Salvador, a condominium near St. Petersburg's Dalí Museum that has five penthouses.

Penthouse No. 1 is 964 square feet and cost less than $500,000.

Frank Malowany, who sold the record-breaking Ovation unit, said "penthouse'' does carry a certain cache and aura of exclusivity. (That's one reason publisher Bob Guccione called his men's magazine Penthouse.) But buyers, especially luxury buyers, look for other things as well, Malowany said.

"For some people, whether they're on the top floor or not, doesn't matter,'' he said. "It just the amenities. If somebody has a taste for the traditional or very modern, that may be the deciding factor. There is a strong desire for larger square footage, if nothing else.''

In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, nearly 50 units described as penthouses are currently on the market. At $4-million, the most expensive is a 5,042-square-foot condo in the Grande on Sand Key in Clearwater. The building has three other penthouses, too.

Broker Alex Jansen, whose firm Coastal Properties Group has the Grande listing, isn't surprised by the popularity of the word "penthouse.''

"Developers want to sell for more money,'' he said. "If they could get away with it, they'd tell you the first floor is a penthouse.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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