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The Surprisingly Short History of the Rooftop Happy Hour

140 years ago, the only thing that hung out on urban roofs was wet laundry. But over time, height conquered all.  
A rooftop bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel in Bangkok.
A rooftop bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel in Bangkok.Flickr/Travel Afficionado

Access to a rooftop is a luxury of city living. It's no surprise that today's bars, restaurants, hotels, and apartment buildings are all racing to cash in on the human impulse to climb to the tops of things and hang out there. But 140 years ago, the only thing that hung out on urban roofs was wet laundry. Back then, rooftops were the exclusive domain of industrial equipment and domestic servants. The impulse of most residents was to stay away.

The American dream of private home ownership was well established in the 1870s, when developers first began to invest in apartment houses for the rising urban classes. But middle-class Americans were still nervous about the notion of living on top of their neighbors—they distrusted the diminishment of private space that this arrangement seemed to create. Apartment buildings of the time were specifically designed to alleviate this 19th century awkwardness with elements like private entrances and carefully placed staircases and hallways, to limit the possibility of actually running into a neighbor. Balconies were rare, as they were negatively associated being too public and with working-class immigrant housing.