Inside the Ansonia
A New York Classic
Of all the awe-inspiring, historically significant buildings that make the Upper West Side of Manhattan so aesthetically pleasing and popular to the masses, perhaps few are as architecturally exuberant or hold such colorful history as the Ansonia building and hotel.
Located at 2109 Broadway, the Ansonia’s ornate façade towers 18 stories above the trees at its feet, both beautiful and a little imposing. The structure is massive—the largest mixed apartment/hotel building in the city, boasting 1,400 rooms, over 300 suites and a grand total of 50,000 square feet, according to Stephen Gaines, author of The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan.
In addition to the scale and grandeur of the Ansonia building itself, the building is rich with the history of the people who have lived there and the secrets contained within its walls. But the past isn’t the only thing interesting about the building. Its present is pretty fascinating, too.
William Earl Dodge “W.E.D.” Stokes, heir to the huge Ansonia copper fortune, broke ground for the Ansonia building in 1899, but prior to that, he was a flamboyant figure in New York society—though not especially popular.
Historical sources differ somewhat as to Stokes’ character. The term “despicable” comes up with some frequency, and most sources agree that Stokes was a general pain in the neck, though others more charitably refer to him as “eccentric.” He was prone to random outbursts of profanity and fired people for entertainment. He sought out and married a 15-year-old girl he knew only from a photograph in a shop window, alienated his entire family through intrigue and litigation, and seemed to care for nothing but his grand vision for the Ansonia.
The Ansonia project was one of many that Stokes embarked upon on the Upper West Side, but none before (or after) was such a huge undertaking. Stokes had no training when it came to architecture, but he gave strict instructions to the European architect he hired for the job, one Emile Paul DuBoy. DuBoy was instructed to create a masterpiece in the Beaux-Arts style, characterized by classical form, symmetry, rich ornamentation and grand scale—all elements that were high on Stokes’ list of priorities.
The building was to tower over all others in the area—and it did, though it might’ve been taller in the blueprints. Stokes stopped building after the 17th floor, claiming he “liked the view” and wanted to get on with the rest of the interior construction. There certainly was a lot of work to be done.
The Copper King’s Palace
Stokes may have lacked charm, but there was no limit to his ambition. When the building was ready to be decorated and furnished, no expense was spared and no idea was too outlandish—indeed, when it was finally finished in 1913, the Ansonia had run a staggering 800 percent over budget, costing $6 million in total.
It was said that Stokes built the Ansonia with artists in mind—especially musicians. The doorways into the apartments were wide enough for a grand piano to be moved in with ease, and walls within the building were three feet thick in some places, making them virtually soundproof. According to Gaines, “In summer, freezing brine was pumped through a series of galvanized steel flues buried in the walls…keeping the building at 70 degrees.” This was appealing to singers and musicians concerned about their voices and instruments.
According to Gaines’ book, such amenities were extravagant, but more or less logical. The real opulence came with the other extras Stokes chose. Among them was a fountain in the front lobby replete with live seals; a shopping arcade in the basement, various cafes, a Turkish bath, a palm court, and a tailor. There was a dining room that held 550, several ballrooms… and a farm on the roof. It’s true: Stokes had a vision of a self-sustaining building, a kind of rental utopia. He purchased various farm animals and constructed a mini-pasture on the roof. Each morning, a staff member would deliver fresh eggs and milk to the guests or tenants of the building.
Drama of a Different Sort
The tenant history of the Ansonia is rich, too; Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Arturo Toscanini and Al Adams, a notorious millionaire, all lived for a time in the building. Because the Metropolitan Opera opened right around the time the Ansonia did and wasn’t too far from it, the rooms of the hotel were constantly packed with singers, divas and hangers-on.
But the history of the Ansonia is not all glitz and glamour. During the Great Depression, the building had to close its hotel rooms and became strictly rental.
In 1945, W.E.D. Stokes’s son sold the Ansonia. The buyer was a less-than-scrupulous entrepreneur by the name of Samuel Broxmeyer, who basically ran the building into the ground until he was jailed on fraud charges and the Ansonia was sold at auction to Jake Starr, one of the building’s many lenders.
Starr was no great sweetheart either, and by the time he got hold of the Ansonia, it was a mess—the roof leaked like a sieve, the pipes and ductwork were seriously deteriorated, windows were rattling and drafty, and floors were buckled and warped.
When he found out that it would cost millions in renovations and repairs before the city would even consider granting him the certification necessary to run the Ansonia as a residential rental building, Starr opted instead to let the building molder until it was a grim, decrepit shadow of its former glory.
That did it. A weeklong protest and demonstration eventually followed; a petition drew 25,000 signatures, calling for Mayor John V. Lindsay to save the building. The finale of the week was a five-hour live performance held in the middle of 73rd Street, which was closed to traffic, starring many of the building’s tenants. A few months later, on March 15, 1972, after the intervention of Congresswoman Bella Abzug, it was done: The Ansonia Hotel became a landmark. But only the exterior of the building was protected, leaving Jake Starr to do what he wished with the inside-which was nothing. The Ansonia became a decaying shell.
The building was home to Plato’s Retreat, a straight swingers’ club that became notorious for its Disco-era goings on. In addition to that, the Continental Baths found a home at the Ansonia and a young Bette Midler got her start there, singing for the gay male clientele. Eventually, the citizens did get their way and, due to their work, the Ansonia still stands in all its glory, though if talk of Plato’s Retreat or the Continental Baths piques your interest, you’re out of luck-the city ordered both venues closed in the 1980’s in light of the growing AIDS crisis.
About that time, the ramshackle Ansonia began to attract as tenants, for indefinable reasons, all sorts of mediums, psychics, spiritualists, and fortune-tellers. A Dr. Clifford Bias began holding quasi-religious services in a chapel off the lobby on Sunday afternoons. One week, Dr. Bias was blindfolded and summoning up the dead when the great singer Geraldine Farrar appeared to deliver the message, “The Ansonia isn’t what it used to be when I was there.”
The Ansonia’s final act-so far-began with Jesse Krasnow, a bespectacled man with calm blue eyes and a round, open face. Krasnow might have had only a summary appreciation of the provenance of the Ansonia when he bought it in 1978-heading up a group of 21 investors-but over the past 25 years, he’s become enraptured with the building. It has become his great love as well as the bane of his professional career.
When he took over, Krasnow’s plan was to fix the violations that Starr had run up and then ask the city to unfreeze the rents. (He also immediately moved to get Plato’s Retreat out of the basement, paying owner Larry Levenson $1 million to go away.) Some elderly residents faced 300 percent increases. Outraged tenants accused Krasnow of doing only patchwork repairs. The leaky roof became a joke. “Every year the sap flows,” complained one tenant, “and every year Krasnow tars the roof of the Ansonia and it still leaks.” Even after Krasnow put $3.5 million into the roof, it still sometimes leaked.
Asked about this fight, Krasnow responds with a folder of photos. “This is what the place looked like,” he says. The photographs evoke the hallways of a medieval mental ward. “The halls were yellow. Dreary. Discolored linoleum, fluorescent lights, bare bulbs, and old tiles.” He shows a close-up of the ripped, patchy floor. “When you came out of the elevator, this is what you saw.”
Even as he poured money into the Ansonia-the partnership eventually took out $21 million in mortgages, all toward repairs, improvement, and a reserve fund, Krasnow says-he continued to enrage the residents. In 1980, the Ansonia Residents Association declared a rent strike. ARA members began to pay their rents into an escrow account, and they used the interest from the account to hire a lawyer to sue Krasnow. When that group seemed close to negotiating a compromise, another, more radical splinter group formed, with its own escrow account and its own lawsuit. The Ansonia Hotel became the single most litigated residence in the history of New York City. A housing-court judge was assigned full-time to the case and, over the next ten years, Krasnow found himself cast in the role of one of the city’s most villainous landlords.
In the long run, Krasnow realized the best way to make the building functional again was to buy out the tenants who were unhappiest, and in 1990, the tenants accepted a condo plan allowing them either to continue renting or to buy their apartments at a 60 percent discount. A one-bedroom would cost $125,000-way beyond the means of most Ansonia tenants. (These days, it costs about $800,000.) Today, 29 percent of the building is rent-protected, subsidized by Krasnow, who claims that he’s put almost $100 million into the building.
And now it’s his office as well: In 2003, he moved his operations from midtown into the Ansonia itself. He enjoys mingling with the residents, most of whom don’t recognize him. “The newer tenants don’t care about me,” he says, “and the older ones still have a good deal.” Krasnow keeps a curio cabinet in his office filled with Babe Ruth memorabilia. He’s spent the past 25 years trying to track down which apartment was Ruth’s, but nobody knows for sure.
Today, the Ansonia looks as imposing as it ever did, even though the spires are no longer on the top of the structure and the rooftop farm has long since been dismantled, courtesy of the Department of Health in the 1930’s. That hasn’t stopped people from seeing that Ansonia as a prime slice of New York City property.
Bernie Gelb is the director of sales at Ansonia Realty, the office that has been managing the Ansonia Building since 1992. Gelb says that availability at the Ansonia varies, but that on average, there are between two and five apartments available at any given time.
“Right now, we have three apartments on the market,” says Gelb. “Sometimes we have as many as five or six, sometimes there’s nothing at all. We do have a database that keeps track of inquiries, in the case of a waiting list.”
The Ansonia, like most buildings in New York City, has a range of options when it comes to choosing a unit. The spaces currently available range in size and price.
“For example,” says Gelb, “I have the top two floors of the south turret available right now. That duplex takes up part of the 16th and 17th floors, with a wraparound staircase and a rooftop garden. The unit was featured in Art Deco magazine in 2000 and goes for around $4 million.”
Gelb says that the other units he currently has available range from a studio ($475,000) to a 2,500 square-foot, three-bedroom, four-bath unit that the sponsor has totally renovated. “The renovation is spectacular,” says Gelb, “The moldings have all been replaced, but they are exact replicas of the original pieces.”
Renovation at the Ansonia is something that its tenants take seriously. The building is considered by New York City to be a historical landmark and is listed in the Federal Register of Historical Landmarks in Washington, D.C. Because of this status, there are certain pieces of the building that cannot be altered during renovation-namely, the windows. Gelb says that if you purchase Ansonia real estate, you can do whatever you like within the space, but not the windows. “We have to preserve the building from the outside.”
In the past, artists flocked to the Ansonia-the building was even called “The Palace for the Muses” at one time. Gelb says that artists still come to the Ansonia, but that’s not all.
“We do have artists here, like Afgani Kissan, the Russian pianist, who’s lived here for six years. We still have some opera singers and at least one well-known actress. The building converted in 1992 and it wasn’t until 1997 that sales really picked up. Since then, we’ve continued to sell to the artists, but also to doctors, lawyers, Wall-Street types, too.”
Gelb says that 75 percent of the building units are owned condos, and the remaining 25 percent are rent-stabilized apartments. When a rent-stabilized tenant leaves, the unit they occupied goes on the market for sale. Ansonia Realty handles any subletting that owners choose to participate in.
Clearly, the Ansonia doesn’t come cheap. But you’re not just in any old building, of course. Where else in New York can you find that much history in 50,000 square feet? Even if you can’t afford one of the elegant units in the Ansonia building, the next time you’re up on the Upper West Side, stop by and take a peek. No matter what happens next with the Ansonia, you can be sure it will continue to be classic New York: exciting, progressive and grand.
Mary Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.