Inside the Ansonia

A New York Classic

By Mary K. Fons

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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.

Dodgy William

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.

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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.

Ansonia Today

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.

Comments

Potabasil

a few years ago I went to this building, had some champagne, cigarettes and great conversation. also listened to some music, live. One the violin the other a grand piano. It's a beautiful building. My friend lives there.

blazerbadge

"We do have artists here, like Afgani Kissan, the Russian pianist" LOL. His name is spelled EVGENY KISSIN.

deborah

I lived in this beautiful; building in the early 80's. I woke nearly every morning to the sounds of operatic scales being practiced. I lived beside many film stars such Roy Scheider,Richard Dreyfus,Lee Grant and opera great Placido Domingo. Once I needed some dressy earrings and borrowed the wonderful prisms hanging from the scones, of course I later returned them. No one ever knew. I love and miss the Ansonia.

Enrique Siso

My mother used to live there during the second world war, sharing a one bedroom studio with my grand mother, her sister and a bunch of cousins, paying five dollars a week !!!! Sadly for Us, She passed away three months ago, so we just made a trip to NYC and stop by, to pay tribute to Her, and the Doorman gladly lets us came in to admire the splendor of the building, and, for a brief moment, share a part of the story that flows in our veins.

Mic

anybody have any old pictures of the ansonia, dating back to 1919-1925?

SUZETTE

MY FATHER LIVED THERE WITH HIS MOTHER HILLIAN OVANDO AND STEP FATHER MANUEL OVANDO IN THE 30'S WOULD LOVE TO SEE THE INSIDE

john d norman

My gt. grandmother lived there with her husband in the 20's and with her son in the thirties. She was still a resident there when she died in 1952. We all thought she lived in great splendor but having read about the Ansonia's condition in it's latter days life must have been fraught, and not a little unpleasant. The story of the Ansonia, though, remains utterly fascinating.

Richard Holmes

What are the room dimensions of a two bedroom two bath apt.??

John

Used to rehearse/compose/teach piano or voice in studios there I rented from a guy named Fausto for $5 per hour. An accompanist I knew from Albano's Voice Studio where I worked lived there. Don't remember her name.

ross44

What is the old Turkish Bath (i.e. Continental/Platos) used as now? Is it a spa or something like that?

Jim

One of my all-time fave short novels is Seize The Day, in which Saul Bellow mentions the Ansonia as visible from the hotel where the protagonist and his father live. However, I recall reading that the Ansonia, with its basement Turkish baths was the actual inspiration for the fictional Gloriana, where the characters live. Can anyone confirm this with a citation?

elizabeth

I lived in the Ansonia in the late 50s/60s. FASCINATING. So many famous muscians lived there - and others like myself, studying and aspiring to a gradn career. I only left because I moved to Italy, otherwise I would probably still be there. The history of the building is fascinationg.

Jim K

I met my wife who auditioned on the 2nd floor Guild Studios in 1979

Mike M.

I for one and thrilled to know the Ansonia still stands as one of the truly unique New York icons. There never has been nor ever will be any structure with quite as colorful, unusual and even funny, though, at times a little sad a history. I have been up to the rooftop and it still commands quite a view. The interior is beautiful and stately. It is truly a landmark building and I know we who live in the Upper West Side love this old French chateaux masterpiece of Beaux Art. I only wish I could have seen the "farm in the sky". That must have really been something. I am thankful it still stands, as it has for 106 years, a beacon to the Upper West Side and looks as striking as it ever did.

DEBORAH

I lived in the Ansonia in the eighties....I keep thinking about these older women who sat in the lobby most of the day. i always thought they may have been sisters, but they were eccentric, wore exaggerated make-up etc. I am wondering if anyone out there remembers them . Something tells me they mediums . i have been so curious about them. If anyone knows about them ....please post. Thanks

Jan F.

My father taught solfeggio at Guild Studios for many years in the Ansonia. He rented space from Mina Cravi-Bozza and her son is Fausto Bozza. I used to visit Dad's classes and so wish I could afford to live there today. Many memories.

Hellen

Does anyone know how I can locate a record for a resident of Ansonia around 40's-50's? My grandfather Vassili Sustroeff immigrated from Russia in late 1920's and lived in Ansonia. Ин 1935 performed in Philladelphia. His letters stopped coming around WW2. I ve been trying to find out where he died and where he is buried . If anyone has any leads in terms of getting records for the residents i would greatly appreciate it. the Ansonia rep told me that they don't keep records that old.

dan mckinney

i taught art at the albert pels school of art and think of the memories and the students from 1969. every day i took my lunch up to the roof top to eat alone and thought what a strange and wonderful building

Lisa

I'm trying to gather whatever information I can on a psychic or medium who held regular meetings in the Ansonia Hotel. I think her name is Mrs. Christiansen but that's a guess. I know it's Mrs. something. You'd write a question on a piece of paper, fold it and put your initials on the outside. She'd call your initials and give you "information" she was receiving, then ask if that answered your question. If it did not, she'd then open the paper and respond to whatever you asked. This was probably back in the 1970s but it could have even been as far back as the 1960s. I would be grateful for any information.

Drago

One of NY's most haunted locations

Richard Rubin

It is ashame in this age of gay liberation that most articles speak of the Continental Baths as if it were a negative for the Ansonia. It was a wonderful fairyland filed with great entertainers like Bette Mildler and gay orgies full of fun. I ,for one, certainly miss the Continental Baths and think it lent a certain Bohemian class to the history of the place. I have been in bath houses all over these great United States and none has ever come close to the artistry and penach that Continental Baths had in it's day. It seems very hippocritical to suggest that having the old Turkish Baths used as a disco and gay bath house with as much punch as Studio 54 had for it's time wasn't an asset. Many a straight couple and person visited for the entertainment part of the baths in the evenings fully clothed and admired the "gay boys" there as well as they pranced about in pre-Aids days. I'm sure Plato's retreat had its good points also, but I have no first hand knowledge of the goings on there. It to should not be spoken of as if none of the readers ever heard of such goings on. Let's not all pretend we are phoney prudes. Apparently Mr. Stokes, the originator of the building, was quite the swinger himself.

Lynne Funk

I live down the block and I often see an older lady with exaggerated makeup and a reddish brownish hair in the nabe, so maybe that is one of the mediums. I always note the original ironwork on the side streets-- some of which was removed and repliciated then replaced. The 74th St side gets alot of abuse because of Loehmanns and Fairway but 73rd has an interesting vehicle turnaround tucked into the facade. In the lobby is a case of old silerv and photos of the Ansionia back in the day.

an unknown user

My grandfather ran the news stand in the lobby in the 30-50's. My mom worked there ,too. Throughout her life she regaled us with stories of the Babe Ruth team, Pinza, Pons, etc. My grandfather probably knew the older relatives of some of posts here.

Barry Cordon

I found out about this great and beautiful building from watching 666 Park Avenue on British television. I hope one day to visit New York and see this gorgeous place for myself.

an unknown user

Another Brit brought here by 666 Park Avenue. The building is absolutely stunning. If I'm ever lucky enough to visit NY it's certainly going to be on my to-visit list.

William

Just went by yesterday and wen in Lohman's which is in the basement. It's where the Continental Baths was but there is nothing left of the old space. Very funny feeling. The Continental was a wonderful part of the gay scene in the 1970s and it was important to me. I remember one of the small rooms (cubicles really) that had a large bay window, painted black. I walked around the back of the building and the bay window is still there.

Sarah

What a beautiful and magnificent building ! A Gem :), I am currently watching 666 in the UK, and am hoping to visit NY next May, I am definately going to stop by to see this building in all it's glory , wow !!! Simply stunning :)

Sandy Piacente-Harding

I was an art student at Pels School of Commercial Art from 1980-1982. The Ansonia was in pretty bad shape on the inside, but all if that added to its charm in my opinion. I've since forgotten what floor the school was on, but we had the entire floor. I remember the coffee shop in the lobby and the great people who worked there. All in all the Ansonia is a beautiful building.

Mary Hillian Holden Waltman

To Suzette...my great-aunt was Hillian Ovando married to Manuel Ovando...lived for years at the Ansonia Hotel, but not in the 30's. She only had one son, he was born and still resides in MS. She passed away in the late 80's early 90's and Uncle Manuel sent her remains back to MS.

Loretta Guido De Rosso

I studied voice with Maestro Astolfo Pescia in the early 50's and his studio was at the Hotel Ansonia. I worked as his secretary in return for 5-1/2 hr. lessons per week. It was a very memorable time in my life.

Laura

Thank you for this article. The subject matter is one of the very few things that fascinates me (for some reason). Very cool for those who shared about family members once living there! Such a rich, exciting history. :)

taffey

In reply to Lisa: the psychic I think you were referring to was Reverend Rose Erickson. Her husband would collect a paper on which you wrote 3 questions and she answered the questions without looking at the paper. I think she was very accurate and I was wondering what happened to her.

Sharon

I lived in the Ansonia from 1962 to 1968 with two roommates Ruth and Lewellyn (who was a music and voice teacher). Ruth was a rep for Columbia Artists and managed Van Cliburn. I was in the theatre and modern dance world. I remember having to climb the long, winding staircase to the 11th floor during the great east coast blackout. Thank goodness the blackout didn't last too long!!!!! Whew. The bath house,steam room, pool area downstairs was then the Al Roons Health Club, not yet seedy. An adorable, Phillipino gentleman was a bellman who would pick up food for us from the deli that faced B'way and from the drug store on the corner of B'way & 74th. He was amazing and so sweet. (We loved him and tipped him handsomely.) No lovely roof gardens for us in those days. My friends and I used to sunbathe on the most unattractive black tarred roof but the view was spectacular. I used to walk to One Columbus Circle at 59th & B'way and on the way watch the construction of Lincoln Center. Often we would take a short stroll over to Riverside Park or Central Park for a relaxing afternoon. Delightful memories of the famous/infamous Ansonia are very dear. I've taken note of the rental cost of one and two bedrooms today. It makes me happy I could call her home in a day when I could afford it. Long may she live.

Dudley

I've loved Bette Midler since the early 70s.Her music helped get me through the Navy. I've always wanted to visit 230 w74th street to get the vibes that still eminate from there.Can't you just hear her..."and I am all alone..."?

Suzanne

I was one of Dan McKinney's students in 1969 at Pels school of art...Have loved that building since those days! Want to return for a visit and some exploration of that beautiful and enchanting building!

CYNTHIA SHANE

I seen the movie "666 Park Avenue" and it was so exciting about The ANSONIA hotel and its history. I can't stop doing research about this famous building. My son (STEVEN) works at the APPLE store near Central Park so now I plan to visit the ANSONIA and pray that I get in. I can't think of a better way to travel back in time. This is a once in a lifetime dream come true for me and at the age of 63 almost.

kevin j

Lisa..it was Rv erickson.....I hear she passed in 1984...and Bias or Byers was another good one..I hear


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