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Central Park Best A Look at New York's Grand Old Co-ops

Their towers and turrets loom over the treetops on Central Park's west side, casting long shadows over joggers, sunbathers, and dog walkers in the park below. They're some of the most impressive, most historically significant apartment buildings in the city, designed by the architectural geniuses of their day and inhabited by luminaries in every field from music to industry. Many of the Upper West Side's historic co-op and condo buildings serve as landmarks for New Yorkers and visitors alike.

Multi-Family Mansions

concept of cooperative living began in New York City in the late 1800s and took off by mid-1900s, when the huge mansions built and lived in by industrial titans like the Astors and Rockefellers gave way to luxury multi-family apartment living. To accommodate the city's wealthiest families, buildings were erected that were landmarks even in their day-architecturally spectacular, and outfitted with the best amenities money could buy.

may come as a surprise to most New Yorkers-for whom apartment living has always been a way of life-to find that apartments in the United States represent a relatively new housing concept," says Andrew Alpern, a noted expert on New York City history and author of

Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: an Illustrated History (Dover Publications 1993).

Thing is, most of those fashionable, socially-conscious families were based on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; the Upper West Side was, according to Peter Salwen, author and president-elect of the Society for New York City History (SNYCH) in Manhattan, something of a hinterland. The money was on the east side of Central Park; "In those days," says Salwen, "people of fashion really did not live on the West Side."

That began to change, however, after the opening of Central Park and the establishment of a handful of grand hotels and gracious apartment buildings along the upper reaches of the park. The park had been created to draw people to the West Side, says Salwen, "And everybody had been saying for years [that it] was going to be a great place to dwell, a great place to build a nice, large house with plenty of land around it."

People did eventually build on Central Park West, and the buildings they built there remain some of the most beautiful, most spectacular examples of multi-family housing in the city.

Under One Roof

According to Alpern, in the late 1800s, there was a shift from single-family mansions to living in apartments. It has only been since 1869 that those who consider themselves above the laboring classes have been willing to make their homes under shared roofs." Prior to that time, Alpern continues, "it would have been unthinkable for a family of even modest social aspirations to live in anything but a private dwelling-however humble such a house might be."

Living in an apartment also offered its conveniences. "It was more convenient to be on one floor than running up and down the stairs," says Alpern. "It took less effort to run [a household] and fewer servants needed to operate it. Socially, however, it was a big hurdle to get over the idea of sharing a roof with another family. It was an emotional thing."

Many of these grand old buildings-most notably, the Beresford, the San Remo, the Dakota, the Alwyn Court Apartments, the Ansonia, the Century, and the Majestic-are still standing, and still attracting prospective residents. Most of them overlook Central Park's west side, and some have been converted from their original incarnations as rentals into condos and co-ops, but all still stand as the gold standard of pre-war New York apartment living.

Hotels Turned Haute

Built in 1889, the Hotel Beresford began as a six-story family apartment-hotel at 211 Central Park West, but it outgrew its needs a few decades later. Architect Emery Roth seized an opportunity to expand the Beresford to a massive 22 stories, designed in Italian Renaissance style with granite, marble, limestone, terra cotta and brick decorating its façade. Originally, the Beresford had a grand dining room on the top floor for residents, because individual units did not contain kitchen facilities. Today, the dragon crest on the Beresford's brass elevator doors is emblazoned with the Latin motto, Fronta Nulla Fides-Place No Trust In Appearances.

Appearance is no problem for the building, however. "The Beresford is a stone symphony whose grand finale is its fully orchestrated triple towers," says Alpern. "It is unique, and has unparalleled openness."

The Beresford converted to co-op in 1962, and before and since has been home to such notables as the late Tony Randall, opera singer Beverly Sills, and Isaac Stern, along with former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown and Hollywood producer-director Mike Nichols.

Emery Roth seized another architectural opportunity with the old San Remo hotel at 145 Central Park West, which had been converted into a ten-story apartment building. After its initial failure, Roth took on the project and designed an additional 17 stories with four twin-towers, once again relying on his trademark lavish façade details, including limestone, brick and terracotta.

"Classical balustrades, pediments and cartouches enliven the San Remo's façade and accentuate the upper-floor setbacks," says Alpern. "It provides a logical transition to the towers, which are really masterly amalgams of Greek, Roman and Baroque styles."

Empty Castles

Unfortunately, even the most majestically decorated buildings with luxurious amenities-like elevator halls for each apartment-couldn't stop the stock market crash of 1929 and the vacancies that would follow for all of the city's grand apartment buildings.

"The ultimate humiliation came in 1940, when the Beresford and the San Remo were sold together for a mere $25,000 in cash over the existing mortgages," says Alpern. "Apartments were carved into smaller units to help sell a more affordable living space."

Other buildings were also affected by the Great Depression, including the Majestic and Alwyn Court buildings. The Majestic, at 115 Central Park West, was originally designed as opulent Old World-style apartments with 11 to 24 rooms, but was eventually reworked into smaller, less lavish three- to eleven-room units with simpler, less extravagant interior design than that of neighboring buildings.

A Terracotta Treasure

Located one block north of Carnegie Hall at 180 West 58th Street, Alwyn Court was built in 1909 and named after Alwyn Ball Jr., the builder-developer of the project. The Alwyn had sprawling 14-room apartments-which were later subdivided-and a façade encrusted with ornamental terracotta carvings in the Francois I style; flowers, urns, fanciful faces, and salamanders breathing fire.

"Alwyn Court is a treasure of terracotta," says Howard L. Zimmerman, principal of Howard L. Zimmerman architects in Manhattan. "It's one of the most ornate buildings in Manhattan-there have been few buildings since then that have anywhere near the level of detail and ornamentation that this building has."

Behind its richly ornamented façade, the original suites at Alwyn Court were originally vast, ranging from 14 to 34 rooms with extra high ceilings and public rooms including galleries, music rooms, salons, libraries, and conservatories.

"There was even a separate wine cellar in the basement for each of the units," according to Alpern, "but in 1936, there was little money available for entertaining lavishly and dining out had become socially acceptable."

After the Depression, Alwyn Court was foreclosed upon and another builder gutted the interior, creating a new arrangement of apartments and including three penthouse suites. The new floor plan held until 1982, when the building converted into a co-op and another firm came in to rework the interior yet again.

Another Upper West Side building that underwent several Depression-era transitions is the beautiful, almost Parisian Ansonia, located on West 73rd Street. Built in 1902, it was a French-inspired apartment-hotel that included 2,500 rooms divided into 122 housekeeping apartments and 218 non-housekeeping units.

The Ansonia was originally intended to feature a large central tower, but the finishing touch was never completed. There also used to be tall decorative finials on the building's corner turrets, but they were removed decades ago. The building sits on an unusually shaped lot in a curve of Broadway, and is instantly recognizable for its arched entryway and exuberantly Baroque exterior.

"Apartments ranged from relatively modest bachelor flats to expansive suites that contained some of the most unusual rooms," says Alpern. The Ansonia's amenities also included full hotel services, such as a theater, a grand ballroom, and meal service. At one time, the building also housed a Turkish bath and swimming pool, several restaurants, and a lobby fountain, which was home to several live seals. In keeping with the building's apparent ease with wildlife, the Ansonia's builder, William Earle Dodge Stokes, lived for many years in a private suite on the roof of the building, where according to Salwen, he kept a number of farm animals.

Something for Anyone

The Century at 25 Central Park West was originally intended to be a building fit for anybody. Formerly the Century Theater, it served as a venue for musicals and opera. After the theater closed in the 1920s, the building was redeveloped into a twin-towered art-deco skyscraper with interior paneling, grand mantels, decorative detailing, and simpler, less-expensive furnishings than some of its close neighbors. At the time, the Century's best-loved amenity was its terrace.

Another landmark building is the famous Dakota at 1 West 72nd Street. Commissioned by industry magnate Edward C. Clark and designed by a young, still-unknown architect named Henry Hardenbergh in1884, the Dakota is one of Manhattan's most famous apartment buildings-both because of its star-studded roster of former and current inhabitants, and because Dakota resident and former Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed just outside the building 1980. Lennon's widow, artist and musician Yoko Ono still resides in the Dakota.

The Dakota's fortress-like, Neo-Gothic Victorian façade rises ten stories above the street, and is capped with a mansard roof. It features all sorts of ornamentation, like bay and octagonal windows, niches, balconies, and balustrades, and is covered with elaborate terra-cotta embellishments on three sides. (The fourth side is made of red brick.)

Some rooms in the Dakota's 103 apartments are up to 41 feet in length and have soaring 14-foot ceilings, and some apartments have separate courtyards, lobbies, and elevators.

"It's so rich in detail," says Patricia Burnham, president of P.S. Burnham Inc., a Manhattan-based real estate firm specializing in luxury high-end property. "I've never seen anything like it. It has great presence, even as you pull up [outside]."

Buying Into History

These historic residences started out as homes for the wealthy, and after several setbacks, the visions of its creators have come true. Today, the Beresford and the San Remo have been restored to landmark condition and are home to hundreds of singles, couples, empty-nesters, and families.

To buy into a landmark luxury building like these, Maria Pashby, senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, suggests working with a broker who understands what you need to pass the board of directors.

"Many people who buy from out of town don't understand the extent they have to open themselves up to a board in buildings like these. If they want to hide information and not be completely at ease explaining who they are and how their financials work, they aren't going to be approved by the board."

According to brokers, Beresford apartments with a park view can sell for between $4 million and $20 million. The San Remo is home to families, artists and celebrities, and while apartments there are not quite as large as in the Beresford, San Remo park view apartments start at around $3.5 million.

Current prices for apartments at Alwyn Court start at a minimum of $900,000 and run to just under $2 million. According to Pashby, "The most coveted of the Alwyn Court Apartments are the ones in the northwest corner, because they offer breathtaking oval living rooms with five views of Central Park."

"The Ansonia has come into its own only recently, because of so many years of transition," Pashby continues. "There are always apartments available because the building is very large." Prices for those range from $700,000 to $5 million.

"The Century building is diversified with amazingly different layouts," says Pashby, "so everybody can find a fit. Through the last decade, young families have enjoyed the building so much, they've purchased neighbors' apartments and created grander family apartments." Pashby says prices in the Century start at $1.6 million to $7 million.

According to Pashby, the Dakota has always been and will continue to be something special, in a league of its own.

"Once you leave the Dakota, it's tough to go anywhere else; it's because of the ceiling heights and grand proportions of the rooms. Families were creative with the parlor floors and 14-foot-high ceilings; they've combined them with the apartment underneath and created duplexes." Today, homes in the Dakota range from $2.5 million to $20 million.

At Home with History

Whether you're lucky enough to call one of the city's architectural gems home, or just enjoy strolling past them or catching a glimpse of their facades looming over the trees of Central Park, these buildings are part of what makes New York City's urban fabric so rich and variegated. Thanks to renewed interest in history and preservation of all of New York City's landmarks and architectural treasures, these special buildings will stand for centuries to come.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York. For a sidebar story on Manhattan's early apartment buildings, click here.

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Comments

  • Central Park West, Yes, it is the best, Serving as a Gateway or should I say a better day for Harlem. As One gaze up CPW, and move on to 8th Avenue, its unbelievable how out of touch these worlds are. However, I know that in the future the rich, middleclass and poor will be one at last.