For those of us raised on movies of the 1930s and 1940s, Central Park West's great beaux-arts and art-deco apartment towers were the backdrop to our visions of urban glamour. Francis Morrone writes of one in The Architectural Guidebook to New York City: "Dinner jackets. Martinis, very dry. Witty badinage. Skyline views out the window. Cole Porter. Fred Astaire. You thought it was just the movies?" The magic of these buildings endures 70 years after the newest of them began rising above the trees.
Naturally, these buildings did not arise in a vacuum. The form of buildings is dictated by building codes and zoning resolutions as well as fashion and construction materials. The apartment-house law of 1901, the zoning resolution of 1916 and new apartment house laws in the late 1920s placed restrictions on new buildings' height and bulk to preserve the free flow of light and air. Meanwhile, during the mid-1920s, the city made Central Park West more attractive by building a subway line beneath it, removing the streetcar tracks and widening the roadbed. Finally, the stock market boom of the late 1920s created surplus capital for real estate investment.
The unmentionable factor was racism in New York's real estate industry. Brokers and the management of most east side luxury buildings openly collaborated to exclude Jews from tenancy, regardless of their accomplishments and money.
All these factors created the skills to build new luxury apartments, a new neighborhood in which to build them and a suppressed demand for them. Within a single decade, the architects Emory Roth and Irwin S. Chanin would build some of the city's most memorable apartment buildings, particularly the great twin-towered high-rises, the Century, the Majestic, the Beresford, the San Remo and the El Dorado, along Central Park West, transforming a forgettable street into a majestic skyline. From the turn of the century until 1929, most important apartment buildings were constructed in the beaux-arts style, sometimes called ornamental classical or renaissance (American, Italian or Spanish, take your pick of prefix). Strongly influenced by the Second Empire, with elaborate ornamentation and mansard windows, such traditional buildings presented a reassuring image of importance.
This fashion began changing after Paris' Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The Exposition fomented a new style in architecture and interior decoration, called modern classicism, style moderne or art deco. It was evolutionary, not revolutionary: it stylized classical ideas with other existing styles and, as it was recognizable, it rapidly became fashionable. As Elizabeth Hawes writes in New York, New York, "Some of its [appeal] lay in the abstraction and abbreviation of forms that had always been expressed literally; some came from the rich machine imagery. It looked fast, sinuous, exact, and racy, quite like the modern age."
It even began influencing New York's conservative apartment-house architects, including the amazingly successful Emory Roth. Born in Austria in 1871, Roth had no formal architectural training. He arrived in 1884 with eight dollars in his pocket. After apprenticeship to a cabinetmaker, he became a draftsman for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. He then worked for the great Richard Morris Hunt in Chicago and New York, and then with Ogden Codman on some interiors at the Breakers, the Vanderbilt family's great Newport mansion.
The bare facts of his career are the most effective evidence of his industry, intelligence, charm and talent. In 1898, Roth opened his own practice. Five years later, he designed the Hotel Belleclaire at Broadway and 77th St. It was his first important building, the first of many. His buildings were comfortable, efficient and beautiful; he had a rare, instinctive understanding of building costs and operating expenses. His sons later claimed he had designed more than 500 apartment buildings, perhaps more than any man in the history of the world.
By the late 1920s, his practice was among the city's largest. This meant nothing to the American Institute of Architects, which rejected Roth's application for membership in 1927. One can only speculate whether they blackballed him for being self-taught, successful, an immigrant or a Jew. Perhaps it was all four.
His last major works in the classical vein were two of New York's last classically inspired luxury apartment buildings. They were also his masterpieces. The Beresford (1928-'29), named after the hotel it replaced, stands 22 stories tall and 200 square feet at the northwest corner of 81st St. and Central Park West. Over the steel framework, Roth lavished granite, marble, limestone, terra-cotta and brick with an Italian renaissance decorative treatment. The finishing touch is its triple towers: "octagonal, exuberantly ornamented, crowned with oeil-de-boeuf windows, topped with Mission tile roofs surmounted by tall copper lanterns that are lighted at night."
From the day it opened, its tenants were as distinguished as its appearance, drawn by its large apartments, spacious rooms, extensive storage facilities and elegant appointments. Perhaps the most spectacular apartment is a triplex surmounted by a double-height studio living room in the southeast corner tower, currently occupied by longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown and her husband, producer David Brown. Completed only a month before the stock market crash of 1929, the Beresford defaulted on its mortgage in 1940. Recovering after World War II, it became one of the first cooperatives on Central Park West in 1962. Andrew Alpern notes that a nine-room apartment with a terrace was then offered for $40,700. In 1988, a similar apartment was offered for $3,500,000: a compound interest growth rate of more than 18 percent a year consistently over 26 years.
Roth's San Remo (1930) at 145-46 Central Park West, between 74th and 75th Sts., was also elegant, even ethereal. However, its twin towers are uniquely Rothian. Only the wildest romantic would build Greek temples (modeled after the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, dating from the 4th century BC) 30 stories in the air (they conceal the twin water tanks of the building).
At roughly the same time, Roth was designing the El Dorado, at 300 Central Park West, 90th to 91st Sts. Although the architects of record are Margon & Holder, Roth is credited as their consultant and most critics consider it part of his oeuvre. Though conservative, Roth had always been versatile. Here, he abandoned the preferences of some 30 years as an architect in favor of art deco. The northernmost of Central Park West's twin-towered apartment houses, the El Dorado is insistently vertical, with magnificent bronze relief work embellishing the base and the towers, which are subtly illuminated after dark. It is one of the most gently romantic sights I know: as graceful as the San Remo, and yet utterly different.
Furthermore, I am drawn to this building for sentimental reasons: between the attack on the World Trade Center and the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, some skillful patriot ran a cable between its towers to fly the Stars and Stripes, a gesture so surprising and so moving that a photograph of it appeared in The New York Times.
Irwin S. Chanin was a relative latecomer to luxury housing. After studying engineering at Cooper Union, Chanin had worked on the construction of the early subways. In 1918, he returned from World War I with $200 in cash, raised a few thousand more and built two one-bedroom frame houses in Bensonhurst. Brilliant, ambitious and persuasive, Chanin went within a decade from Brooklyn middle-class housing to Manhattan theaters, including the legendary Roxy, then the world's largest movie house with more than 6000 seats. In 1929, he built the Chanin Bldg., the art-deco skyscraper at the southwest corner of Lexington Ave. and 42nd St.
In the same year, he announced two new buildings on Central Park West. He meant them as landmarks, monuments to the spirit of the city itself: Donald Martin Reynolds suggests in The Architecture of New York City that he meant them to symbolize "New York, city of opportunity, and...the spirit of modern industry that sustains it; ...that any individual in New York City may rise from humble beginnings to wealth and influence through the use of his mind and hands." These observations are neither profound nor consistently true, but Chanin believed them. In any event, Chanin's genius was expressed in his work, not his words.
Chanin, his in-house architect Jacques Delamarre, and sculptor Rene Chambellan discarded the beaux-art style in favor of art deco. The Century and the Majestic (named after a theater and a hotel that had previously occupied their respective sites) were announced as a 65-story office building and a 45-story apartment hotel. Excavations were dug, foundations constructed and steel erected. Then their financing evaporated with the Dow Jones Index during the stock market crash.
The Century, the tallest of the great towers at 32 stories and the southernmost at 25 Central Park West, between 62nd and 63rd Sts., reflects Chanin's audacity and optimism. He redesigned his building for people who wanted pre-Depression luxury but could afford only smaller space. Even as he designed simpler, smaller and less expensive units, he preserved a certain richness: one-room apartments with a small serving pantry, for example, had terraces. He even designed one-bedroom duplex apartments, creating a sense of space spread over two separate floors within the modest confines of three rooms.
Chanin had the courage of his construction materials: by using a new form of concrete construction, he obviated beam-drops in the ceilings. Cantilevered floor slabs eliminated corner columns, permitting him to install wraparound windows, and provided additional width to the terraces. Many apartments had solariums; their special window glass transmitted the ultraviolet rays of sunlight.
The same modernity extended to the Majestic apartments, 115 Central Park West, between 71st and 72nd Sts. (1930-'31). Chanin had announced his intention to build a 45-story single-towered apartment hotel on the site on April 29, 1929. He scheduled its opening for Oct. 1, 1930. The Majestic was originally designed with apartments ranging in size from 11 to 24 rooms because a study of apartment accommodations in New York indicated that such large suites were most in demand. After the crash, Chanin and his staff frantically reworked the plans into a 29-story twin-towered apartment house offering an assortment of apartment sizes ranging from very small units to ones of 14 rooms. However, the driving force behind the Majestic, as with all these buildings, was making money: renting the apartments, carrying the building's costs and making a profit on the original investment. Chanin opened the building in the fall of 1931; he defaulted on the mortgage less than 18 months later.
The great Central Park West buildings of Roth and Chanin created New York's most memorable and humane skyline. They were among the last in the grand tradition. The Depression and then World War II interrupted luxury construction for nearly two decades. When it resumed in the early 1950s, as Tom Wolfe suggests, Bauhaus had become our house. Andrew Alpern describes the designs as "bleak, mean, ungracious, cramped, and thoughtless... You had to look...at the size of the monthly payments to convince yourself that you were not in some municipal housing project."
Clearly, it was not that expensive apartments were not being built. Perhaps the first requirement of luxury, a certain discernment, had gone out of life.