Obamas eye ‘Far East Side’

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The former POTUS and FLOTUS in a New York state of mind? They tour 10 Gracie Square, a storied 1930 riverfront co-op known for wealth, discretion, social cachet — and the occasional tragedy


  • 10 Gracie Square, one of the most exclusive old-line co-ops in the city, as seen looking north from Carl Schurz Park in a circa 1960s photograph. Barack and Michelle Obama have toured duplexes in the riverfront property, whose storied residents have included Whitneys, Vanderbilts, Mellons and Astors.Photo: Wurts Brothers, viaNew York Public Library collection

  • Then-President Barack Obama with ex-President Bill Clinton after a 2009 lunch at Il Mulino's on West Third Street in Greenwich Village. Barack and Michelle Obama have been coming to Manhattan for years, and are now thinking of living here. The First Couple have been touring duplexes at 10 Gracie Square. Photo: Official White House photographer Pete Souza, via flickr

  • The library of William Burden Jr. in his residence at 10 Gracie Square, one of the most exclusive coops in the city, in a 1941 photograph. The Burdens were a socially prominent family related to the Vanderbilts who handled some of their investments.Photo: Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., via Library of Congress.

  • Then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcomed children during a Halloween event on the South Lawn of the White House in October 2015. The former first couple are looking to purchase a residence in New York City. Photo: Pete Souza, official White House photographer

Balmy breezes blow off the East River in summer, so it’s cooler than the rest of the island. Frigid winds howl off the straits of Hell Gate in winter, so it’s colder. Floating leaves from the trees in Carl Schurz Park ride the updrafts of autumn, then softly rain down on terraces and penthouses.

These are the micro-climates familiar to residents on the five short cul-de-sacs east of East End Avenue. In addition to their novel atmospheric conditions, the old-line co-ops in this semi-cloistered enclave known as the “Far East Side” offer another important feature: discretion.

And that could explain why Barack and Michelle Obama have recently been spotted touring duplex apartments at 10 Gracie Square. The city possesses few dwellings as dignified and decorous. Here, it is stately, but not showy. There is charm, cachet — and typically, circumspection.

The exceptions, however, have been spectacular. While the co-op seeks to keep its affairs private, its tragedies and scandals have exploded in the public eye, and tabloid headlines, while infrequent, have been jarring.

At least three millionaires took their own lives in the building — two in plunges from penthouses, a third with a bullet to the temple — and one murderer was apprehended on the premises, but only after doormen delayed her arrest, keeping detectives at bay for 24 hours.

Happily, longevity is also common among co-op residents. A former first lady of pre-Communist China lived to be 105. A financier who saved a great Wall Street firm after the 1929 stock market crash died at 107.

Gracing the dead end of East 84th Street, sporting 204 feet of river-and-esplanade frontage up to the dead end on 83th Street, the 15-story, 43-unit, limestone-and-brick building has been the historic pied--terre for generations of Whitneys, Vanderbilts, Mellons, Burdens, Hitchcocks, Astors, Stantons, Rudins, Fairchilds and Havemeyers.

Will it now house a First Family? It’s not yet clear. The Obamas have been mum about their intentions.

All that’s known with certainty is that the ex-President and ex-First Lady have viewed listings in the 1930 residence, which boasts a private, double-gated security breezeway-cum-driveway that runs through the building at street level and has long masked the comings and goings of high-profile homeowners.

The real estate brokerage community has been abuzz at the prospect: Will the first couple buy the five-bedroom, five-bath, 12-room, $12.5 million penthouse replete with library, wrap-around terrace, twin balconies, four fireplaces, private elevator landing, 12-foot ceilings and 66-foot windowed expanse fronting the East River?

Agents flagged two other available co-ops at 10 Gracie Square that the Obamas might fancy, including a five-bedroom, six-bath, three-fireplace, nine-room penthouse with paneled library, “chef’s kitchen” and formal dining room seating 20. The price is $15 million, according to the listing on StreetEasy, the online realty data and marketplace.

There is also a reimagined, reconfigured, sun-bathed, nine-room duplex, which emerged from a 12-room original and went into contract for $10 million last month, StreetEasy reports.

Does it make sense for the Obamas? Well, as global travelers, they could exit town fast. They’d literally be on top of the FDR Drive. And while the White House basketball court and South Lawn vegetable garden are hard to top, the co-op’s indoor basketball court and private gardens could stand in nicely for him and her respectively.

The Obamas should know one part of the building’s quirky legacy: The Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation held its annual tea here from 1957 to 1964.

It also won a place in Cold War history in 1961 as Manhattan’s first big apartment house to develop a fully stocked basement fallout shelter.

And in 2003, it became one of the first to organize a “Holiday Tipping Pool.” To ease Christmas-tip anxiety, each resident was asked to pony up thousands of dollars, which are then distributed to staff.

A more important issue: What will the co-op board say? Manhattan boards are famously finicky and arbitrary. Just ask Gloria Vanderbilt.

In 1980, the heiress and jeans designer was rejected by River House on East 52nd Street at a time she was romantically involved with Bobby Short, the African-American cabaret singer. Board members claimed the reason was her celebrity status, not the interracial relationship.

Still, the socialite mother of CNN’s Anderson Cooper clearly needed a more tolerant, benign board. And at 10 Gracie Square, she found just that, securing a green light to buy a 14th-floor penthouse.

Ex-presidents aren’t immune either to the caprice of New York boards. In 1979, Richard Nixon, who had quit in disgrace five years earlier, was famously turned down by a pair of all-powerful boards at 19 East 72nd Street and 817 Fifth Avenue.

“Anyone can have trouble with the co-op board. You can have a billion dollars and still have trouble with the co-op board! You can look at someone funny and have trouble with the co-op board,” said Michael Gross, author of “740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building” and editor-in-chief of Avenue, the society magazine.

“But in this day and age, rejecting a couple like the Obamas would be tantamount to board suicide and financial malfeasance,” he added. “They’re not a security problem, not a behavioral problem, and this co-op is well used to residents and visitors employing bodyguards. Besides, Tea Party protestors probably wouldn’t even be able to find the building.”

Whatever the upshot, 10 Gracie, from a real estate perspective, is already in play, and has been ever since The New York Post’s Page Six first reported on October 2 that the Obamas had been quietly checking out residences.

The bottom line: The co-op will go under the microscope in the days and weeks ahead. Asking prices will likely rise. Other moneyed buyers may surface. So we’ve done the due diligence for the Obamas and offer this primer on the lives, times, foibles and tragedies of residents past:

* Soong Mei-ling, better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Dubbed the “Last Empress,” she was the former first lady of nationalist China.

Married to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek — ruler of China from 1928 until the Communists ousted him, ruler of Taiwan until his death in 1975 — she lived in a 19-room spread from 1976 until her own death in 2003 at the age of 105.

Her servants, all 24 of them, got her in trouble with the board. They operated a living-room smokehouse, creating a rodent problem, and the entire building had to be fumigated, according to society writer David Patrick Columbia of website NewYorkSocialDiary.com.

During the room-by-room health inspection that followed, a certain locked closet near the kitchen had to be opened. The contents? “The entire space was packed with gold bars, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, back-to-front,” Columbia writes.

* Albert Gordon, once known as the “Savior of Wall Street.” He rescued old-line Kidder Peabody after the wipeout of 1929 and built it into a powerhouse.

The financier may also have set the co-op’s longevity record: Still jogging in Carl Schurz Park into his early 90s and strolling into the office at age 103, he died in 2009 at the age of 107.

* William Lloyd-Smith, sportsman, explorer, birder, big-game hunter, member of 16 clubs. After contracting debilitating Malta Fever in India, he went into his library, sat in the window seat and shot himself in the head with a .25-caliber pistol in February 1940, according to his New York Times obituary. The body was found by his butler. He was 45.

* Carter Cooper, Princeton graduate, son of Gloria Vanderbilt, older brother of Anderson Cooper. Under treatment for depression in 1988 and staying at his mother’s penthouse, he suddenly ran to a terrace, sat on the ledge and jumped as she tried to talk him back from the brink. He was 23. Shortly after, Vanderbilt moved to Beekman Place.

* Jean Stein, author of oral histories about Robert F. Kennedy and Andy Warhol star Edie Sedgwick. After an earlier unsuccessful suicide attempt, she plunged to her death from another penthouse on the building’s 15th floor on April 30. She was 83.

* Frances Bernice Schreuder, Utah auto parts heiress, New York City Ballet board member, convicted murderer. Fearing she’d be disinherited from her father’s $400 million estate, she convinced her 17-year-old son to shoot him. When cops came to arrest her in 1982 for the 1978 Salt Lake City murder, doormen denied entry. They demanded a search warrant. Only the next day was the arrest effected.

* Tommy Hitchcock Jr., fighter pilot, World War I hero, world-class polo player, investment banker. His friend F. Scott Fitzgerald used him as the model for arrogant, old-money, polo-playing aristocrat Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby.” While testing a new fighter plane over England in 1944, he died in a crash. He was 44.

Obama was a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2008 and 2012. If he moves in, he won’t be the only resident so honored. Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her husband were named “Man and Wife of the Year” in 1937.

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