if the ansonia were an opera performer-and the building's long-term residents include many opera and musical folk due to its proximity to broadway-she would be an old grand dame, her caked-on makeup concealing wrinkles, aches and pains-the toll that drama has taken over the years. the building is rumored to be haunted by ghosts, and it definitely is-at least by the corporeal kind.
an 18-story former grand residential hotel on 74th and broadway, the ansonia has stopped millions in their tracks. the stately turreted and gargoyled structure was built in 1904 and features an ornate beaux art wedding-cake facade topped with porthole windows and a mansard roof. they don't make 'em like that anymore.
and they certainly don't make tenants like they used to, either. plato's retreat, the sex club for swinging heterosexual couples that previously operated out of the ansonia's basement, is the subject of the new documentary american swing, opening march 27 at the quad cinema. plato's was an ansonia tenant from september 1977 until december 1980, when the club's owners were paid a million dollars by management to please, please, leave. it's just another weird thing on the list of weird things that have occurred in the castle-like building at 2109 broadway.
it wasn't at residents' urging that plato's opened in the basement. the sex club was the idea of brooklyn hustler larry levensen, who first ran the outfit out of a small upper west side brownstone. the ansonia basement, with its two swimming pools that had previously operated as a gay bathhouse, was simply the most convenient space levensen could find. at the time, the ansonia's owner had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward building upkeep, which perhaps allowed plato's to creep in. when current owner jesse krasnow of sirius bought the building with a group of investors in 1978, one of his first moves was to try and get rid of the club, hence the $1 million payoff.
but in the late '70s, plato's was revolutionary in that a "small and secretive community," as former village voice writer howard smith describes it in the documentary, was ushered, "out in the open, the way gay bars [were]." for $35, couples from all walks of life could swap partners, lose their sexual inhibitions and then return to "normal" life in the city or the suburbs. the action was heterosexual, with girl-girl assignations permitted (every man's dream!). plato's featured a buffet, a ping-pong table, disco dancin' and, for a moment, its very own song-number six on the charts at one point.
that's not to say that residents weren't curious: john langrod, a clinical psychologist of polish and latino descent, has lived in the ansonia for 35 years. as one of the building's few remaining rent-stabilized tenants, he pays $790 a month for the fifth-floor apartment he shares with his wife.
"a guy i know worked there, so i didn't have to go with a woman, and i just observed. the people who worked there had a hole drilled, and i think they charged tenants and other people who wanted to look five or ten dollars a shot... the hole looked into the orgy room."
that makeshift peepshow looked into the infamous "mattress room," the most intimidating part of plato's, where even seasoned club-goers feared to tread: it was simply a room full of mattresses in which orgies of every size took place.
"there was a tremendous smell of marijuana," langrod added, perhaps unnecessarily.
a trade union activist during his college years in puerto rico, langrod also acted as an outspoken tenants' advocate over the years. the building went condo in 1992, and renters had a choice to either continue at rent-stabilized rates or to buy into their apartments at discounted prices. langrod says that rent-stabilized tenants have been bullied by ansonia management in hopes of evicting them (currently, the ansonia's official website says, perhaps too eagerly, that 76 percent of apartments are currently sold, and the balance will be sold "as soon as the stabilized tenants vacate").
krasnow, the landlord, declined to comment for this story, and the condo board president was not available to speak with a reporter.
langrod says he fought eviction himself last year: "they claimed last year that my primary residence was in north carolina [because] three months a year i have a summer home there." langrod took to withdrawing $20 from an atm machine daily and saving the receipts to prove his new york residency. the matter was settled out of court. (the apthorp, another historic upper west side rental building, went condo in 2008 after a long and bitter fight.)
landgrod explained over coffee in a café in the building's ground floor that the ansonia residents' association, once strong, is now "almost dead." years ago, "it split-the more radical group was called the ansonia tenants' coalition... [they were] more into withholding rent, the other group didn't want to do that."
during the 1980s, the tenants coalition discovered "a whole set of violations"-more than 2,000 of them, according to the new york times in 1984. there are still many violations in the aging building, which has never been properly kept up-especially, landgrod says, in the rent-controlled units. a lawsuit (also settled out of court) over a memorable roach/bedbug explosion in one apartment was covered enthusiastically by the media in 2007.
waiting for langrod in the ansonia's lobby, it was hard not to notice the carpet in need of vacuuming, the shabby couches and a glass-topped table littered with the debris of a dying vase of flowers. while still beautiful, langrod pointed to certain updates on the walls. "cheap," he said of the workmanship and materials.
according to various published histories of the building, in the ansonia's earliest days as a hotel, the lobby featured a fountain with live seals. fresh eggs and milk were delivered to guests via a rooftop mini-barnyard created by the builder, eccentric copper heir william earl dodge stokes (he was also a pedophile who married a 15-year-old). stokes also kept a "small bear" up on the roof, according to new york magazine.
during the depressed 1930s, however, the ansonia stopped operating as a hotel and became rental-only. the department of health shut down the farm. the building was sold in 1945 to samuel broxmeyer, who failed on upkeep. the next owner, jake starr, let the building continue to decay-he didn't want to spend the millions required in renovations and repairs. after a fight, the ansonia was landmarked in 1972. but landmarking only applied to the outside of the building, not the inside.
there were so many violations that for a time, the ansonia was the "single most litigated residence in the history of new york city," wrote steven gaines in his 2005 history of manhattan real estate, the sky's the limit.
many older tenants seem somewhat suspicious of building inquiries, possibly due to management's habit of trying to evict them in any way possible. three older tenants contacted for this article declined to be interviewed about the building; others hung up when phoned.
one resident, a musician who has lived there for 25 years and who did not want to be named out of concern for management retribution, said that living there has changed, "tremendously, unfortunately." in the past, the resident said, "you weren't alone, you had a family here. everybody knew everybody!" singing and playing music in the rooms was not a problem then because apartment walls were three feet thick. now, "people complain if they can hear it a little bit in the corridors." as for the new condo owners, "wall street is not culturally minded."
the newer condo and market-rent residents are universally younger, wealthier, and whiter, typically working as bankers, lawyers and in other high-paid professionals. famous past residents have included babe ruth and jack dempsey, composer igor stravinsky, broadway's florenz ziegfeld, various opera stars like enrico caruso, and "ten or fifteen years ago, that woman who adopted all of those kids," langrod said. angelina jolie?
"yes! i saw her in the elevator years ago, and she was actually very uninteresting-looking!"
"it was the same routine every night, but with different bodies," recalls one of the now-aged customers of plato's retreat in american swing. sitting next to her husband, she rendered the hedonistic scene unexpectedly banal.
today, the building's commercial tenants are a much more boring lot-a loehmann's, an american apparel, a north face store. a far cry aesthetically from plato's retreat and a gay bathhouse, to be sure, but maybe deep down, they have the same cold, capitalistic heart. as american swing reveals, plato's-despite its free-love-and-kindness selling points-was not simply a benevolent marital aid. it was a lucrative, cash-in-hand business.
"i thought?that we were a great family, truly a community," said larry levensen in the film. "but i guess i was mistaken. it was me-i was the king."
after a raid, officials discovered that plato's was cooking the books, and reporting almost no taxable income. levensen did four years for tax evasion.
by that time, plato's had moved to a new location on west 34th street; the club was finally closed by police in 1985 at the height of the scare and confusion over aids. levensen, the "king of swing," worked as a cabdriver after prison and died of a heart attack at age 62 in 1999.
the ansonia space that once housed plato's is now a parking garage. but if you take a closer look at the asphalt floor, you can still see the grimy, tiled outline of a pool.
directed and produced by
mathew kaufman and jon hart
opens march 27 at the quad cinema,
34 w. 13th st.
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