By Ronald Blumer
My wife and I have lived in the Apthorp apartments for over 25 years. In the world of rent control and rent stabilization, when you a land a two or ten room apartment at an affordable rent, you determine that the only way you will exit is horizontally – feet first. That is certainly the case at the Apthorp. Several tenants were born here, and for much of our residency, we were the youngsters of the building.
It is not surprising that the history of the Upper West Side — indeed the history of New York City — is etched in its six-foot crenelated walls. The building, completed in 1907, was promoted as the largest and most luxurious apartment building in the world. It takes up an entire block from 78th to 79th Street, from Broadway to West End. At the time, apartment living was considered slightly disreputable. Apartments were called French Flats and were inhabited by bachelors and people of questionable ethnicity. Respectable families lived in brownstones with their own respectable front doors.
The Apthorp in 1909.
The Apthorp was specifically designed to lure the rich out of their private houses. The lure was unbelievable luxury. Each huge apartment boasted a restaurant-sized kitchen with an iceless icebox cooled by a compression system in the basement, which also housed the building’s own electric generating plant. The apartments had massive, mosaic floored entry halls, numerous bathrooms, gas fireplaces, servant’s quarters in the back halls and on the roof, and an elaborate electrical system so that residents could summon their various maids and butlers at the push of a button. And, in keeping with these so-called good old days, the only way Jews or Blacks could gain entrances to the building was through the service entrance.
The unique feature of the Apthorp is its large, airy courtyard. When we first moved here, the building had the feel of a small town with the courtyard being the village common. There you would rub shoulders with celebrities like Cyndi Lauper, Nick Pileggi and Bob Balaban, but everyone living in the building, during what is charmingly known as its period of faded elegance, was interesting. Aging actresses and ballet stars, opera singers, a CIA spy and a gaggle of famous psychoanalysts were our neighbors. We sent our daughter out in the courtyard to play or on treasure hunts through this somewhat spooky building. Halloween was one big party. The building was poorly maintained. Fuses would blow and toilets would leak, but as Nora Ephron wrote so movingly in her piece in the New Yorker, it was really fun to live in the Apthorp in the 70s and 80s, just like it was really fun to live in New York.
And then came the real estate boom. The now crumbling building was sold to a Russian/Israeli diamond magnate for an astounding half a billion dollars. You can read all about the Apthorp’s sketchy history in a recent article in the New York Post. Other articles have detailed its legal action against tenants.
From elegance to decadence, the building is today returning to the new gilded age of the one percent. Huge apartments, split up during the depression, are being recombined. And since seven rooms are not adequate for this 21st century gentry, entire floors are being bought and combined creating apartments with twenty huge rooms. One-hundred-year old tiled bathrooms, mosaic floors and ancient molding are ripped up to install central air conditioning and multicolored LED lighting. The basement now sports a fabulous gym, spa, playroom and party room available only to the new condo owners. And chauffeured limousines deposit these owners into the now highly-manicured courtyard.
Like anyone who has lived through the 1950s, with its segregation, sexism and political witch hunting, I am not romantic about the good old days. But I cannot help but be romantic about the Apthorp and indeed about all of the Upper West Side of bygone days. With its quirky people, it was diverse, it was fun and above all it was interesting. And even now, hidden among the limos and behind the newly polished facades of the older buildings, many of us still remain, relics of a more colorful past.
Ronald Blumer is a writer for Public Television.
Top photo by Howard Lifshitz. Two bottom photos by Ronald Blumer.