Monday, December 18, 2017

Life at the Top

Midtown illuminated for the holidays. Photo: JH.
Monday, December 18, 2017. Wintry days and nights over the weekend with some very light snowfall.  Sometimes sunny but often grey. With the holidays just days away, everyone’s life takes on a different atmosphere be it anxiety, anticipation, becalming, or dreaming of a white Christmas or a more intense worry of the day to day. Because Christmas and New Year’s are on a Monday this year, I’m anticipating that many of us will be enjoying some leisure hours if possible. I like the thought of it although that’s no guarantee.
Christmas trees for sale in the private drive of the Sacred Heart School (the former Otto Kahn mansion).
The Cariter Mansion on Fifth Avenue wrapped for Christmas.
A cluster of trees in front of the Seagram Building.
In the plaza of the Alliance Bernstein Building (Sixth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets), which was the original site of the Ziegfeld Theatre.
We’ve received several interesting coffee table books that are excellent last minute gifts, and the kind that people can enjoy at their leisure and enjoy their leisure because of it. I’m going to try to feature one each day this week.

There have been several book parties for this one although I missed all of them. Kirk Henckels, who is the Vice Chairman of Stribling & Associates, has just published a really interesting book called “Life at the Top; New York’s Most Exceptional Apartment Buildings” (Vendome), written in collaboration with Anne Walker – who has collaborated with Peter Pennoyer on all of his architectural histories including the latest on Harrie T. Lindberg.

998 Fifth.
River House.
10 Gracie.
The book is about fifteen of the top mainly cooperative apartment buildings in New York. They are: The Dakota, 998 Fifth Avenue, 820 Fifth, One Sutton Place South, 960 Fifth, 720 Park Avenue, The Beresford, 10 Gracie Square, 740 Park, 778 Park, River House, 834 Fifth, 173 and 176 Perry Street 15 Central Park West, 432 Park Avenue.

“The top” is determined by the history and quality and architectural distinction of these buildings. Anyone associated with private residential real estate in Manhattan is aware of them. Long ago, coincidentally, I had the brief but enlightening (and comfortable) experience in living in one of them.

I had flunked out of college after the first semester of my junior year, having flunked five semesters of science classes. Four were required for the graduating degree. I knew that I wouldn’t be returning because I had been a working scholarship student. However the college theatre group – the Powder and Wig Society had staged a one act playwriting contest in that last final semester. At the behest of a fellow student whom I respected, I entered. Three of the entries were chosen to be produced on stage and mine was one of them.

Each writer had to cast and direct his or her work. My play which I titled “12 Picassos and a Green Rug” was about two college roommates talking about what they were going to do when they went out into the Great Big World after college. One character was a guy who played by and followed all the rules of the game. The other was a guy who ignored the rules and summed it up by saying “I’m going to have 12 Picassos and a green rug” – an absurd notion to any sensible, practical thinking person.

There were two female roles: a college girlfriend (of the green rug character) who was sexy and acquiescent, and The Mother (also of the green rug character) who when she came to visit would complain to her son about his lack of interest in the rules (at one point she says: “You’re just like your father,” and then she turns to the audience and says: “His father was a bum.”)  The play was chosen the winner, and the prize was $100. A pittance today, a half century ago it had the buying power of a grand or even two today.

Buoyed by my sudden out-of-nowhere success, I naturally decided I’d go to New York City to begin my life. A college friend, hearing of my plans, asked me where I was going to live. Knowing nothing about residential New York, and being barely 20, a kid with dreams from a small New England town, I replied that I didn’t know.

My friend volunteered that her mother had an apartment in the city which she used only occasionally, and perhaps I could stay there. She said she’d ask her mother. The following day my friend came back to tell me that her mother approved the idea. Three weeks later after returning to my parents’ house and packing things up to “move,” I took the New York, New Haven & Hartford train from Springfield, arriving in the Big Town three and a half hours later at Grand Central Station, on a Saturday in early January of 1962.

Not knowing where this apartment was, I hailed a cab (10 cents, first quarter mile of the ride) and gave him the address: “740 Park Avenue.”

740 Park.
I’d known already that “Park Avenue” had a special cachet with a lot of wealthy and wealthier people. I had no idea that 740 was regarded as an important address, nor that my friend’s mother’s apartment was a 16-room duplex with a live-in German cook and Irish maid.

I was not at all aware until that moment of arrival at my destination that such grand private apartments existed. I’d heard or read references about “big apartments” or “Park Avenue apartments,” but this was like a small mansion with enormous rooms, high ceilings, chandeliers, a circular staircase and The Herald-Tribune was waiting every morning on the center table in the entrance gallery.

My breakfast (which I’d never had to request -- or would have thought to) of bacon, eggs, toast, orange juice and coffee was served on a tray in the stately wood paneled library. My bedroom had a small terrace and from my bed at night I could see the RCA neon sign (no longer extant now the GE Building ) at the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. This kid, full of romance with the whole notion of New York, city of dreams, was in complete awe, if not shock.

Thinking back on it, my education, something I never could have learned in any college in any course, started in that building. The denouement to this early residency was that six months later, I had a chance to split the rent with a fraternity brother on a small one bedroom on East 87th Street (kitchen in the closet). The rent was $110 month. That was long before rent control. I’d completed my first course at 740, and I was anxious to have my own place — 163 East 87th fit the bill.

Now, as I was saying ... Kirk Henckel’s book “Life at the Top” tells you a lot more about 740 and all of the other fourteen “select” domiciles of the rich, the chic and the shameless. And it takes you inside, inside many of the private apartments. With it comes the history. 740 Park Avenue, for example, was built by the maternal grandfather of Jackie and Lee Bouvier, James T. Lee. Mr. Lee was a real estate developer who created several of these luxury buildings including the very first luxury cooperative residence in New York, 998 Fifth Avenue – which was built in 1912. The Bouvier sisters lived at 740 when they were small children in the early ‘30s, until their mother divorced their father and married Hugh Auchincloss.
Jackie and Lee in the mid 1930s.
Houses and their histories, including their dwellers, are endlessly curious topics.  “Life at the Top” touches that curiosity and at times even gives insight not only to architecture, interior design, and economic history, but how wealth naturally alters one’s sense of self and attitude.

Click to order "Life at the Top."
This is a beautiful history book, basically. Wonderful to look at, fun to see how others live however they wish to live and can afford to. Along with that we learn how the city has developed over the last century and a half (the first apartment building went up around 1875). Whence we came.

When the first luxury building (998 Fifth) went up — 12 stories higher than all the surrounding private houses — the neighbors (on swell Fifth Avenue) were incensed. It was regarded as kind of déclassé. Designed by McKim, Meade & White, that all changed when they offered an apartment to Elihu Root, former Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Secretary of War under both Roosevelt and McKinley. A highly regarded statesman, McKim, Meade and White had designed his house in Southampton (which today has been the residence of Stephen Sherrill family for the past seven decades). The developer Mr. Lee made the honorable Mr. Root an offer (a good price) that was too good to refuse. His residency began what became a trend and now a stampede.

This book is a pleasure, a great sightseeing trip, if nothing else. But a book of novels besides.
An apartment at 10 Gracie Square overlooking the East River and Queens.
A sitting room in The Dakota.
960 Fifth Avenue.
834 Fifth Avenue.
15 Central Park West penthouse.
Bathroom in the Kelly Behun model residence at 432 Park Avenue.

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