Arguably the city's, if
not the world's, finest apartment building, River House is the
epitome of "swell" living.
Erected in 1931 when its
area still teemed with tenements, it was mocked in the famous
and popular 1936 movie, "Dead End" that was Lillian
Hellman's adaptation of Sidney Kingsley's play. The play and movie,
which starred Humphrey Bogart, focus on the not always communal
coexistence of the rich in their spectacular tower of luxury and
the poor swimming in the adjacent river off the dead end street.
That image of startling
juxtaposition was not inaccurate as the area had been a slum and
river breezes could still waft the stink of the slaughterhouses
a few blocks south until they were demolished to make way for
the United Nations complex in the 1940's.
Nevertheless, River House
is swell, in the best spirit of Hollywood's preoccupation with
palatial luxury in the Art Deco days of the Thirties. If you're
lucky, you'll think you see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers waltzing
in the garden overlooking the river on which the very large lobby
looks. The lobby, of course, is entered through the ornately gated
and large, landscaped driveway on 52nd Street. The lobby has a
black floor and large cloakrooms to accommodate the many guests
that are constantly attending the very swank parties being given
by the illustrious residents.
The apartments themselves
are noble with very large rooms, very fine proportions, high ceilings
and large windows for great views. It must seem almost criminal
not to entertain nightly in such digs. The layouts vary considerably.
There are many duplexes and a triplex maisonette. Some apartments,
however, are not quite as grand as others.
The River House originally
had its own dock on the river, but the FDR Drive curtailed that
amenity. It still has its own gardens and club, the River Club,
with its own garden, pool, tennis and squash courts and dining
facilities. The prestigious and exclusive club, however, is relatively
sedate in comparison with some of the city's grand social clubs.
As designed by Bottomley,
Wagner & White, the U-shaped plan of the building consists
of 14-story wings and a 26-story tower on a site 200 by 200-foot
plot that runs through to 53rd Street. Its original plan called
for only 64 apartments and the Georgian-Style-inspired design
was "a critical milestone in the evolution of the skyscraper
apartment house type, synthesizing for the first time the tower
and the courtyard palazzo base," according to Robert A. M.
Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins in their book, "New
York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Two World Wars,"
(Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1987).
The building is massive,
but the architects modulated it well with many bay windows, limestone
trim and dark gray brick and topped it with terraces and a curved
Although some critics have
not been totally awed by the building, perhaps because of its
relative lack of decoration, it is a masterpiece of the Art Deco
period in spite of itself. It simply reeks with exclusivity and
In his superb guidebook,
"Essential New York, A Guide to the History and Architecture
of Manhattan's Important Buildings, Parks and Bridges," (Holt
Rinehart Winston, 1979), John Tauranac observes that "Clearly
the architects could not make up their minds about the best style
for River House, an ambivalence that is manifested in microcosm
in the gates." "Ziggurated, molded, Art Deco stanchions
topped by stylized eagles flank rococo iron gates, disparate styles
that ordinarily clash yet seem to work fine together," Tauranac
The site was formerly occupied
by the Cremo Cigar factory.
Most of the tower apartments
Even bereft of its yacht
mooring, River House is dramatic, most grand, alluring and quite
overwhelming. Its dead-end location is a sort of reverse snobbery
to its more open, more visible towered cousins on Central Park
West. For most New Yorkers, it's the end of the quest.