The second most famous building
on the Upper West Side after the Dakota, the Ansonia hints at
the glories of a mid-rise Paris that never was.
It exudes cosmopolitanism
and is the city's most European building.
Despite the ravages of time,
the building still reeks of sophistication and romance and a mannered
luxury more of decadence than gentility. It is exuberant rather
than exotic, courtly rather than stately.
Designed as the city's largest
and grandest apartment hotel by Graves and Duboy for builder William
Earle Dodge Stokes, the 2,500-room building, erected between 1899
and 1904, now misses the tall lantern-like finials atop its corner
turrets that now look a bit like empty egg holders. It does not
take too much imagination to visualize how much more graceful
the finials made the building's composition, but it takes quite
a bit more to realize that the building's central tower was, sadly,
The ornate tower would have
been especially potent visually, an odd combination of baroque
grandeur and Beaux-Arts articulation. "The building's composition
was to have been resolved by a vast baldachino rising the
equivalent of ten stories above the roof garden, an amazingly
extravagant gesture evoking the roofscape of Chambord," the
great French chateau, observed Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin
and John Massengale in their book, "New York 1900, Metropolitan
Architecture and Urbanism, 1890-1915," (Rizzoli International
Publications Inc., 1983), which has a full-page reproduction of
a rendering of the building with the tower.
"The Modern French
bravado of the Ansonia's facades also informed the interior. The
main entrances were on the side streets, linked by a robustly
decorated through-block gallery to the elevator lobby and the
major public rooms: the Assembly room, the Palm Garden, the grille
Room and, at the center of the Broadway arcade, a public restaurant
with a glass and metal roof. A swimming pool and a garage were
provided in the basement. The individual suites reflected both
the exigencies of the oddly shaped lot and an extraordinary variety
of room shapes," they wrote.
Located at a major bend
in Broadway, the Ansonia is highly visible up and down the famous
The plan of the Ansonia
is quite unusual as it is asymmetrical, because of the angle of
Broadway, and indented by two light courts on its north and south
facades and one each on its east and west facades. Its corridors
form an "H" running east to west.
"It looks like a baroque
palace from Prague or Munich enlarged a hundred times, with towers,
domes, huge swells of metal gone green from exposure, iron fretwork
and festoons. Black television antennae are densely planted on
its round summits. Under the changes of weather it may look like
marble or sea water, black as slate in the fog, white as tufa
in sunlight," observed novelist Saul Bellow in his 1956 book,
"Seize The Day."
In his book, "Upper
West Side Story," (Abbeville, 1990), Peter Salwen recounts
that Stokes, an heir to the Phelps-Dodge copper and manufacturing
fortune, "decided he would build the world's grandest hotel
with a great central tower and his own apartments, like an eagle's
nest, on the topmost floor." For several years, Dodge, who
held unpleasant views on immigration, kept some farm animals on
the building's roof, Mr. Salwen wrote.
Describing the building
as "a rich, startling mass of scrolls, brackets, balconies
and cornices, with leering satyrs over the doorways," Mr.
Salwen wrote that "The apartments were sumptuous, many with
oval or circular rooms giving panoramic views over the city. Standard
furnishings included specially woven Persian carpets, ivy-patterned
'art glass' windows, and domed chandeliers inset with mosaic.
There was a Grand Ballroom and several cafés, tea rooms,
and writing rooms, a lobby fountain filled with live seals, a
palm court, a Turkish bath, and the world's largest indoor swimming
The Ansonia, which was named
after the town in Connecticut where the developer's grandfather,
Anson Greene Phelps, founded the Ansonia Brass & Copper Company,
was built solidly: "the walls are so massive you could shoot
yourself there, as one poor fellow did in 1910, and the sound
wouldn't even reach your family in the other room," Mr. Salwen
In his book, "Essential
New York, A Guide to the History and Architecture of Manhattan's
Important Buildings, Parks and Bridges," (Holt Rinehart and
Winston, 1979), John Tauranac wrote that some of the interior
masonry walls were three feet thick.
The building's guests and
residents over the years comprise a most impressive cultural roster:
opera stars Geraldine Farrar, Feodor Chaliapin, Lauritz Melchior,
(who Selwen maintained "practiced archery in the 110-foot
corridors"), Ezio Pinza, Lily Pons, musicians Arthuro Toscanini,
Igor Stravinksy, Mischa Elman, Yehudi Menuhin and impresarios
Florenz Ziegfeld and Sol Hurok, authors Theodore Dreiser, Cornell
Woolrich, and Elmer Rice, athletes Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth,
"This building, like
a well-endowed soprano, sings with a grace that belies its size.
That the ground floor has been altered and the lobby turned into
a drab gathering place for a set of characters that resembles
a George Price cartoon is a sadness, but one that does not destroy
the Ansonia's lyrical glory," chimed Paul Goldberger in his
book, "The City Observed, New York, A Guide to the Architecture
of Manhattan," (Vintage Books, a division of Random House,
"By the mid-1960's,
when a new owner threatened to raze the building, one resident
estimated that at least three-quarters of the apartments were
used by musicians, as homes, studios, classrooms, or all three,"
Mr. Salwen wrote, adding that official New York City landmark
designation did "not come in time to protect the building
or its residents from a series of predatory owners: one removed
fifty tons of copper ornament, including majestic rooftop lanterns;
another was ultimately jailed for embezzling the tenants' rent
The building experienced
several rent strikes and was given a $400,000 fine for illegal
removal and handling of asbestos before its conversion to a condominium
in 1992 with 430 apartments.
Before moving to a midtown
location, Keene's Chop House was on the ground floor as was the
Child's Restaurant where famed bank robber Willie Sutton was arrested.
In the 1970's, the building's steam room was converted into the
Continental Baths where Bette Midler entertained, and before long
the baths became Plato's Retreat, the city's most famous sex club.
The building's site was formerly occupied by the New York Orphan
With its rounded corners,
the filigree of its many handsome balconies and its lantern-less
widow's walks, the Ansonia still evokes the elegance of the Belle
Its saga is pure and definitive