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Ansonia

2107 Broadway

West blockfront between 73rd & 74th Streets

View from the northeast

The Ansonia, viewed from the northeast

By Carter B. Horsley

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.

View from the southeast

View from the southeast

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, never executed.

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.

facade detail

Facade detail

"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 boulevard.

Entrance on West 74th Street

Entrance on West 74th Street

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.

Carriage drive Part of 73rd Street base

73rd Street frontage has three-bay, vaulted carriage drive, shown on the inside left, and outside right

"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."

Detail of 73rd Street facade

Detail of 73rd Street facade

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.

base of building along 73rd Street

Base of building along 73rd Street

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 pool."

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 wrote.

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, among others.

"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, 1979).

Detail of southwest corner

Detail of southwest corner

"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 money."

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.

View from Verdi Square

View from Verdi Square

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 Asylum.

Interesting roof at rear

Rear shows interesting roof treatment

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 Époque.

Its saga is pure and definitive New York.

For more information about the Ansonia check its entry at CityRealty.com

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