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The Majestic

115 Central Park West


By Carter B. Horsley

Central Park West is one of the world's greatest boulevards and its collection of Art Deco-style, multi-towered luxury apartment buildings still astounds.

Several of the most flamboyant, such as the Beresford, the San Remo and the El Dorado were designed by Emery Roth, but two were created by Irwin Chanin of the Chanin Construction Company that in 1929 completd the now-famous, 56-story Chanin office building on the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street.

A few months before the stock market crash that year, Chanin announced plans for a 45-story apartment hotel for the site of the 12-story Hotel Majestic that had been built by Albert Zucker in 1894 with a roof garden and bowling alleys at 115 Central Park West on the southwest corner at 72nd Street.

 The handsome old hotel was torn down and steelwork for the new tower began to be erected, but the Crash made Chanin change his plans as did a new multiple-dwelling law that was passed by the city and led Chanin to change the single towr to two to take advantage of some provisions of the new law.

The original Chanin plans for the site, on which the architectural firm of Sloan & Robertson also worked, would have produced quite a monumental tower, noted for a complex series of mid-tower setbacks and culminating in a much more pronounced piered top. A rendering of the tower is reproduced on page 410 of "New York 1930 Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars," by Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1987.

In their superb book, the authors have the following commentary about the Century:

"In the Majestic and the Century apartment houses of 1930 and 1931, respectively, Irwin Chanin, working with Jacques Delamarre, as well as with the firm of Sloan & Robertson, combined the compositional solidity of the columnar skyscraper, the aerodynamic asymmetries of the International Style, and the decorative futurism of French Modern Classicism to create what are among the most original exemplars of the spirit of modernity that swept American architecture in the late 1920s. The Majestic replaced Alfred Zucker's Hotel Majestic at the southwest corner of Central Park West and Seventy-Second Street. Chanin had originally intended to replace the hotel with a larger, more modern version but soon abandoned those plans in favor of a luxury apartment house, which he drastically modified during construction, cutting up his ten-room-per-floor tower apartments into two units of four- and six-rooms each in order to increase their marketability during the Depression. The flattened pilasters of the design rose up through the base as lines of structural force interlaced by the stacked apartment floors, the horizontality of which was emphasized by continuous bands of glass stretching across the corners (and enclosing narrow solariums within). On the setbacks, long terraces further emphasized the horizontality and heightened the sense of the towers as the natural last stage in the evolution of the base. The Century replaced Carrère & Hastings Century Theater on Central Park West between Sixty-second and Sixty-third streets. Chanin's original plans for the Century site called for an apartment complex that would include a permanent display center featuring the governmental, commercial, and cultural life of France. The exterior of the upper floors was to be entirely of metal and glass. But the mounting effects of the Depression turned Chanin in a more conventional direction. At the Century the sweeping curves of the back of the towers evoked turbines. The treatment of the towers pushed the overall composition toward the dynamic Modernism exemplified by the work of German architect Erich Mendelsohn whose abstracted images of machines constituted the most popular manifestation of the Modernist impulse at the time. While the complexity of placing towers on bases might have tended to restrict the inventivenes of the architects in arranging apartments, the opposite seems to have been the case. The Century had fifty-two types of apartments ranging from one-room flats to eleven-room suites, with many one-bedroom duplexes, an unusually homelike arrangement for a small unit. Lewis Mumford was not particularly impressed with the designs for either of the buildings: 'The new exercises in period modernism along Central Park West cause one's eye to linger with extra pleasure on the Dakota Apartments...will our half-baked 'modern' apartment houses that are now springing up along the Park look half as real and convincing fifty years from now? I will answer the question. Absolutely not! The 'modernism' of these buildings is merely a thin veneer; banked corner windows that light long, narrow rooms; occasional terraces fitfully disposed albout the upper parts of the structure's massive brick enclosures of water tanks. Even the relatively plain facades do not authenticate these structures...But these apartments are far from being solid and useful examples of modern architecture, and they do not give a hint of what a good architect could do were he able to work on land of reasonable price and on plots large enough to permit effective planning. In all essentials the Dakota is as close to organic architecture as its most up-to-date neighbor, that is, they are both about fifty years away from the real thing. In 1932 Mumford made the point that while the new apartment houses of Chanin and Delamarre and others had about them the hint of an authentic modern architecture, their only genuine contribution was 'the increasing breadth of the windows. The fear of sunlight and air, which we quaintly think confined to the French is beginning to disappear among the well-to-do, who have so often been content with dark, back-to-back houses and apartments which differed only in price, space and internal cleanliness from our worst slums.'"

Mumford's judgment is too harsh. The Chanin skyscrapers have an élan that is terrific and very energetic. While they pale beside an Art Deco masterpiece such as the Chrysler Building, their dynamic is exciting even if their make-up is less than super luxurious.


View from the northeast

The Majestic seen from the northeast

"Irwin Chanin, through his in-house architectural designer, Jacques Delamarre, and his decorative expert, sculpture René Chambellan, decided to be aggressively different. He chose a stripped-down Art Deco version that he called Modern American, but which was often referred to as Zigzag Moderne. Unlike the historical styles, which had a horizontal emphasis and a cornice to 'end' the building at the roofline, Moderne was vertically oriented.In subtle counterpoint to the new building's verticality were the horizontal cantilevered terraces and strips of windows at the corners. A technically advanced construction method obviated the need for corner columns in the solaria, thereby increasing their sunny openness," notes Andrew Alpern in his excellent book, "Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History," Dover Publications Inc., 1992.

Chanin and his brothers, Henry, Sam and Aaron, had started in the construction business with one-and-two-family houses in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  They then took on Manhattan with such projects of the Lincoln (now the Manhattan) Hotel on Eighth Avenue at 44th Street and numerous theaters including the famed Roxy and the Majestic, the Royale, and the Biltmore.

Many of the 238 apartments had fireplaces, black walnut floors in the living rooms and large foyers.

The Depression took its toll on the building and Chanin defaulted on its mortgage in 1933. The building subsequently became a cooperative and has long been one of the premier addresses on Central Park West given its prime location and great views. According to Alpern, columnist Walter Winchell and Frank Costello, the gangster, lived in the Majestic, and Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the convicted kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh's baby, worked on the building as a carpenter.

Top of the towers

Twin towers seen from northeast, left, and top of the Oliver Crowmwell on West 72nd Street, right

Francis Morrone notes in his book, "The Architectural Guide to New York City" (a Peregrine Smith Book, published by Gibbs Smith, Publisher, Layton, Utah, 1994) that the building's towers are "topped with intersecting vertical and horizontal fins, perhaps inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright," adding that the west side of the building is "crowned with curved forms reminiscent of old radios or jukeboxes."

Rear of towers

Rear of the towers

Interestingly, the rear of the towers are different.  The north tower has four major curved ribs while the south tower has only three.

For many years before it moved into a mansion on 70th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, the Explorers Club was located in this building and its quarters contained a Museum of Exploration that was not open to the public.

The views from the Majestic are staggering and while it is not as luxurious as the San Remo, or the Beresford, the modernistic design of the towers, which recalls the famous design of Eliel Saarinen that won second prize in the Chicago Tribune building design competition, is very strong.

For more information about this building check its entry at CityRealty.com

 

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