One of the city's grand
Beaux-Arts structures, the St. Urban is an exuberantly designed
apartment house of great distinction.
Although it is very flamboyant
and almost too robust in its assertive embellishments, it is one
of the city's most spectacular residential properties.
Its domed corner tower topped
with a cupola is an important ingredient of the Central Park West
skyline despite the building's relatively short height of 13 stories.
Its curved mansard roof, moreover, is punctuated by very pronounced
broken pediment dormer windows. The broken-pediment dormers alternate
in size and are a surprisingly strong design statement, the equivalent
of a major cornice.
The building was designed
by Robert T. Lyons for Peter Banner, the developer, and completed
Lyons fashioned an extremely
complex and rich facade in the French Second Empire style for
the St. Urban that is very ornate and rhythmic with large continuous
balustrade belt courses atop the three-story, rusticated limestone
base and near the top and many angled bay windows. The corner,
which is surmounted by the domed tower, is rounded and the asymmetry
of the composition is effective.
The base of the building
is marvelous with a very large, rectangular driveway that originally
was the building's entrance. This no longer serves, however, as
the building's entrance, unfortunately and is currently unused
as a new entrance has been created just to the north of it with
its own rather small and narrow marquee. Although the new entrance
is a bit incongruous in juxtaposition with the very dramatic arched
driveway, the alteration is not without its merits as the driveway
now has very large floor-to-ceiling windows with handsome wrought-iron
framing that open onto views of the extensive lobby, which has
two separate elevator/stair banks, creating a nice feeling of
The building is somewhat
similar to the larger Ansonia and Dorilton apartment houses on
Broadway at 73rd and 70th Streets, respectively. The Ansonia has
a more delicate "touch," or "filigree," and
the Dorilton is more decorative, but the St. Urban is perhaps
the most impressive even if it is bulkier in appearance.
The building, which has
56 apartments, was converted to a cooperative in 1966.
In his excellent book, "Luxury
Apartment Houses Of Manhattan, An Illustrated History," (Dover
Publications, Inc., 1992), Andrew Alpern devotes an entire chapter
to this fascinating building and its neighbor just to the south,
a high-rise apartment building at 279 Central Park West that replaced
the Italian-Renaissance-palazzo-style Progress Club that was subsequently
converted into the Walden School.
"The St. Urban,"
Alpern wrote, "has not been a stranger to notoriety and controversy....its
stockholder-residents banded together in 1987 in an unsuccessful
attempt to obtain official landmark status for the adjoining former
Progress Club. Trying futilely to block the building's high-rise
replacement tower, the residents were motivated at least in part
by the potential loss of park views from their southern windows.
They were ultimately rebuffed by New York's Landmarks Preservation
Commission, which pointed to the 1958 removal of the club building's
massive cornice and the addition of a fifth floor by the school."
"A cornice," Alpern
continued, "had figured in an earlier controversy. In 1905,
even before the St. Urban was completed, attorneys for the Progress
Club filed a lawsuit against Peter Banner arguing that the cornice
at the top of the southern wall encroached upon their air space
and caused rainwater to drip onto the northern portion of their
roof garden, reducing its usefulness. During the construction
of Banner's building there was a partial collapse of the structure.
Although no one was killed, the incident caused the builder much
grief and may have contributed to his ultimate loss of the building."
Alpern reported that Banner hoped to rent apartments for $3,000
to $4,500 a year, but overextended himself and defaulted on his
mortgage. "The building was brought at a foreclosure sale
by a lawyer, Albert Forsch, for $1,130,000. Forsch, in turn, sold
it in August 1906 to the Barstun Realty Company, which rented
out the units," Alpern wrote.
The Progress Club completed
its handsome building designed by Louis Korn in 1904, but closed
in 1931 and subsequently the building was acquired by the school,
which altered and expanded the building.
"Other than the 1884
Dakota and the Langham (which was then in construction on the
blockfront from West 73rd to West 74th Streets), the only apartment
houses on Central Park West [in 1904] were modest affairs. They
contained units whose planning and decoration were far from ideal.
Since apartment living was still associated in the public's mind
with France (where it was far more acceptable than it was in provincial
New York), and since things French were considered generally to
be au courant and chic, Banner elected to have his new venture
designed in the French mode. He evidently felt that there was
an affluent local market for grandiose French flats - the same
market that was renting or buying the row houses that were ubiquitous
on the West Side. The traditional architectural elements of the
French Second Empire were fair game at a time when high-rise apartment-house
design was in its infancy and architects were willing to experiment
in almost any style. Assembled and manipulated in a way advocated
by the École des Beaux-Arts of Paris, these features were
used by architect Lyons to create an overblown private mansion
or hôtel particulier," Alpern wrote.
According to Alpern, the
architect was so pleased with his design for the St. Urban "that
he replicated its facade - complete with mansard, corner tower
and turreted dome, but on a much larger scale - for a proposed
hotel that was planned in 1908 for Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn,
but was never built."
The building's interiors
were no less impressive than its exterior.
"Each unit," Alpern
noted, "has a 'public' section with a living room, a library,
a dining room and a foyer, all connected en suite. In three
of the four units on each floor, the living and dining rooms were
identical in size, and were separated from each other by a library.
The dining and living rooms sported bay windows, non-working fireplaces
and spacious areas for entertaining. These suites were set at
the front of each apartment, contrary to the more customary planning
of the time, and they enjoyed sunlight and park views. In each
unit there were also four good-sized master bedrooms, two baths,
a kitchen, a pantry, two maids' rooms and a maids' bathroom. The
basement had private storage rooms for the tenants, quarters for
the superintendent and room for the heating, lighting, refrigeration
and power-supply apparatus. Additional machinery was provided
to filter all incoming water. The primary rooms and hallways of
each unit were finished with parquet flooring, hardwood trim and
specially designed hardware. The dining rooms featured quartered
oak with paneled walls and beamed ceilings. The living rooms and
libraries had mahogany details and the bedrooms were skirted with
white enamel. The main bedroom in each apartment was fitted with
a built-in wall safe, and the bathrooms and kitchens were furnished
with the latest in fixtures and equipment. A tile-line refrigerator
in each kitchen was connected to a refrigeration plant in the
basement. This permitted each apartment to make its own ice, which
was quite a novelty at that time."
"The St. Urban is a
splendid anachronism, an irreplaceable and elegant receptacle
of large and gracious apartments. Its Beaux-Arts design is representative
of many of the important structures of its time, and it serves
to mark much of what was best about the days before World War
I. The much-published architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable
grew up in the St. Urban," Alpern concluded, and argued that
it was "light years away from today's architecture con-game"
of "luxury" apartment buildings.
The building abounds in
interesting details. The driveway, for example, has a free-standing
column very close behind one of its arch's "legs" and
it has many "globe" lanterns, in two different sizes,
along its Central Park West frontage.
Christopher Gray, the architectural
historian, devotes a chapter to the St. Urban in his excellent
book, "New York Streetscapes, Tales of Manhattan's Significant
Buildings and Landmarks," Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2003. He
notes that Banner, a wool and animal hides dealer, lost the building
in bankruptcy the year it was completed and describes it as one
of the "big, blowsy buildings like the Dorilton at 71st and
Broadway of 1902 and the Ansonia at 73rd and Broadway of 1904"
thta were part of "the early generation of tall New York
apartments." "Most unusual, to later eyes," Mr.
Gray continued, "is the great variety of original windows:
in-swing, out-swing, double-hung, French, transom, and other types."
The interiors were altered over the years and the exterior did
not survived untouched: "finials, cresting, roofwork, the
slate roof, and balconies gradually disappeared," Mr. Gray
noted, adding that "In 1989, the roof was redone after Landmarks
Commission review, but they assumed the original roof was copper
- and that's the way it was restored."
Despite such changes, the
building still evokes Parisian grandeur, but its heft displays
a definite New York City eccentricity and a powerful personality.
The building has no garage and no health club and has inconsistent
fenestration and permits protruding air-conditioners. It is across
the street from the Dwight School.