Upper West Side Book logo

Riverside Drive logo

The Clarendon

137 Riverside Drive

Northeast corner at 86th Street

The Clarendon 

137 Riverside Drive

 By Carter B. Horsley

George Washington did not sleep here, but William Randolph Hearst, the legendary publisher, did and for a long time.

Hearst, the subject of Orson Welles’s great movie, “Citizen Kane,” not only slept in the Clarendon, but bought it when the owner did not want to let him expand his triplex penthouse by taking over another two floors.

The building is handsome, but was a surprisingly choice to be the primary residence of such a flamboyant personality.  With a four-story, rusticated limestone base, the red-brick building is most notable architecturally for its unusual banding near the top and its very impressive and fine marquee over the entrance to its step-up lobby.  It commands fine views of the Hudson River and Riverside Park and is located one block north of a major entrance to the Henry Hudson Parkway.             

The 12-story building was erected in 1906 and converted to a cooperative in 1985.  It now has 61 apartments.  The building was designed by Charles E. Birge for developer Ronald H. McDonald.
        
“The biggest apartment in West Side history, and probably the most cluttered, was William Randolph Hearst’s” at the Clarendon, wrote Peter Salwen in his fine book, “Upper West Side Story, A History and Guide,” (Abbeville Press, 1989).

When he first moved in 1907, Hearst, who was the publisher of about 100 newspapers including the New York American and the Morning Journal that would subsequently be merged into the Journal-American, only occupied the top three floors, but eventually he would expand the apartment to the top five floors.  “A private elevator from the street brought editors, executives, and (rarely) writers from the Cosmopolitan, Morning Journal and American staffs to Hearst’s large bedroom-office, where he worked from noon until two or three in the morning, padding around in bare feet.  A dreaded ordeal was being summoned to ‘wait for the Chief,’ in the adjacent anteroom for a meeting that would often last well past midnight,” Salwen wrote.  Hearst was the publisher of the New York American and about 100 other newspapers.

Hearst not only was flamboyant but also very controversial as Salwen notes:

“Hearst’s special brand of yellow journalism reached its shameless acme in 1898, when the U. S. warship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor.  Though there was never any real evidence of Spanish sabotage (it was probably an internal explosion, not a torpedo, that sank her), Hearst’s papers whipped up war sentiment with screamer headlines: THE MAINE WAS DESTROYED BY TREACHERY, HAVANA POPULACE INSULTS THE MEMORY OF THE MAINE VICTIMS, and THE WHOLE COUNTRY THRILLS WITH THE WAR FEVER.  The resulting Spanish-American War was deeply gratifying to W. R.’S patriotic soul and sold a million copies a day of the Journal.  (For a while, the ‘ears’ on the paper’s front page carried the smug question, ‘How do you like our war?’  But this must have been judged in dubious taste, and was soon dropped.)

“It was common knowledge that W. R.’s heart belonged to the lovely comedienne Marion Davies, a seventeen-year-old Ziegfield girl when they met.  His papers carried rapturous reviews of her performances in the 1916 Follies and 1917’s Oh Boy!; a little later his film company, Cosmopolitan Productions, was starring her in Little Old New York, When Knighthood Was in Flower, and similar fluff; he gave them extravagant openings at his Cosmopolitan Theater (formerly the Majestic) on Columbus Circle, then published rave reviews in his papers - all of which effectively killed her career.  He also gave her the brick-and-marble town house at 331 Riverside Drive, and another nearby for her father, and spent a reported million dollars for a palatial renovation that included a marble fountain with two cupids for the sitting room.  (Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, once lunched with W. R. and Davies at 331, then joined him and Mrs. Hearst that evening for dinner at the Clarendon.  ‘And when I took my place beside W. R. at his wife’s table,’ Loos recalled, ‘he observed, with a naughty twinkle, ‘Well, young lady, we seem to be sitting next to each other in rather diverse locations, don’t we?’) Eventually the lovers moved west to Hearst’s Xanadu, the San Simeon estate in California; Millicent Hearst [his wife] stayed at the Clarendon until 1937, when it was sold and carved up into smaller apartments - the kind an ordinary millionaire could afford.”

Like J. P. Morgan, Hearst, who had five sons, was an indefatigable collector of art and antiques although his collections were not as refined as those of the famous banker.

Entrance

Entrance

In his excellent book, “Historic Manhattan Apartment Houses,” (Dover Publications, Inc., 1996), Andrew Alpern devotes an entire chapter, entitled “Hearst’s Highrise,” to this building.

Noting that the title of the city’s most spectacular or largest apartment has often changed and can be measured in different ways, Alpern maintained that “Certainly one of the largest, and surely one of the most unusual was the palatial environment carved out of an otherwise conventional apartment house by William Randolph Hearst,” adding that the fabled newspaper publisher had “a craving for spectacle.”

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, Hearst was living with his growing family in a relatively modest brownstone row house on Lexington Avenue near East 28th Street that had once been home to President Chester A. Arthur.  His expanding collections of furniture, sculpture and paintings - not to speak of his own expanding ego and the declining social status of the neighborhood - suggested a relocation.  Hearst eschewed the conventional rich man’s route of buying or building a large town house as his rival Joseph Pulitzer had done in 1903 [on 73rd Street, east of Fifth Avenue].  Instead, the high-living magnate rented an apartment.  But what an apartment!”

Describing the Clarendon as merely a “conventional luxury apartment house appropriate to its prominent West 86th Street corner overlooking Riverside Park,” Alpern noted that the original plan had two 10-room apartments per floor and amenities including filtering of the water and a central vacuum-cleaning system.

“The building was completed in time for the fall renting season of 1907,” Alpern wrote, “and despite the financial panic of that year, annual rents for the flats were pegged at a hefty $3000 to $4500.  Hearst arranged with McDonald for a lease of the top three floors and a penthouse roof garden, with the plans altered to give him a suitable layout for housing his large-scale collections and his even-larger-scale entertaining.  The arrangement worked well for several years, but with the continuing growth of both his family and his assemblage of things, Hearst needed more space.  In 1913, he sought to persuade his landlord to allow him to expand his triplex down to the eight and ninth floors and to make dramatic alterations to the resulting five-floor suite.  When McDonald was understandably reluctant to subject his building to such drastic surgery, Hearst offered to buy the entire building instead.  To meet the reported $950,000 price, Hearst took a mortgage loan for $525,000 from the Mutual Life Insurance Company.  He then began a remodeling program that took a decade to complete and resulted in a suite of grand multistoried rooms that one might more reasonably associate with San Simeon, his vast castle in California, than with a mere apartment in a multiple dwelling shared with other families.”

Roof

Roof

“The renovation,” Alpern continued, “included replacing a large portion of the building’s roof with a giant raised skylight room to illuminate the rooms below, and destroying all traces of the original two-apartments-per-floor room configurations.  The two-storied living room he created was a cavernous affair with heavily carved woodwork, a huge stained-glass window and recessed cabinets to house a collection of oversized silver salvers.  There was a Georgian dining room, a French Empire bedroom and bits and pieces of almost every other architectural and decorating style that ever existed.  Perhaps the most archetypal ‘Hearstian’ room, however, was the triple-height vaulted stone hall [illustrated in Alpern’s book] that housed a ghost army of armored retainers.  Hearst expanding this grand living style during the 1920’s, but then contracted it under financial pressures in the thirties.  The ultimate insult came in 1938, when the Mutual Life Insurance Company foreclosed on its mortgage and wrested the building’s ownership away from the one-time tycoon.”

According to Alpern, the insurance company proceeded to gut gutted the building and fill in the missing floors of the extra-height rooms:

“It reconstructed the Clarendon and spent $300,000 of prewar money to provide 60 small apartments - five to a floor - of three to five rooms each.  New internal fire stairs were constructed, the elevators upgraded, the lobby redesigned, and the rooftop skylight room became a penthouse studio.  The completed apartments were rented out, but as with so many other West Side buildings, what was eventually uneconomical for the landlord under the strictures of the rent-control laws became a working proposition for multiple owners under a cooperative scheme.  As a co-op, the Clarendon has been restored - not to its original lavish state, but rather as a hybrid that recalls the original 1907 luxury of its metal-and-glass marquee, as well as the changes in the apartment configurations that were wrought in 1939.”

According to author Salwen, Frank Shattuck, the head of the Schraftt’s restaurant chain, also lived in this apartment building, which now has inconsistent fenestration and protruding air-conditioners.

While the building, which also has no garage, no health club and a step-up lobby, has been put through considerable torture tests over the years, its marquee is very, very striking and the 86th Street block here has many very handsome apartment buildings.


                 Home Page of The City Review