One winter day in late 1894, William Earl Dodge Stokes was striding along Fifth Avenue when he spied a framed picture of a beautiful young girl in a photographer’s shop window. The girl had small rosebud lips, a pert, upturned nose, and long, dark hair piled dramatically on top of her head and was smiling coquettishly at the camera over her right shoulder. He hurried inside to find out who she was.
She was Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acosta, the pampered daughter of a Spanish heiress and a Cuban poet, moody and vivacious, and she was only 15 years old, a fact that didn’t cool Stokes’s ardor one bit. As for Stokes, a 42-year-old real-estate developer, his eccentricities, average looks, and careless dress didn’t seem to hurt his appeal with women. He certainly was refreshing—exuberant, an enthusiastic salesman, full of energy and (said the New York Times) “wild charm,”—but his “not being a slave to conventionalities” might have been something of an understatement.
In fact, Stokes was “the all-time black sheep” of his prominent family. He was one of nine children of Caroline Phelps, the heiress to the Ansonia copper fortune, and James Stokes, a merchant turned banker. He was the sort of man who, when his father died in August 1881, contested the will, sued his brother Anson for conspiring to throw him out of the family business, and walked away with a $1 million inheritance.
But his outrageousness had at least one positive turn: It extended to a dynamic vision of New York. Stokes believed that the Grand Boulevard—then the name for Broadway, a long-ago Indian trail—would eventually become the most important street in Manhattan, eclipsing Fifth Avenue to become the Champs-Élysées of New York. (Stokes was instrumental in influencing the city to pave the Boulevard in 1889, five years before Fifth Avenue.) And he saw an opportunity to build its grandest, biggest building—one that would define this new neighborhood.
Still, the West Side above 57th Street was a hard sell when Stokes began building brownstones in 1885. It was only two square miles—half the size of the East Side—and it seemed cut off from the rest of the city. Harper’s Weekly described the Upper West Side of the day as a “desert of rocks and shanties, half-opened and unimproved streets.” The building of the Dakota in 1884 had been a start, but it was essentially a premodern structure, with heavy masonry walls and only nine stories. For his new hotel, Stokes planned a steel skeleton supporting thin exterior walls—at twenty floors topped with a slim nine-story tower, the tallest building in Manhattan. He’d quietly begun his project years earlier, piecing together 22 parcels of land on the site of the old New York Orphan Asylum, at 73rd Street and the Boulevard.
Within months of their meeting, De Acosta and Stokes married, on January 4, 1895. A thousand guests watched the teenage bride descend the petal-strewn staircase of her family’s townhouse. (Before the marriage, rumor had it that he liked his women young—very young—and that he had been known to take barely pubescent girls to his stud farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and tie them naked to a post in the barn, where they were forced to watch a stud horse mount a mare as a precursor to his own plans for the night.) Rita’s youngest sister, Mercedes de Acosta, who grew up to become a talented writer (as well as the reputed lover of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich), wrote in her memoir that “when Rita finally decided to marry Will Stokes it was, I believe, because she felt his wealth could open doors. . . . But she paid a high price for any material gain.” She also produced an heir, William Earl Dodge Stokes Jr., whom they called “Weddie.” According to her sister, Rita hated the child and could hardly bring herself to hold him.
As ground-breaking for the Ansonia approached in the summer of 1899, Rita fled to a beach house in Quogue with her mother and sued Stokes for divorce. It was rumored that Stokes paid Rita $2 million in cash and $36,000 a year in support, the largest settlement ever granted. In return, Stokes wanted Weddie. She gave up the child easily and didn’t see her son again for sixteen years. Stokes, for his part, shipped the boy off to the Fifth Avenue home of his matron sisters, Caroline and Olivia, where Weddie would get a proper childhood and education, and leave his father alone with the offspring he truly cared about: the Ansonia.
Larger than an ocean liner, grander than any luxury hotel, the Ansonia was the “monster” of all residential buildings when it officially opened on April 19, 1904, according to the New York World. No matter that it stood only seventeen stories tall, not the twenty-plus that Stokes had envisioned. Weddie later explained its height thus: “They just put one floor on top of another and they got up to the seventeenth floor, and they decided they wouldn’t build any more.” Though the architect of record was a Frenchman named Paul E.M. Duboy, who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, Stokes was the real force at work. (Duboy had managed to render one set of original drawings before Stokes reduced him to little more than a draftsman, eventually paying him $5,000 and shipping him back to France, where he promptly had a nervous breakdown.)
The new Ansonia was a statistical blockbuster, with 550,000 square feet of space spread out over 1,400 rooms and 340 suites. A maze of pneumatic tubing snaked through the walls, delivering messages in capsules between the staff and tenants. In the summer, freezing brine was pumped through steel flues in the walls that, Stokes claimed, kept the building at a uniform 70 degrees. Each suite had double-width mahogany doors, and many rooms had playful shapes like ovals. The developer had gone so far as to start his own corporation to manufacture the building’s elevators, and another to make the durable terra-cotta that helped fireproof the building—a major concern, because Stokes loathed insurance companies and planned to do without them. The Ansonia even had its own curator, Joseph Gill-Martin, who collected 600 paintings for the hotel to display. In one of Stokes’s outrageous touches, each suite’s lush inventory of towels, napkins, table linen, soap, and stationery was refreshed three times a day.
Altogether, with the ballrooms and the dining rooms at full capacity, the hotel could accommodate 1,300 dinner guests. In the basement was the world’s largest indoor pool. Children who lived in the building with their families were mesmerized by the cascading white-marble staircase with its dark mahogany balustrade, seventeen stories of it, snaking round and round, getting smaller and smaller until it vanished into a clear skylight 500 feet above.