Finally, in 1945, Weddie Stokes sold the Ansonia to a crooked landlord named Samuel Broxmeyer. He milked the building, offering discounts to get tenants to pay several years’ rent in advance, using the money to buy more buildings, and then absconding. Broxmeyer eventually got five years in jail, and the Ansonia was sold at bankruptcy auction for a pitiful $40,000 to one of its mortgage holders.
He was Jake Starr, the “great lamplighter of Broadway,” a pugnacious little man who wore a long black coat and a homburg that came down to his ears. Every day he strode up Broadway to the Ansonia from 42nd Street, where he ran Artkraft Strauss, the famous sign company that made (and makes) most of the marquees and billboards that earned Broadway the sobriquet “Great White Way.” He was so hard on his employees and family that years later, when Inc. magazine ran an article on Starr and his company, the editors titled it “Daddy Dearest.”
If Starr knew that he was buying an icon, he showed no recognition of it. Though the Times ran a story headlined THE HOTEL ANSONIA TO BE MODERNIZED when he bought the place, no modernization was forthcoming. Starr discovered to his great dismay that the Ansonia didn’t have a certificate of occupancy from the city, because it had been built before there was such a thing. It was, in effect, operating illegally as a hotel, which it really wasn’t anymore anyway. But to get a certificate of occupancy, the building needed to be brought up to code, and that would cost millions: The pipes were rusting, the roof leaked in dozens of places, and the balconies were held on with wire. So Starr did nothing, letting the Ansonia grow shabbier and shabbier while hundreds of complaints piled up at the Department of Buildings.
In 1968, Starr rented the abandoned basement swimming pool and Turkish baths to a former opera singer named Steve Ostrow, who fit perfectly in the great tradition of oddball entrepreneurs at the Ansonia. Ostrow believed that in the new era of gay liberation, the time was ripe for a luxurious gay bathhouse reminiscent of “the glory of ancient Rome,” as the ads said. In retrospect, the Continental Baths, as he named the place, was more Disneyland than hard-core sex palace (except for the orgy room, that is). It had palm fronds, flattering lighting, a waterfall that emptied into the pool, a discothèque, and, in one cubicle, drug dealers. A candy machine dispensed K-Y jelly, and a warning system of colored lights tipped off patrons when the vice squad dropped in.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Continental Baths was its cabaret. By the early seventies, going to the Continental Baths to watch an emerging act while sitting alongside the towel-clad young men at the pool was an au courant activity. The line to get in on a Saturday night went down the block, a mix of women in mink coats with their husbands in suits and gay men in leather jackets with their boyfriends. In some ways, it prefigured that other exotic mix of entertainment and public sex, Studio 54.
Part of the success of the Continental was that Ostrow managed to book an impressive group of budding stars, including, most famously, Bette Midler, then known as “Bathhouse Betty.” Her accompanist, Barry Manilow, played the piano occasionally dressed only in a towel. Melba Moore, Peter Allen, John Davidson, and the jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer also appeared at the baths early in their careers. One night in 1973, the former Metropolitan Opera soprano Eleanor Steber, who lived upstairs, even recorded an album titled Live at the Bath House at the Continental. The crowd wore black towels in lieu of formalwear.
None of this amused Jake Starr. As the years passed, the building’s problems began to drive the irascible landlord “insane,” according to Harry Garland, one of the many voice teachers who lived and worked there. In 1968, when New York’s housing codes and laws were changed and residential “hotels” fell under the protection of the Rent Stabilization Board, Garland helped to form the building’s first tenants’ group, the Ansonia Residents Association, who pooled their money and hired a lawyer who successfully petitioned the court to freeze rents until repairs were made. Starr was so angry that “people were concerned for my safety,” Garland said.
The frozen rents brought Jake Starr—then nearly 80 years old—to a spiteful decision: The Ansonia would be better off demolished. In its stead would be built a 40-story tower that would “better serve the neighborhood,” as one of his lawyers put it when beginning the long process to evict the tenants and bring in the wrecking crew. Garland and the ARA parried, appealing to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to save the Ansonia.