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The Building of the Upper West Side

“You’ll never get it landmarked,” Starr sputtered to Garland when he ran into him in the lobby. “I have the most powerful men in Washington representing me.” At a preliminary Landmarks hearing on April 18, 1970, Starr’s attorney told the commission, “The hotel’s architectural appearance is not worthy of designation of a landmark. I am not, nor is the owner, aware of any particular historic significance to the building.”

That did it. A weeklong protest and demonstration eventually followed; a petition drew 25,000 signatures, calling for Mayor John V. Lindsay to save the building. The finale of the week was a five-hour live performance held in the middle of 73rd Street, which was closed to traffic, starring many of the building’s tenants. A few months later, on March 15, 1972, after the intervention of Congresswoman Bella Abzug, it was done: The Ansonia Hotel became a landmark. But only the exterior of the building was protected, leaving Jake Starr to do what he wished with the inside—which was nothing. The Ansonia became a decaying shell.

In 1977, The Continental Baths closed. Gay men, it turned out, wanted to get down to business without straights ogling them, and they had decamped for the hard-core bathhouses that were opening all over the city. Once the men in towels were gone, so was the Continental charm. Steve Ostrow moved to Australia, where he founded a group named MAG (Mature Age Gays).

Another tenant soon moved into the basement, and things got decidedly worse. He was Larry Levenson, a fat, fortyish man who’d become known as a promoter of “swinging,” the practice of couples trading partners for sexual encounters. The club he opened, Plato’s Retreat, had a 50-seat Jacuzzi, mattresses lining the orgy room, and an eclectic clientele of celebrities, porn stars, and a lot of middle-class kinky types from the suburbs—dry-cleaners and their wives, fat men in toupees with their heavily made-up girlfriends. There was a “membership” fee at the door of $30 per couple—no single men allowed—and free booze and a buffet. Adding to the seedy atmosphere, a sex shop moved into a street-level storefront. Unattached men who were denied admission began to hang around the entrance to the building and solicit women. One of the building’s maintenance workers made a hole in the wall of the basement so the employees could check up on the activities, charging delivery guys $2 for a few minutes’ peek.

Jacob Starr died at age 86, shortly before Plato’s opened. He left his money in a trust that was forbidden to contribute to the upkeep of the building, which was left to his grandchildren. His heirs were eager to sell the building, but with frozen rent, legal problems, and a sex club in the basement with a long-term lease, it seemed hopeless.

About that time, the ramshackle Ansonia began to attract as tenants, for indefinable reasons, all sorts of mediums, psychics, spiritualists, and fortune-tellers. A Dr. Clifford Bias began holding quasi-religious services in a chapel off the lobby on Sunday afternoons. One week, Dr. Bias was blindfolded and summoning up the dead when the great singer Geraldine Farrar appeared to deliver the message, “The Ansonia isn’t what it used to be when I was there.”

The Ansonia’s final act—so far—began with Jesse Krasnow, a bespectacled man with calm blue eyes and a round, open face. Krasnow might have had only a summary appreciation of the provenance of the Ansonia when he bought it in 1978—heading up a group of 21 investors—but over the past 25 years, he’s become enraptured with the building. It has become his great love as well as the bane of his professional career.

When he took over, Krasnow’s plan was to fix the violations that Starr had run up and then ask the city to unfreeze the rents. (He also immediately moved to get Plato’s Retreat out of the basement, paying Levenson $1 million to go away.) Some elderly residents faced 300 percent increases. Outraged tenants accused Krasnow of doing only patchwork repairs. The leaky roof became a joke. “Every year the sap flows,” complained one tenant, “and every year Krasnow tars the roof of the Ansonia and it still leaks.” Even after Krasnow put $3.5 million into the roof, it still sometimes leaked.