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Sardine Life

The Stuyvesant Apartments, 1870  

Developers adopted an assortment of strategies to dispel qualms about apartments’ suitability. In 1884, the Chelsea opened as one of the city’s first luxury co-ops, sparing residents the indignity of living in hired quarters. (Having evolved from an owner-occupied enclave of the well-to-do into the storied and famously shabby Chelsea Hotel, it is now on the cusp of going condo; you can read about it here.) That same year, the Dakota offered crowd-shy burghers access to Central Park just outside their gate and, inside, a quiet courtyard enclosed by a mock château replete with peaked gables, bays, quoins, and wrought-iron railings. These lavish touches effectively collectivized social status: Whereas the one-family mansion declared its owner’s separate prominence, the Dakota’s bulk and ornamental façade signaled that everyone who lived there was, by definition, Our Sort.

The apartment building’s most persuasive asset, though, was that it allowed the affluent to live better than ever while still downsizing the household staff. There were savings in numbers: In a large building, the cost of steam heat, electricity, and elevators could be shared. Instead of each family’s employing a laundress, one or two building employees manned huge machines in the basement. Residents of the finer addresses took their meals in vast and elegant central dining rooms, like passengers on a perpetual cruise. Those who preferred to eat at home but lacked a cook could have their cleverly boxed, lukewarm meals sent up by dumbwaiter. (New Yorkers always were addicted to takeout.)

By the turn of the century, the mansion had become an albatross, not just expensive but primitive, compared with a giant technological wonderland like the Ansonia Hotel at Broadway and 74th Street, which opened in 1904. This was the bourgeois pleasure dome of early-twentieth-century New York. The young single man who installed himself in one of the 1,400 rooms and 340 suites could choose whether to move in his own bed and chest or select from the hotel’s catalogue of paintings, furniture, carpets, and hand towels. He could scrutinize the other transient and permanent guests by the dazzle of electric lights, dine in a restaurant that served 550, take a postprandial stroll past the live seals cavorting in the lobby fountain, and ride the quiet, exposed elevators just for the pleasure of seeing the seventeen stories scroll by. A few blocks over, the Hotel des Artistes on Central Park West at 67th Street opened in 1917 as live-work space for gentleman artists, who required northern light and high ceilings, even though some residents never touched a palette.

Jews, unwelcome on Fifth Avenue and in the other East Side redoubts of wealth, established Central Park West as their own opulent ghetto. There, the immigrant architect Emery Roth erected the apotheosis of early-twentieth-century domestic grandeur: the Beresford, a fairy-tale confection of towers, wrought-iron grillwork, terra-cotta cherubs, pediments, and balustrades. Each apartment pinwheeled around an entrance foyer, so that the sleeping quarters, public rooms, and servants’ wing could be simultaneously separate and close at hand. Only New York could produce a monument to Jewish home life as imposing as the Beresford, and perhaps only in the late twenties, in the exultant moment before the stock-market crash.

The Depression slammed the portcullis down on the era of residential magnificence. The Ansonia was chopped up into cubbies. The Beresford was sold off for a pittance. The Majestic and the San Remo, planned in flush times, were completed in miserable ones and faced immediate financial trouble. Hundreds of other Upper West Side buildings, more modest but still genteel, adapted to less easeful times. Maids’ rooms were repurposed as bedrooms. Bell boxes for summoning servants were disconnected. Stained-glass windows broke and were replaced with ordinary panes. European refugees found in this habitat of battered prosperity echoes of the apartments they had left behind in Vienna and Berlin.

Savage as it was, the Depression thinned but did not extinguish the ranks of the wealthy, and some sumptuousness did slip through the closing gates. In 1931, the River House materialized on East 52nd Street, and its 27-story tower, flanked by fifteen-story wings, rose over the East River like an ocean liner. Inserted into a neighborhood of slums and slaughterhouses, River House retreated behind its gated court, a citadel reaching far above the gloom. The luckiest residents never needed to dirty a shoe on the cobblestones: They could, if they wished, commute by boat to lower Manhattan or their Westchester estates from the private marina (an amenity later obliterated by the FDR Drive). The photographer Samuel Gottscho captured the thrill of living at these rarefied altitudes, when street level contained so much squalor. The haloed skyline, the chrome-plated water spreading out beyond the great bay windows, the airy apartments washed in morning light, all made River House the Valhalla of New York.

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