One Apartment, 75 Years

Photo: Richard Levine

Ever since 1984, it’s been known as the Ghostbusters building, the place where Sigourney Weaver’s character lived and the demonic, hulking Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man met his demise. But when 55 Central Park West first opened as a rental building in 1930, Real Estate magazine said it resembled “Jung Frau, that most beloved snowcapped Alpine peak”—its cornices like Art Deco stalagmites. One of its first tenants was superstar crooner Rudy Vallee, who earned up to $20,000 a week. The building went co-op in the late forties, and these days it’s considered “second-tier” for Central Park West by most brokers—run-of-the-mill luxury, except for the half-dozen apartments on the top five floors, where dramatic setbacks create cascading terraces. And the most prized of them all is 19 and 20 F—a 4,500-square-foot penthouse composed of two apartments, with eleven-foot ceilings, two working fireplaces, and a 1,000-square-foot terrace. So why is the place empty?

The Dolly Years
In the seventies, Broadway composer Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!) bought the original apartment for $160,000 from the widow of a doctor who’d lived there since 1955. Herman tore down the walls and added mirrors. Plus, a Mason & Hamlin grand on which he’d written Mame.

Calvin, Part I
In 1983, Calvin Klein paid Herman a visit and was so taken with the place he offered $1 million on the spot. “It sounded like an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Herman says. Klein had the place painted bone-white and put a hot tub on the terrace, which got him in some hot water. The co-op board was none too pleased with the illegal addition.

Barish’s Choice
In 1989, Klein signed a contract to sell the apartment for $3.9 million to movie producer Keith Barish (Sophie’s Choice, The Fugitive), who handed over a $390,000 deposit before deciding he didn’t really want the place after all. “I simply changed my mind for personal considerations.”

Geffen to the Rescue
But Klein was not bereft of a buyer for long. His best friend, David Geffen, took the apartment off his hands—for around $4.3 million—and held on to it for a year without moving in before he sold it to none other than Barish, who agreed to pay around $4.6 million for it this time. (Though Geffen deducted the $390,000 that Barish lost on his old deposit—and the new price also included a Jasper Johns painting. Larry Gagosian handled that part of the transaction.)

Calvin, Part II
Except Barish never moved in. Instead, he bought the two-bedroom apartment next door for $2 million from Oscar-nominated actress Marsha Mason with intentions of joining the two residences. But his envisioned renovation proved too difficult, so he sold both apartments a little more than a year later to … Calvin Klein, this time for $6 million.

Klein’s Mock Renovation
Klein tore down every wall in the conjoined apartments except for the sustaining ones. Then, to test out a new design, he had a lavish mock-up built—actual temporary rooms framed out in two-by-fours with “walls” of white paper. Reflective foil indicated where mirrored surfaces would go.

Mike and Diane
The apartment was still in this oddball condition in September 1998, when Diane Sawyer and her husband, Mike Nichols, offered Klein $7.5 million for it. The couple had grown tired of their twelve-room, full-floor apartment at 1030 Fifth Avenue. But when they signed a contract with Klein, their attorney noticed something troubling: the rights to the rooftop terrace weren’t mentioned in it. And when he pointed this out to the board, its members decided the terrace had never been grandfathered in to the apartment’s space—and they intended to ask an additional $1 million for it, to be deposited into the co-op’s building fund. Although furious, Nichols and Sawyer wrote the new check . . .

Still Barren After All These Years
… only to find out they’d lost the apartment to Steve Gottlieb, of TVT Records, who already lived in the building. He paid $8.6 million for it, including the $1 million for the terrace. But seven years later, after problems with the board and Landmarks, Gottlieb has still not started renovating and the apartment remains gutted. Gottlieb says that four months after 9/11, he was offered $20 million for it. But he’s not contemplating selling right now. Really? Even if Calvin were interested?

One Apartment, 75 Years