I fell in love with my studio apartment the first time I saw it. It was in an old Victorian building on 73rd Street between West End and Broadway. The 400 square foot room had these lovely, rose colored walls and three big bay windows. The caveat: there was no kitchen sink. I had to wash kitchen dishes in the bathroom sink. However, for $150 a month, I was not about to complain. Of course, this was back in the 1970s. Things are different now.
Being an Upper West Side resident meant I had the opportunity to live near some of the most fascinating buildings in New York City. Lincoln Center stood six blocks from my apartment, and the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts occupied a good deal of my time. Performing arts enthusiasts can still use the library’s research facilities free of charge. In the summer, you can still enjoy outdoor swing dancing to the music of prestigious big bands.
While gentrification has destroyed the bohemian spirit of the Upper West Side, the secrets from the past whisper from its older buildings. Wander through the streets of West End Avenue, Riverside Drive and Central Park West, and bring your camera. The architecture is intriguing! I want to share the stories behind two of the most beautiful buildings in New York…
My first apartment had the distinction of being across the street from the glorious Ansonia Hotel. The ornate, intricate and elaborate Ansonia was built in 1903 by a man named Earl Dodge Stokes. Its wrought iron balconies and winding staircases invoked images of turn of the century Paris. The Ansonia’s history is as bizarre as its builder. Stokes married a 16-year old girl who he fell in love with after seeing her picture in a photographer’s window. He set up a rooftop farm on the roof, so that residents could enjoy fresh eggs in the morning, built a huge swimming pool in the basement and placed live seals in the lobby fountain.
Although the Ansonia was a hotel, a large number of people lived there year-round. Some of the Ansonia’s most colorful residents included Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Toscanini, Florenz Ziegfeld, Theodore Dreiser, and Babe Ruth. It gradually evolved into a gamblers’ haven, and in 1919, the infamous plot to fix the World Series was hatched within its rooms. On the eve of the Atlantic Fleet’s Naval ball just before World War I, the Secret Service foiled a German plot to blow- up the hotel.
During the 1970s, Ansonia management re-constructed its steam room in order to build the Continental Baths. This is where Bette Midler first built her cult following. Later, it would become Plato’s Retreat, one of Manhattan’s most famous sex clubs. Plato’s did not allow men into the club without a date. Every night, when I returned from working at the gym, someone would approach me and ask me if I wanted to accompany him inside. Just in case you are wondering, I refused.
The AIDS scare temporarily ended the sex club craze, , but Plato’s Retreat stormed the headlines in 2005, when Hustler published Larry Flint tattled on John Bolton, Bush’s nominee for United Nations ambassador. Apparently, the candidate visited the club with his wife Christina, and forced her to engage in group sex.
Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Ansonia is now a residential condo, but you can still walk through the lobby and take a look at its iconic, elaborate winding staircase.
Constructed in 1884, the Dakota makes an ominous presence on the corner of 72 Street and Central Park West. Since the Upper West Side had not yet become the hip place to live, it was considered “Dakota Territory.” Thus the name, “The Dakota.” The building claims prestigious National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark Status.
The mere sight of this monolithic building, adorned with Gothic structures, terrified audiences when it “played the role” of “The Bramford” in the movie Rosemary’s Baby. Years latter, the building inspired a different type of terror, when resident John Lennon was shot in front of it. Cross the street to the entrance to Central Park West to visit the John Lennon Memorial. Called “Strawberry Fields,” it features tiles arranged into a Peace sign, with the words “Imagine” written in the center.