Once upon a time, only the poor lived in multifamily buildings. In the 1870s, the upper middle class, particularly those living on their own, were attracted to beautiful buildings with abundant amenities. Many had restaurants for multiple meals a day — rather like today’s assisted living — plus the staff that was too expensive for one person but a delight when the cost was shared. Doormen were a reasonably priced alternative to butlers and added a touch of opulence. On-site laundries and housekeeping services added to the luxury.
Now that era’s buildings on the Upper West Side are being renovated from their descent (sometimes as low as single-residents-only flophouses) and again offer luxurious living in a central location. But they are emphatically not middle class.
The Upper West Side’s oldest buildings are posh once more
When the Gilded Age began in the 1870s, New York City was on the cusp of a new era. There were no subways, people still drove horse-drawn carriages, the Upper West Side was farmland — and modern apartments didn’t yet exist.
Just a few decades later, everything had changed: mass transit whisked riders around, opening up all of Manhattan to development, and luxury apartment buildings began to spring up across the Upper West Side. It didn’t take long for New Yorkers to embrace their conveniences.
While many of these grand Gilded Age residences fell on hard times after World War II, today many are being returned to their original glory via condo conversions that add modern amenities and amp up their existing old-school refinement.
Lisa K. Lippman — a 54-year-old broker for Brown Harris Stevens who is about to close on an apartment at the 111-year-old Belnord at 225 W. 86th St. — was drawn to the address by the “turn-of-the-century details, high ceilings [and] large windows,” combined with the fact that famed architect Robert A.M. Stern “did the renovations” for developer HFZ Capital. The Belnord’s nine units on the market currently range from a $4.99 million three-bedroom to a five-bedroom asking $11.45 million.
Apartment living in New York was born at the still-elegant (and now all co-op) Dakota Apartments on Central Park West at 72nd Street, which opened in 1884. Prior to that point, the only shared living spaces in the city were tenements and boarding houses. As the Dakota was going up — near a brand-new elevated railway station — developer James O’Friel was erecting 101 W. 78th St., which opened in 1886 and was dubbed the Evelyn. Soon buildings were popping up around the West Side with fanciful names like the Montana, the Wyoming and the Nevada that evoked far-flung territories.
Upper West Siders were truly pioneers — not just for being willing to live in the boonies (the lot next to the Dakota was still a farm when the building opened), but also for being willing to live in a building with other families. That was a real rarity for the middle class.
Today, most of those early buildings are gone, but 101 W. 78th St. was recently converted by GTIS Partners into 21 condos, with interiors by elite interior designer Stephen Sills. The conversion from workaday rentals has presented challenges, according to Corcoran broker Daniel Blatman, who is repping a four-bedroom apartment there on the market for $6.97 million, such as how to install central air without taking away from the building’s coveted high ceilings. Blatman’s colleague, Deanna Kory, notes that buyers are attracted to its “prewar elements,” but don’t have to compromise on “completely modern finishes.”
In many ways, this is exactly how residents felt during these buildings’ original heyday. Many were based on even older architectural forms — like European castles and Italian palaces — but featured every newfangled convenience. For many Gilded Age New Yorkers, multifamily domiciles also became a way to access the perks of townhouse living — including having servants — while spreading the costs among multiple tenants.
In early buildings like the Dakota, simply having a doorman, a maintenance staff and access to a wine cellar was a big step up. As the buildings grew, so did the amenities. The Evelyn (of 1886) didn’t even originally have service elevators, but the Ansonia (opened in 1904) had elevators large enough to carry residents’ horses to the roof for riding practice. Seals frolicked in the lobby fountain and chickens laid fresh eggs for tenants.
Soon, the Ansonia at 73rd Street was joined by other grand apartments on or near Broadway — home to the brand-new subway that would soon replace elevated trains — such as the Chatsworth (1904), Belnord (1908), Apthorp (1908) and Astor (1909), all of which came to define Upper West Side living. Faced with growing competition, these apartment hotels grew ever larger.
As Robert Elson, 79, of Warburg Realty, explains, “Each architect was frantically trying to outdo the one that came before him.” Each new residence “dwarfed” the palazzos that served as their inspirations. Both the Apthorp at 79th and Belnord at 86th occupy entire city blocks, the apartments circling interior courtyards that serve — then and now — as both as driveways and miniature private parks.
Attorney Peter Koffler, 56, and his wife Robin, 54, a jewelry designer, recently purchased an apartment at the Belnord. “The minute we walked through the front archway at the Belnord, we knew we found something truly special,” Peter says. “The architecture just spoke to us. The landscaped courtyard with [its] antique fountain is a true oasis.”
HFZ Capital, Stern and the landscape architects from Hollander Design have worked since 2016 to honor the authenticity of the original, landmarked building while upgrading it. Koffler points out that their apartment combines original details, such as inlaid hardwood floors and wide hallways, with “all new woodwork, central air conditioning” and a “brand-new designer kitchen and baths.”
The sentiment echoes what Elson, who grew up in the Belnord from birth until age 23, observes about buyers opting for conversions of Gilded Age apartments. Without old-style character — spacious corridors, detailed moldings and what Elson terms “nooks and crannies” — many contemporary buyers just aren’t satisfied. For Lippman and her husband, Ben, one perk was being able to stay on the Upper West Side — “close to both parks!” — while having access to “modern amenities like a gym and basketball court.”
In 2015, HFZ Capital began marketing the Astor, at 235 W. 75th St., and the Chatsworth, at 344 W. 72nd St., remade as condos and co-ops, respectively. “Almost every unit has a unique layout,” says the design lead from Pembrooke & Ives, Aaron Dussair, who oversaw the renovations of both buildings’ interiors. To preserve their Gilded Age feel, his firm was able to “relocate and recreate the beautiful wood paneling and plaster details in both lobbies” to create “spaces that would be difficult to conceive of today.” Those details then inspired elements in the units themselves, tying the modern apartments to their pasts.
What often goes unspoken is that many — but not all — of these buildings were not always desirable addresses. After the Depression, the Upper West Side stagnated as a residential neighborhood. The Ansonia’s basement became the Continental Baths — a gay bathhouse that featured Bette Midler as entertainment — and then a swingers’ club called Plato’s Retreat. While most apartment buildings in the area remained rentals, some, like the Astor, were converted into single-room-occupancy hotels — a more polite term for flophouses.
The Astor, known as the West Side Towers, became so bad that New York’s attorney general bemoaned it in 1977 as an “incredible chamber of horrors.” That makes it all the more remarkable that it has not only staged a comeback, but has become a coveted address, with eight charming apartments currently on the market ranging from a one-bedroom for $1.5 million to a four-bedroom for $7.3 million.
Having gone through such a tumultuous history, not every detail in these buildings can be saved. Dussair notes that at the Chatsworth, designers “discovered original skylights in the lobby that had been covered up for years.” While reviving them wasn’t possible, they were able to create “backlit skylights that evoke natural light coming through.”
Currently, the six apartments on the market at the Chatsworth range from a one-bedroom for $1.94 million to a four-bedroom for $5.9 million. Dussair was also able to add “a full floor of amenities” using “existing details as part of the design, such as [in] the lounge and wine room.” Maybe it’s not seals in a lobby fountain, but such amenities are certainly the hallmark of a new Gilded Age.