Sunday, January 8, 2012

The 1% in My World

For the purposes of this post "My World" extends only one single block from my New York apartment on East 63rd off Madison. It is an artificial world, I'll admit, heavily colonized by the so-called 1%. When I was born at the end of 1945, great private fortunes in America were on the wane. The city palaces and country estates of the robber barons were falling one by one, and they continued to fall for another forty years. I loved those houses and grieved over their destruction. Now the tide has turned the other way and the world around me is re-gilding itself, house-wise anyway. But I'm a grownup and I can see how ordinary people are struggling harder and harder to survive, while the 1% get richer and richer. How tedious it is to hear Republican candidates repeatedly proclaim, with straight faces, that the only way to fix things is to keep lowering taxes on rich people. Of course, if the country changed from the direction it's traveling in now, people would stop fixing up old houses. So... a moral dilemma, for me anyway. The house above is across the street from my apartment. It's been an empty wreck for years, but an attractive young fellow has just bought it and plans to renovate and live in the whole thing himself. OK, I admit that I'd like to do that myself. (I probably wouldn't mind living there with him). This is what's happening on my block, while a very great number of my countrymen couldn't sleep last night for fear of becoming homeless altogether.

Clearly this front door needs work. Given the elevated level of taste in today's city renovations, I'm sure next year it will look quite elegant.

The house next door, as you can see, is in the midst of a gut renovation. If you can believe it, this place was ALREADY gut renovated only two years ago. As soon as it was finished, the owner put it on the market, which was when I saw it on a brokers' tour. It was a beautiful place - a bit contemporary for my taste, but certainly luxurious and finished in a first class manner. Whoever bought it tore everything out, right down to exposed floor joists, and is essentially rebuilding from scratch. I guess I rejoice for him, since I've already admitted that I'd love to renovate a brownstone myself. But buy one that's done, rip it all out, and start all over again? I read in the papers today that Tiger Wood's divorced wife demolished a $12 million house she only just bought too.

This front door, under the protective plywood, was made quite elegant in the last renovation so I don't envision many changes there. Interestingly, during that recent renovation the brownstone facade on this house was stripped off and replaced with a replica of itself in marble.

This building originally housed the Hangar Club, designed in 1929 by Cross and Cross for a private organization of early aviation aficionados. It's now the elegant private residence of our block's billionaire.

I forgot whose house this used to be, but New York University owned it for years before selling it to a Russian oligarch. Not much has been happening since the sale, save for a slightly slap dash coat of paint on the iron fence and removal of the institutional sign over the front door.

I'm hoping the damaged frieze over the door will be repaired. We brokers have the impression that Russian oligarchs can afford to fix anything.

I have no idea who owns this magnificent townhouse and have never even seen a light on inside. I envision its owners gliding around the world from one splendid house to another, unconcerned about having money to pay the bills.

Quite aside from the issue of economic injustice in the world, this front door is a thing of beauty.

I'm not zeroing in on exceptions here. The houses above are all private, all magnificent, and chosen at random from a dozen candidates - OK, more than a dozen, and all within a block of my apartment.

This facade is not perhaps as successful as some of those above, but the interior is gorgeous. I remember it from when the house used to be the office of The New York Observer. It's again a private residence.

This one was just renovated too, after many years of absentee ownership. Conventional wisdom has it that modern zillionaires find avenue corners too exposed, although someone evidently disagrees.

Returning now to earth, here's my apartment house on East 63rd, and that's my terrace on top at left. You probably wouldn't recognize it immediately, but my building was once two skinny brownstones wedged between the white house on the left (another private single family, natch) and the two stoop-less brownstones on the right. A developer after the Second World War bought my site, demolished the brownstone facades, and replaced them with this vaguely Art Moderne design. From the back yard, my building still looks like two old houses.

Here I am, home again on my terrace. See that brownstone with the high stoop across the street? My building used to look like two of those.


  1. I'm not as conflicted as you. Prosperity tends to be the enemy of preservation---all those gut renovations, all those handsome interiors replaced with something expensive but not always as fine. Up here, one watches one handsome old summer house after another fall to be replaced by steroidal cartoon versions of themselves--turrets by the dozen, 'Palladian' windows by the yard, and stonework to the point of vulgarity. It leaves one yearning for the good old days of pleasant genteel shabbiness.

    I admittedly spend more of my time in the company of the comfortable than not, but it has not escaped me that many have become too comfortable---and greedy. In my youth, when rich people were not as rich, and were taxed perhaps higher than was fair, they still seemed rich enough. Now its just obscene. While others suffer.

  2. You and I are very much on the same proverbial page.

  3. In the current economic times there have been some notable & wonderful rehabilitations, but probably more senseless losses sadly.

    I look forward to seeing the end results of your new neighbor's renovation. Really love the facade of the Hangar Club house!

    The house owned at one time by NYU was originally built by William Ziegler, Jr. (Royal Baking Powder)in 1920. The architects were Sterner & Wolfe. Later owner Norman Woolworth (cousin of F. W.)donated the house to the New York Academy of Sciences.

  4. I so envy your location! the house owned by the Russian obligarch is amazing inside -it was used for the holiday house the last 2 years -have you been?
    I too am of 2 minds here....esp being in the business and hired by the 1% to do residential work. I love these amazing houses but do feel that MAYBE something needs to change. The rich will still be rich even if taxes are made higher and I doubt they will stop working on their houses. They MAY stop giving as much to charity though..... but thats a different matter and topic completely.

  5. I came back for a second look (I could be very happy living in the old Hangar Club house). I too love the great houses---and lament their destruction---and fascinated I've been to see institutional use reversed back to private ownership. I would venture that while our generosity to the rich has saved many a city townhouse, it has considerably upped the destruction of country estates and summer houses. One of my readers emailed photographs of the destruction of Dark Hollow, the masterful Jennings house at Cold Spring Harbor by Mott Schmidt and Mogen Tvede. Very sad, and just one of dozens lost this year alone---to prosperity and the new lunatic passion for new and gross houses.

    It is so complicated, isn't it?

  6. TDED - perhaps your first entry is one of the best I've run across. Not that John's entry isn't spot on either ;>

    I too am comfortable, but certainly looking to continue to aspire, yet I never think I'll be part of that uber-wealthy-for-no-reason gang whereby a gaze is cast at a lovely old pile and the response is "lets make it bigger, more modern, more functional, more ... [etc]".

    At what point does someone become attracted to the Adirondacks, for example, buy one of the finest examples of great camps and then "re-adapts" the properly to look like something more suited to Malibu, California?

    Yet time and again the stamp of a brazen if not architecturally ignorant owner rubs out what was so lovely. I fear this modern era with more money than taste will eradicate everything 'historic' from Manhattan to Millbrook to the Berkshires.

    A pity.

  7. As they say, every victory of preservation is temporary, and every loss is pemanent. At least when there's a budget. One can restore a destroyed portico and put it right, but so few do. My particular bette noire is fenestration. So many of the great apartment buildings in NYC, with some exceptions for sure, have had their facades ruined with a hodge podge of windows--some blank panes, other with snap in muntins-- as to render the structure's architecture vritually unfathomable. Also, I abhor the cutting of walls to make way for room for wall air conditioners, usually sacrificing carved limestone friezes, and ripping off balconys and architectural embellishments for the fear that they might fall off one day and bonk the head of a passerby. Maintenance is the answer, ladies and gentlemen!

  8. As much as it pains me to disagree with Dilettante ...

    The people who first molested and then destroyed Dock Hollow are not the 1% -- nor are they building for the 1%. They are a pair of Polish dentists who now "do real estate."

    And the man who redid the Hangar Club is almost certainly not going to be a candidate for the post-modern McMansions that get built on that site.

  9. Interesting, John. My father, back in his heyday, in the 1930's, knew and entertained H. G. Wells at the Hangar Club. Both men were into early aviation and this was a hang-out. East 63rd Street was once an old stamping ground for me back in the early 1970's when I lived at the Barbizon Hotel, which was strictly for women. I used to walk along East 63rd Street on my way to the bank at 63rd and Madison. That was the New York I knew and remember well.