DEYAN RANKO BRASHICH was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, and is an Op-Ed columnist for Connecticut's Litchfield County Times.  He writes the monthly Letter From America column for Romania’s Scrisul Romanesc, a literary magazine and is the Editor-at-Large for  The Country and Abroad, another literary/art magazine where he authors the Dispatch from Abroad column. He is a frequent contributor to Pecat, the Belgrade, Serbia weekly news magazine, Britić, a magazine published in the United Kingdom, Ekurd Daily, a multinational Kurdish news portal and Passport, a lifestyle quarterly. He resides in New York City and Washington, Connecticut.

 

 

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Wednesday
Sep132017

GATED LUXURY ■ NEW YORK’S PORTE-COCHÈRES

                                                                                      ILLUSTRATIONS BY DANIELA KAMILIOTIS

The ultimate urban luxury is open space, preferably green, say a penthouse, a terrace, a small garden out back. If you don’t have that, then a park will do. Living on Paris’ memorable Place des Vosges is great but you are beleaguered by tourists. New York’s Gramercy Park is private and off limits to visitors but it is in full public view. But in New York there are stately porte- cochères that lead to secluded courtyards with limited access assuring your own private space - welcome to gated luxury.

Porte-cochères aren’t quite dime a dozen in New York - in fact, there are a number of them around town, some old, some new. But there are only six that open to a courtyard or a flowering garden and that is what makes them unique. 


THE DAKOTA

The first and the oldest of these is The Dakota Apartments, now simply the Dakota. It was completed in 1884 on Central Park West, then a sparsely developed part of Manhattan – in fact, a wasteland of empty lots and ramshackle gerrymandered buildings. It was one of the first luxury apartment houses for the upwardly striving merchant class, the wealthy still house-bound in brownstone and granite mansions, in midtown and the east side. It had “tennis courts, marble staircases, oak-and mahogany-paneled dining rooms, 14-foot ceilings, ornate fireplaces, and, of course, those [just recently completed] Central Park views”.  

Over the years, the Dakota has had its fair share of glamor, notoriety and tragedy. John Lennon was shot to death in the arch of the main entrance, Lauren Bacall lived and died there, Leonard Bernstein, Roberta Flack and Rosemary Clooney wrote and sang the tunes, Rudolf Nureyev danced the dance and William Inge wrote the play.

The Dakota, a block long square fortress of a building with an arched porte-cochere leading to the central courtyard, has a gated entrance large enough for a horse-drawn hansom cab. The gate, complete with a bronze and brass sentry box, is a natural barrier to the uninvited. 

Many rave about Dakota’s architecture. I never liked it, it being much, too much for my taste or as one critic put it a “profusion of architectural elements … [a] mix of gables, arches, balconies, oriel windows, dormers [and] finials”. The overall effect is high dungeon Victorian with only the pale-yellow brickwork to lighten the mood.

As for me, Dakota’s courtyard is what sets it apart from the others. It is Goth and dark, secret, mysterious and guarded - a safe, secure but far from welcoming space but then, when built, it had adjacent gardens and croquet courts.

It may not be a green all flowering like the others but it gives some light and air to the original 65 apartments, no two of which are alike. The enormous newly installed austere slabs of grey Devonian stone lining the perimeter give the courtyard simplicity in contrast to fussiness of the building. The centerpiece is a common feature, an ornate fountain encircled by Iridian granite pavers giving the courtyard a sense of place counterbalancing the basement’s mundane skylights.

THE APTHORP

Seven blocks and two avenues west is the Apthorp another block square behemoth with a green, flowering heart developed by William Waldorf Astor, the expat American who became an English lord. It has a porte-cochère which distinguishes it from Astor Court, the other nearby Astor property, which does not. However, experts say that Astor Court’s architect Charles Platt’s inaccessible-to-carriages garden refuge is far superior and “[n]othing like it had been done in New York, and its design remains one of the most thoughtful in the city.”

Bill Astor, soon to be Viscount Astor, while living in Anne Boleyn’s Hever Castle in Kent, never forgot that he was the grandson of a fur trader, a shrewd merchant if there ever was one. In 1890 upon the death of his father he was the richest man in America and had, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the United States for England. He continued to shrewdly invest and in 1906-1908 had his architects Clinton & Russell design a speculative apartment building based on the central courtyard plan of the Dakota. 

The resulting Renaissance Palazzo-on-Broadway, named after Charles Ward Apthorp, the “richest man in [pre-Revolutionary colonial] Boston”, on whose land it was built, is a “rusticated structure with string moldings … [with] arched windows, life-size limestone sculptures representing the four seasons, stand above the vaulted entrance way with its wrought-iron gates enhanced with a pair of gold gazelle heads.”

The Apthorp at twelve stories tall is a triumphant expression of Astor’s firm commitment in the future of the apartment house as an investment vehicle. His investment in a building with a non-income producing garden and two fountains was a display that he “was not the frugal breed of millionaire” he put his money where his mouth was. That expenditure assured that the Apthorp would also share “the ability of all good courtyard buildings to create far more than conventional buildings could a sense of a private, secure world”. Welcome to New York’s gated world of luxury. 

THE BELNORD APARTMENTS

Six blocks north on 86th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam are The Belnord Apartments, a square block of Italian Renaissance limestone masonry touted as the world’s largest apartment house when they opened in 1908. You and countless others pass by its plain rusticated facade never once realizing that it’s a New York City landmark since 1966. You have to stop at one of the two arched, vaulted entrances guarded by gilded black iron gates and peek past a gatehouse to the landscaped courtyard featuring a monumental fountain to understand the “why”.

The “why” of the two entrances and landmark status is the design letting hansom carriages enter through one gate, drive around the entire courtyard depositing passengers at the “canopied entrances at the four angled corners” and then exit through the other. That makes it truly unique, never to be duplicated as far as I know.

The immense garden courtyard - some 22,000 square feet of it that acts as a roof over a subterranean service space accessed from an 87th street entrance – lit by turn of the century four-globe light-posts and boasting a central fountain evoking the black and white image of “the gardens in Alain Renais’ film Last Year at Marienbad” is what’s spectacular. 

The history of the Belnord Apartments mirrors New York’s ebb and flow. Once it was the “center of Upper West Side’s intellectual life, home to … the Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg and the actor Zero Mostel” but it was never fully rented until World War II. It was the luxurious battlefield where an epic 16-year rent strike war was fought by tenants against an erratic and strong-willed landlord that is still legend in New York’s legal annals.

Today the noted architect Robert A.M. Stern’s plans were approved by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission marking the arrival of a $3,000 per square foot rental-to-condominium conversion high level mark in a $1.35 billion deal. The question: Will the plan succeed or be a monumental bust?

THE RIVER HOUSE

 

The River House, the 1930 Depression-defying Art Deco tower at the end of East 52nd Street, has unparalleled East River views. What makes River House standout from the other luxurious apartment houses is the cobblestone courtyard accessed by massive granite pillars with a lanterned gate large enough to accommodate a horse and carriage or a 1935 Hispano Suiza Cabriolet. The green with boxwoods courtyard is dominated by a fountain where the Poseidon statue once “sprouted water 24 hours a day, seven days a week” but no longer. 

The River House’s entry to its courtyard is not a true porte cochère but in these days of alternate facts and muddled reality let’s say that the stately gates yearn to be one and so they are. 

With a courtyard lobby, more appropriate to Greta Garbo’s Grand Hotel, the River House recalls the dazzle of Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood of the Thirties. The lobby complete with a “large concierge station … [with two] large cloakrooms for resident’s guests who [are] attending very swank parties” looks onto a terraced garden. Below that silver screen of a lobby are the luxurious facilities of the River Club. Originally not just another city club with a dining room and a ballroom it had two tennis and a squash court, a gym and “an arcaded pool”. It was as well a swell yacht club with a unique pièce de résistance - a block long private yacht basin on the East River “[f]or the convenience of members addicted to their yachts and motor boats”. That bit of luxury was bulldozed into oblivion by Robert Moses when making way for the East River Drive.

Some who have lived there made news, - Henry Kissinger, Marshall Field, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, Susan and John Guttfreund, Lady Charles Cavendish a/k/a Adele Astaire. Others made the news by being denied the chance to live there for a variety of reasons some petty, some racist - Diane Keaton, Joan Crawford and even the rich little heiress-of-many-husbands, Gloria Vanderbilt-DeCicco-Stokowski-Cooper. And others like Edwin Howard Armstrong, the inventor of the FM radio, by simply swan-diving out of a 13th floor window to his death.

Even with all of that publicity the River House remains for most New Yorkers and the for that matter, the rest of the world, an enigma, a tabula rasa, “a building where most residents [still] ascribe to the belief that one’s name ought to appear in a newspaper only at birth, when you marry or die.”

GRAHAM COURT - 1185 PARK AVENUE    

There are two other courtyard/porte cochère buildings in Manhattan, Graham Court on Adam Clayton Boulevard and 116th Street in Harlem and 1185 Park Avenue at 93th Street, but the two lack the history and the panache to make them memorable.  

Graham Court is another Clinton & Russel architectural effort for Bill Astor. It is a smaller prototype, a trial balloon for the splendid Apthorp which followed 8 years later. The arcade entry’s arched terracotta brick ceiling supported by a stand of polished marble columns leads to the courtyard. The planted courtyard was a departure from the then customary dingy airshaft making it a luxurious amenity for tenants.

Originally Graham Court catered to affluent like “professionals Dr. Joseph Lumbard, an anesthetist at Harlem Hospital, and Henry Redfield, a Columbia law Professor. [But] overbuilding in Harlem destroyed the rental market …[and] whites-only restrictions were dropped. In 1928, the first black tenant moved in …” In 1979, the building sold for “$55,000 and a promise to pay $150,000 in back taxes”. Today Graham Court and all of Harlem is its second renaissance with soaring real estate prices.

There is no question that 1185 Park is luxurious and expensive. That said, even Christopher Gray, the New York Times’ architectural Streetscapes reporter finding it wanting: “the trouble with this courtyard is that it seems dark, compared with those at the Apthorp and the Belnord on the West Side”. But note, 1185 is the surviving twin of another Park Avenue building in midtown much closer to Grand Central, now long gone, that was the locale for Dorothy Parker’s 1929 O. Henry Award winning short story Big Blonde.

A sobering concluding note to the upwardly mobile who would aspire to live in one of these gated enclaves: you are competing for one of only 798 apartments.

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    Apartments in London Terrace Towers Rentals are available with ample amenities such as an elevator and a kitchen cum dining room furnished with a Miele dishwasher and a microwave oven.

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