In The Magazine

Go West, Young Swell

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

At a Fifth Avenue book club a few years back, a member could barely contain himself over an anecdote recounted in Rogues’ Gallery, this columnist’s book about the colorful cast of characters behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the course of its 145 years of existence. Of all the stories the museum’s late director Thomas Hoving told about his former employer, it was the one he, too, considered the funniest.

At its center was Jules S. Bache, owner of the Bache & Co. brokerage concern. Now perhaps best remembered as the father of society hostess Kitty Miller, who once taught her lap dog to get up on its hind legs and give a Nazi salute, Bache was a prominent art collector who gave 63 objets d’art and paintings to the Met. But he was also “a well-known man on the town, I mean really, a reprobate,” Hoving told me. He died “in the arms of his black mistress on the West Side. In those days, it was probably worse to be on the West Side than it was to have a black mistress. On the East Side, it might’ve been okay!” Hoving’s delight in that story came to mind while leafing through the marketing materials for an old but new-to-market condominium, the Chatsworth, a reborn Beaux Arts extravagance that dominates the corner of West 72nd Street and Riverside Drive. After its opening in 1904, its redeveloper’s web site boasts, “Manhattan’s elite flocked to the Chatsworth making it . . . a haven for society’s darlings.”

Well, not quite.

Covering 11 lots and consisting of two connected 13-story towers decorated with classical details, and an adjoining 8-story addition on 72nd, the Chatsworth originally contained 74 apartments in suites of between 2 and 20 rooms (some with laundries) in the large buildings, and in the annex, a single 11-room, 4-bath apartment per floor. The two main buildings, which cost $1.25 million to erect, were connected only by a hallway on the main floor that contained $60,000 worth of Caen stone, Circassian walnut and bronze.

“The location is one of the most commanding in the city and affords an unobstructed view of the [Hudson] river from the Narrows to Tarrytown and the Tappan Zee,” the New York Tribune wrote fifteen years after it opened. At the time, the Chatsworth was still considered “the last word in apartment construction.”

Architect John F. Scharsmith produced “an exceedingly lavish product that would be in competition with the contemporaneous Dorilton, not far away at 71st Street and Broadway, and the justcompleted over-the-top Ansonia at 73rd Street and Broadway,” says New York apartment house historian Andrew Alpern. The Chatsworth’s amenities included a café, a billiard room, a barber shop and a hairdressing salon, valet and tailoring services, a sun parlor across the entire top floor, and electric bus service along 72nd Street from Central Park West to the building.”

Told of the claims being made about the Chatsworth’s past social glories, Alpern jokes that given its West Side location, that sort of lavish living would only have appealed to “misfit society darlings who suffered from a pressing need to feel pampered and better-served than their neighbors,” who then mostly lived without cafés and barbers in private houses on the East Side.

In truth, like most buildings on the West Side, and despite the hoity-toity name and decorative elements borrowed from the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House in England, the rental building attracted residents who were something less than New York’s aristocracy. Over the years, they included ballerina Albertina Rasch, chemist Charles Baskerville, architect Joseph Freedlander, corporate lawyers like Ralph Oakley (who represented Big Tobacco), golfer Frank Presbrey, New York Stock Exchange vice president B. Ogden White, doctors like veterans’ champion Samuel Lloyd and Ignac Neumann of the Hospital for Joint Diseases, real estate investors like James Griswold Wentz and Solomon Moses (who was also a patron of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum), several retired businessmen who preferred to be known as turfmen and haunted the racetrack at Saratoga Springs, art dealer and auctioneer James Psilo, and Mrs. Adolph Vietor, a relation of the Steinway piano clan. The most famous early resident was likely Charles Norris, chief medical examiner of New York during the Depression.

By 1939, the Chatsworth and its residents were both showing their age. Charles Levin, operator of the Cameo Th eater, which showed mostly Russian Communist fi lms, killed himself by jumping from the roof of a building next to his theater that year. A neighbor who also died that year was Frederick A. Stokes, whose eponymous publishing house printed books by H. G. Wells, Stephen Crane and John Masefi eld. Other Chatsworth residents at the time were Laura Calvert Bacon, whose husband, Henry, designed the Lincoln Memorial; Virginia Harned, an actress who created the role of Trilby in the original 1895 production of Svengali; and Doty Hobart, a screenwriter for Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.

In other words, the Chatsworth was home to a typical cast of West Side characters, accomplished but, as snooty East Siders would have said, “Not our kind, dear. Nowadays, the social geography of New York City is far more catholic and forgiving, with retro-style limestone buildings like 15 Central Park West bringing East Siders west, and glassy condo towers on 57th Street bringing the rest of the world to Midtown.

HFZ Capital, which is redeveloping and upgrading the Chatsworth with all the architectural bells and interior design whistles, does both kinds of buildings, but its founder and chairman, Ziel Feldman, has a special love for historic ones, and counts the restorations of 190 Riverside Drive, 500 West End Avenue and 41 West 72nd Street among his proudest accomplishments.

“It’s much harder to renovate, but if you can bring back the ghosts and bring a building up to current times, it can be both rewarding and very profi table,” he says. “Depending on the neighborhood, a prewar building redone well does better than ground-up construction. And on the Upper West Side, people with families need larger apartments with important kitchens, thick walls and fl oors, and history.”

Buildings comparable to the West Side’s century-old architectural extravaganzas can’t be re-created. “You can’t aff ord to build that way,” says Feldman. “You can’t replace these buildings.” But the new Chatsworth argues that you can bring them back to a semblance of the glorious past. Even if you can’t bring back the bygone days when Jules Bache went west to die in his lover’s arms.


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