In The Magazine

THE ARISTOCRAT OF CENTRAL PARK WEST

Friday, April 1, 2016
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For anyone who has ever taken a stroll around the Great Lawn or picnicked on Sheep Meadow, the distinctive  silhouette of the San Remo Apartments, each of its twin towers crowned with a circular-colonnaded Greek temple and a single lantern, is an iconic element of the Central Park West skyline. So the press was understandably abuzz last year when the owner of the penthouse triplex in the San Remo’s south tower, the actress Demi Moore, listed the apartment for sale—along with a two-bedroom, street-level maisonette—with the cloud-scraping price tag of $75 million. The New York Times called the penthouse “the crown jewel” of the landmarked building, while the Daily News cheekily declared that Ms. Moore was “looking for a decent proposal.”


But for one New Yorker, Janet Cantor Gari, talk of the spectacular co-op triplex inspired a more personal response: nostalgia. Ms. Gari, now 88, is a daughter of the legendary radio and television singer-comedian Eddie Cantor, and in the 1930s Ms. Gari and her family made their home in the south tower penthouse.


Indeed, it is probably safe to say that Janet, at age 7, achieved loftier heights at the San Remo than her famous father or Ms. Moore or even the actor Bruce Willis, to whom Ms. Moore was married when the couple purchased the apartment in 1990. Around 1934, young Janet slipped out a 28th-floor door to the roof with a spaniel that had been a gift from Al Jolson. Spotting some rungs running up the side of the building toward the temple, the young girl clambered up with cheerful abandon, nearly 400 feet above the street. After her nanny was summoned by a worker who happened to be repairing the light in the tower’s pinnacle, Janet, oblivious to the danger, even took one hand off the ladder to wave down at her terrified caregiver.


“When I got to the bottom, she was hugging me and kissing me and crying,” Ms. Gari recalled in a phone interview. “And I’m thinking, ‘What’s the matter with her? She just saw me five minutes ago!’ That poor woman had nightmares for the rest of her life.”


The San Remo, spanning the blockfront between 74th and 75th Streets, was the first twin-towered building in New York City and the second skyline-defining apartment house on Central Park West designed by the architect Emery Roth. The first, the lordly, broad-beamed Beresford, was built six blocks up at 81st Street in 1929. Both highrises were named for the hotels they replaced.


Advertised as “the Aristocrat of Central Park West” when it was completed in 1930, the San Remo was a dramatic addition to a boulevard where private residences as well as hotels were rapidly being torn down in favor of soaring new apartment houses.


“It is an imposing and effective structure,” intoned the New Yorker architecture critic T-Square. “In it the designer has followed what appears to be his favorite architectural tradition, that of the Italian baroque, skillfully adapted to modern conditions.”


Later that year, The New Yorker reported that a duplex, quite possibly one of the tower penthouses, rented for $21,000 a year and boasted “more unbroken roof-terrace space than I remember seeing anywhere before, all paved with hewn-slate flags.” (The south tower penthouse was called a duplex because the apartment comprised only the 26th and 27th floors. The 28th, where Mr. Cantor later kept his office, was a concrete storage area.)


At the time, the site of the former Hotel Majestic, on Central Park West between 71st and 72nd Streets, was a yawning hole in the ground. But a stylish, twin-towered Art Deco apartment house, called the Majestic Apartments, soon rose there. Among its residents was a little boy named Dickie, Janet’s first-grade “boyfriend.” As Ms. Gari recalled in her memoir, The Cantor Buried Tales, the two children liked to climb to their respective roofs with binoculars and wave at each other.


Although the towers of the San Remo appear from Central Park to be twins, the south tower extends farther west. As a result, its views are more expansive. When the owner of the penthouse duplex in the north tower—Bono, the lead singer of the band U2—looks straight downtown, his view is blocked by the south tower. But the views uptown from the western portion of Ms. Moore’s home and terrace are unobstructed.


By any measure, standing atop the south tower at the foot of its colonnaded temple—with the sister tower’s own temple just a stone’s throw away—is a rarefied experience. “Stepping out onto that deck surrounded by the elegant and powerful architecture always brings me to a place of pure awe with a giddy smile of amazement,” Ms. Moore said in an email.


The south tower’s 1,500-square-foot terrace wraps nearly all the way around the building, and on a recent afternoon, even amid a torrential rainstorm, the views were breathtaking. To the south, one gazed over the gables and dormers of the Dakota to the curved Art Deco roof of the Majestic’s north tower. Behind it loomed the sharp-edged Time Warner Center. To the southeast and east, the high-rises of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue were on display, with the Plaza, Sherry-Netherland, and Pierre hotels elegantly anchoring the park’s southeastern corner. On the Upper East Side, the broad roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art steamed picturesquely in the cold air.


Up Central Park West, the view was a lush layering of fine old building silhouettes: the New-York Historical Society, the American Museum of Natural History, the Beresford, and the Art Deco Eldorado Apartments, designed by Margon & Holder in consultation with Emery Roth.


The south tower duplexes of the San Remo were designed as “the most distinctive suites in the building,” according to architectural historian Steven Ruttenbaum. But today the penthouse is even grander. By the time Ms. Moore and Mr. Willis purchased the apartment from Robert Stigwood, the producer of Saturday Night Fever, the south tower’s unfinished 28th floor had been renovated as a screening room/discotheque, complete with a mirrored disco ball.


Ms. Moore and Mr. Willis redesigned that top floor as an entertainment room. “For us it was definitely a playroom,” said Ms. Moore, who has three children with Mr. Willis, from whom she was divorced in 2000. “With life-size stuffed animals to climb, hide-and-seek to be played, and movies to be watched—with a little big-screen football viewing on Sundays.”


The couple renovated all of the now 17-room triplex in a tasteful Mission style. On the 26th floor, the service area is today more contemporary than the original layout, with a sprawling chef’s kitchen created by the elimination of a maid’s room, said Adam D. Modlin, founder of the Modlin Group, Ms. Moore’s broker.


A stairway leads upstairs from there, the setting for one of Ms. Gari’s most vivid memories of her enchanted San Remo childhood. Relegated during a 1930s party to the 27th floor, where the bedrooms were located, young Janet found herself peering down the pantry stairs in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Jimmy Cagney. Before she knew it, she was tumbling down the stone steps and landing at the bottom with a great, howling commotion.


A short time later, while Janet was sniffling in bed about the great trauma she had endured, her parents came up to her room with none other than Mr. Cagney. “I was very serious and very polite,” Ms. Gari recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, you have such beautiful blue eyes.’ And I said, ‘Well, thank you, Mr. Cagney, but they’re green.’ ”


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