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How The Upper West Side Revolutionized NYC Apartments

Today AD joins architect Nick Potts in New York City for a walking tour of the Upper West Side. At the turn of the century, apartment hotels such as The Dakota and The San Remo started populating the Upper West Side. Servants' quarters, elevators, and the realization of views were making apartment living more appealing to the upper middle classes and increasing the value of the top floors. Join Nick for an in-depth look at how the Upper West Side revolutionized apartment living and became the birthplace of the penthouse in Manhattan. Director: Hiatt Woods Director of Photography: Eric Brouse Editor: Tristen Rogers Host: Nick Potts Producer: Skylar Economy; Vara Reese Line Producer: Joseph Buscemi Associate Producer: Brandon Fuhr Production Manager: Melissa Heber Production Coordinator: Fernando Davila Audio Engineer: Brett Van Deusen Production Assistant: Noah Bierbrier; Ryan Coppola Post Production Supervisor: Andrew Montague Post Production Coordinator: Holly Frew Supervising Editor: Christina Mankellow Assistant Editor: Courtney Karwal Colorist: Oliver Eid

Released on 09/07/2023


These two towers could be thought of

as the birthplace of the penthouse apartment

in Manhattan and possibly the world.

I'm Nick Potts.

I'm an architect, and today we're going

to be doing a walking tour of Manhattan's Upper West Side.

[light music]

Something that was happening almost uniquely here

on the Upper West Side.

At the turn of the century

it was becoming a neighborhood where people coming

from other places who were

on the make were looking for places to live.

And the apartment hotel really was the solution for this.

These apartments didn't have kitchens

and so they looked like an apartment.

People would live in them for a long time

but anything dealing with service was centralized.

You never had to cross paths with staffed.

We're in the 20th century here.

There's electricity on the street, there are subways

so it's starting to get a little bit more buzzing.

And the hubbub of Broadway was becoming an appeal.

The big idea of these apartment hotels

to attract the upwardly mobile middle class was a thing

that was happening here on the Upper West Side uniquely.

And buildings like this we're starting to pop up

as kind of this new nexus

of an apartment hotel neighborhood.

Right now we're in front of the Dakota.

This is really one of the first buildings

on the Upper West Side.

The name, the Dakota was a bit of a joke

because it was so remote, both so far west

and so far north that may as well be in the Dakotas

which weren't even states yet.

And the building is fairly experimental

in terms of its location and also its technology.

A building of this height needed elevators

and to have elevators, you have to have electricity

which didn't exist here on the Upper West side

until the subways were on in 1900.

It was the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune

who developed this building.

He provided his own power plant

and really embarked on an almost experimental folly.

The Dakota really was the pioneer of making apartment living

for the upwardly mobile middle class acceptable

and something that would attract more residents

and ultimately more buildings.

And this was a middle class building

in the middle class that existed

in the 1880s when this was built

was very different than what we have now.

People had staffs, people were expected

to have like a certain level of wealth to buy into this.

At the same time, again, this is apartment living is new

and the idea of living next to someone

rather than having your own individual house

and having to cross paths with their staff

was still something that a lot of people

were trying to get behind.

So in a building like the Dakota

there was a huge amount of planning put into the separation

of front of house and back of house.

So underneath the courtyard of the Dakota

there's an entire level of service

and so the servants using the area beneath the courtyard

but essentially never have to cross paths

with the building's residence.

One of the most interesting things

about the Dakota is that there are no corridors.

There are these four separate passenger towers that led

to these enormous apartments that essentially

bridged an entire corner of the building before they went

to the service towers that were in the center.

So at the time of the Dakota was under construction,

apartment building design was still very modular

where people weren't taking, you know,

as many rooms as they needed

where it was a suite of three salons

or something with entire residence.

And that was really appealing to people

who were trying to establish themselves.

If you think about the movie Rosemary's Baby

that this obviously starred prominently

in the crux of the situation

with the homeowners is that it's a combined apartment

with a shared closet.

Stylistically the Dakota is also a pioneer or an outlier

in many ways.

It was designed by Henry Hardenbergh

who eventually designed the Plaza Hotel in 1907.

It's pretty unique in that it's a German,

Germanic medieval style building.

It almost looks like a civic building that you'd see go up

in the middle of Europe in the 1850s or 1860s

like a post office or a city hall.

So there's a monumentality to it.

And the building even has a moat if you look around it

which wasn't meant to be like a castle

it was meant to bring light in.

But it continues the theme of this fortresslike

Northern European medieval sort of architecture.

This odd Germanic style really wasn't adopted elsewhere

in the Upper West Side, but the planning

of the Dakota became a really important pattern.

And you look at buildings like the Apthorp

and the Belnord that have a very similar sort of planning,

no corridors, separate elevator towers,

the central courtyard.

You see the pattern of the Dakota really taking root

uniquely in the Upper West side.

And as other developments happened,

particularly a few blocks further west on Broadway,

they mimicked the sorts of amenity spaces

that the Dakota had

while in a more approachable sort of building

the apartment hotel.

[bright music]

This building behind me is the hotel Belleclaire

which is important for two major reasons.

The first is that it was the first major commission

by Emery Roth who was the architect of the San Remo

the El Dorado, the Beresford

really the most iconic buildings on Central Park West.

It's also important because it's emblematic

of a new building type, which is the apartment hotel.

And this is a type that emerged really here

on the Upper West Side to suit the needs

of on the make upper middle class.

So because in this time period the mixing

of residents and staff was a really important deal,

a lot of the planning of these buildings was

around the separation of service and living.

And there's always a service elevator.

The functions like the kitchens

and the servant's rooms and porters are always centered

towards the center of the building,

usually around a light core to kind of stay away

from the salons and the kind of the high value spaces

which are lining in the public face of the building.

And a building like this

though it served the needs of upper middle class,

it really wasn't something that people

on the east side looked well upon

where the old money lived in their kind of proper limestone

or brownstone buildings, a kind of restrained ornament.

A building like this appealed to the west side taste.

You know, these are people who are on the make

the excess was appealing to them

and not considered garish or in poor taste.

This building is really a unique example in New York

of the Viennese Secession/Art Nouveau style.

You see a lot more of this experimentation

on the west side because this is targeted to people

who are on the make and they're looking to impress.

And the more ornament,

the more stuff added to it,

it appeals to people who are kind of looking

to make their way up.

So this building was going up at exactly the same time

as two other major apartment hotels along Broadway

a few blocks further south, the Ansonia

which is the largest and probably the most iconic of these.

And the Dorilton, which is similar in terms of scale

and form to what you see on the Belleclaire

but taller and little more French in planning.

But the idea is the same.

It's a corner buildings, targeted towards an apartment hotel

that was meant to attract people who were moving to the city

and establishing themselves.

[light music]

Behind me is Ansonia, and this was built in 1904.

The reason why there's a proliferation

of these large apartment buildings here

at 72nd Street and Broadway is right underneath it.

And you can see the 72nd Street IRT subway station.

This was right around the same time around 1901, 1902.

And because of this, there was electrification

and the means of people

to get from further downtown up here.

So the land value skyrocketed

and it was natural to build a large building.

So this is another apartment hotel.

It's the largest of any of these.

There were 300 suites when this was built.

Stylistically it's Beaux-Arts,

Stokes who is the developer of the Ansonia

hired an architect from Paris called Duboy

to design essentially a Haussmannian building.

This is very similar

to what you see in the eighth arrondissement

in Paris with the French balconies and the band courses

but it's blown up to enormous scale

almost three times what you would see in Paris

where the buildings are five, six stories.

He was also so involved

that the architect ended up just leaving the country.

He paid him off to go back to France

and so essentially took over the building

as his folly and lavish money on it.

There were Turkish baths, there were shopping arcades.

Really, you know, it was apartment hotel

but it had all of what you'd expect

in a five star hotel now.

The building failed really quickly after it was built.

It built in 1904.

By the time the 1930s came around,

the kitchens were already closed.

So it went through a really rapid change

in the types of people that it housed.

It declined significantly during the 1970s

and it really became in the 1970s almost the flop house

in poor repair.

But because it was very well built, again,

this was Stokes's folly.

He poured a lot of money into it

which ultimately bankrupted the building.

It's very robustly built.

The steel is heavily fireproof with stone.

The floors are actually two layers thick

and so it's essentially soundproof.

So this actually made it a great place

for musicians to live.

Again, we're just up the two three line

from Times Square close to Lincoln Center

when that came about.

So this became a great place for musicians to live

and actually live/work so they could teach classes

or practice in their apartment

without really bothering the neighbors.

It's just really amazing to think

about the number of people who are noted

in terms of music and performing arts.

Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Stravinsky, Florenz Ziegfeld,

who have lived and worked just in that one building.

The Turkish baths that were in the basement of the building

when it was first built obviously didn't have a use anymore.

So by the time the 1970s came around,

it was a gay bathhouse called the Continental Baths

where Bette Midler got her start.

And you can just think about its importance

in establishing New York and maintaining its cachet

as a cultural capital.

In terms of its planning, the Ansonia is a departure

from earlier apartment buildings such as the Dakota,

where the vertical circulation was split up

in multiple cores.

Here the Ansonia actually centralizes all the elevators

into one stacked core, which is the way

that a lot of hotels and office towers

and even residential towers are planned now.

So there's a bit more forward thinking

in terms of centralizing the circulation into one spine

versus dispersing it into small neighborhoods.

[bright music]

The Upper West Side was really the last place

in Manhattan where townhouses were built

and what you can see is that they're extremely eclectic

tightening everything from Moorish decoration,

classical sculpture and more modish sorts of arts

and crafts motifs.

So really interesting and individual as opposed

to what you see on the East Side.

[light music]

So these two towers behind me, you could think of

as being the birthplace of the penthouse in New York City

and possibly even the world amidst the San Remo

it's is 1930, it's Emory Roth, so barely 30 years

after the construction of the hotel Belleclaire,

you can see the drastic changes in both the adoption

of apartment living as a proper place where people live

and also architecturally the development

of the apartment house into its own distinct style.

The idea of the penthouse is really something

that was birthed in the United States

in the early part of the 20th century

when tall buildings were first thought

about the top of the building was seen

as a place for equipment.

This building really comes right off the heels

of an earlier Emery Roth building, the Beresford

just north of the American Natural History Museum.

And that building was the first introduced towers

in the case of the Beresford, the towers were not

for people to live in,

they were actually for equipment.

So it was the water tanks and the overruns

for the elevators took up the prominent towers.

What happened between the Beresford and San Remo,

however, was the multiple dwelling law of 1929.

And that was a state mandated law that talked

about essentially how to build an apartment tower.

This law that said, if you have a hundred foot long block,

the towers can be yay big

and they have to be this far apart.

Previously buildings were less valuable

as you got higher and higher up, but the elevator made

that whole getting vertical much more seamless.

And as people started realizing views,

that whole idea flipped

and the higher floor suddenly became more valuable

because you had this added bonus and this added value

of views that really hadn't been quantified before.

So the towers on the San Remo are really the pinnacle

of this development of a new style and type of building

which is the apartment tower.

[light music]