The experience of looking up and down Central Park West is a rare one. The street’s depth has a regularity and distance that is unparalleled anywhere else in the middle of Manhattan. Even on Central Park’s other border the experience is dissimilar; the tall height of the trees along fifth avenue obfuscates the view from the on west side of the street. Looking south on Central Park West, the 59th street monument to Columbus, a monolith in the center of Columbus circle, is visible for miles. It functions as an optical endpoint to the parallel lines created by the street wall, the greenery, grey octagonal tiles, and darkly weathered stone barrier. Looking north, however, no such ending exists. The eye has a more difficult time conceiving of the depth of the avenue. This is until around the mid-60s, when one’s eye is driven toward one building.
The colossal white cliffs of the Beresford crown the sightline in a mirage of stable termination. Its height, which soars above the low greenery of Theodore Roosevelt Park, is capped by three citadels; bastions of the skyline. This grandiose character is a regular aspect of the building’s architect. Much of the residential resplendence of the Upper West Side’s skyline, including its ornate luxury and height, can be attributed to this man; Emery Roth. As prolific and stylized as Roth’s career was, a surprisingly small oeuvre exists of which his life is subject matter. The main exception to this is Steven Ruttenbaum’s Mansions in the Clouds. Ruttenbaum’s account of Roth’s life is one of the old American dream; a destitute immigrant hero arrives in America as a young man and after discovering his passion, combats old garde bigotry and reaches success through hard work and good luck, ultimately surpassing the fame of any antagonist. As one of “two of the most important commissions of [Roth’s] career” the Beresford is not only a symbol of “the Great Prosperity made visible,” but in fact the apex of such luxury, as “America’s economic basis was so inexorably altered in the succeeding years that we can never again erect buildings such as these.”♦ Part one of this essay will discuss the physical and historical context in which the Beresford was built, and part two, will discuss Roth’s architectural ingenuity and expression of culture and business. In short each part will answer the respective questions: why is the Beresford’s land plot so conducive for such illustrious wealth? and why do Roth’s residential skyscrapers, including the Beresford, have ornate towers on their roofs?
Just after the colonial period New York was mostly confined to what is now lower Manhattan. As is discussed in Origins and The Dakota by 1811 the city government had the foresight to plan the rest of the island on a rectangular grid for future development. What is often less discussed about the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, is the fact that the Randall Survey cut directly through several yet-to-be incorporated agrarian communities. The actions of drawing the future visage of the grid, and physically laying its intersectional markers gave the city new authority to sell off small, habitable pieces of property. Historically northern land was often purchased from the city in large chunks that were marked by geographical perimeters, or by coordinates on the true north-south axis.
However with the creation of the grid oriented to its own axis, land was sold in an even geometry. “Blocks,” the positive space between streets, were subdivided into “building plots”. Although the size of these plots were for a long time known as the average size of a New York home, they were very commonly bought in tandem for businesses, speculative building, or larger houses.δ The parcel purchased by John and Elizabeth Whitehead, for example, in 1824 existed not between natural markers, or longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates, but instead between future eighty-second and eighty-sixth street, and sixth and eighth avenues.
The Whiteheads purchased the land for a farm near the old community of Yorkville, but by 1825 discovered a new more profitable venture. Economizing on their purchase, the Whiteheads sold part of their property to an African American bootblack, Andrew Williams.♥ African American New Yorkers, legally free to begin making their own wealth, were still confronted with cultural issues of owning property. Investors shrewd enough to purchase land were pushed out of the city center, and to the North. For the better part of twenty years, African American communities thrived in the upper west side. By 1832, the Whiteheads had sold nearly 25 parcels of their land to black owners (and nearly the same amount to white owners) which led to the establishment of the York Hill community. Other similar areas thrived as well. The nearby Seneca Village contained over 100 African American citizens and even an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.Ψ Unfortunately York Hill was not destined to last. Just four years later the city purchased the area for the creation of its first significant reservoir project.♣ Seneca Village lasted another twenty years until, in 1853, New York’s Legislature earmarked a 700 acre rectangle for its massive public park project and “using the right of eminent domain, the city seized the land to make the park, evicted all its residents, and razed their homes. Seneca Village was destroyed.”♠
Although the securement of Central Park’s land was destructive force in this way, its designers, Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calavert Vaux, learned (and later used to their advantage) that their parks also had the ability to create. Just a few years after Central Park was opened, public transit began creeping up its sides, creating neighborhoods like the Upper West Side. In this neighborhood, an interesting phenomenon transpired. On most of the avenue each block’s eight building plots directly adjacent to the park remained vacant. It quickly became apparent that these plots would be vastly more expensive than the rest. On the east side, the park-side building plots were seized by some of New York’s wealthiest. This area, known as “Millionaire’s row”, was a stretch of fifth avenue absolutely packed with the city’s most ornate single family dwellings.◊ (Some of these remain today.) However, on the less chic West Side, due to the high cost of the park-adjacent plots the avenue would be developed later through a higher yielding speculative investment strategy. With retrospect, it was the perfect niche for the nascent apartment building.
Just two years before the Dakota was built, developer José de Navarro completed his popular Central Park Apartments, on fifty-ninth street. Navarro had employed a vertical, rather than horizontal, economizing strategy; that is, rather than an apartment building, his Spanish Apartments (as they were colloquially deemed after his latinate family name) were a grouping of ornate townhouses. Similar to many early luxury apartment buildings, the exterior, was made to resemble a single colossal mansion. Gaining high acclaim, Navarro attempted to develop a second building on 81st street and Central Park West in 1882. However Navarro’s business ventures began to fail. His financiers foreclosed on his property soon after the 81st street lot’s purchase, and subsequently sold to John D. Crimmins in 1884. Five years later, Alva Walker, purchased the land and built the Hotel Beresford.⊥
Although it is contemporaneous with the Dakota, Hotel Beresford was built on a slightly less luxurious, and more economical model. The building was far smaller, only taking up the southern four building plots on the avenue, and the apartments (called suites) were more regular than those of the Dakota. Its thirty-four suites were each composed of four rooms and a bathroom. These ranged between $1200-$1800.Γ For the cost of only an additional seven dollars each month, inhabitants were nourished by the dumbwaiter in each suite connected to a central kitchen, or by the hotel’s seventh floor restaurant. Unlike the Dakota, which boasted partial kitchens in each apartment, as well as a central kitchen and restaurant, the Hotel Beresford’s apartments contained only the latter. A kitchen-less model apartment would stay the standard for apartment-hotel living for the subsequent few decades. Walker’s success was instant. So much so that he changed his plan for the northern four plots of his property, originally meant to be a private park and tennis court facility, to a ten story expansion.⊗
The Hotel Beresford proved successful until the second half of the 1920s, when a new phase of architectural and cultural modernity demanded that this prized parcel contain a building far larger, taller, and more profoundly eminent.
What it is it about this particular land that made it so coveted? Why had it been the object desire for Navarro, Walker, and later Roth? Why has it been the loci for multiple eminent buildings? The plot is desirable for a number of reasons, for example the plot allowed for larger and potentially more distinguished looking buildings. The Building Resolution of 1916 dictated that buildings could only reach the height of one and a half the width of the adjacent.ð (This law pertained to the widest street if a building was on a corner.) The intersection of Central Park West and 81st Street’s double wide-one hundred foot streets gave builders a wider berth to work at a maximum height. Three corners of the block, instead of two, were able to reach to 200 feet. (This explains why the current Beresford only contains three towers and not four; the northwestern corner of the building is the only one which does not abut any double-wide streets.) What made it so significant in the previous century as well? The corner of eighty-first street and Central Park West was (and is) one of only two building plots on all of Central Park’s nearly seven mile perimeter which faced Central Park on two fronts.℘
When Gouverneur Morris and John Randal set out to plan Manhattan, they agreed that copious public lands were not needed because the Hudson and East Rivers “which embrace Manhattan Island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure as well as to the convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous.”ℑ This explains why their original plan, drawn in 1807, includes only a handful of public squares. (Some of these areas, such as Washington Square, had historically been set aside for public use as mass graveyards for the poor, but were to be repurposed after 1811.)
Most of the commissioners’ public lands were to be north of the developed area of the city, but these future parks were fewer and far between than those in the south. Unlike in the south, the northern parks were to follow the map’s rectilinear plan, generally circumscribing nearly four blocks. The parks are spread around the island with regularity but for the most part, arbitrarily. One such park was Manhattan Square. Although Manhattan Square is mentioned in the final draft of the commissioner’s map and notes in 1811, it was not officially commissioned until 1839.β The exact reason for this lapse in time has evaded my research. I hypothesize that it can be attributed to the enormity of the undertaking; the grid plan’s construction took almost a century to physically complete.Δ If the rate of trajectory of New York’s early history is any indication, the commissioners plans’ northernly expansion took a very long time to reach the upper west side. For comparison, the base of first avenue was completed in 1813, just two years after the commissioners map was published, but 1st street and its intersection with 1st ave took nearly eleven more years to complete.Θ
By 1839 the land that would later become Manhattan Square was owned privately.§ Then in 1839 the land was officially condemned by eminent domain. Except for Manhattan Square (and Madison Square, which exists within the boundaries of the commissioners’ proposed parade ground) none of the original map’s parks remain today. A number of the other parks, like Hamilton Square on the upper east side, were initially developed but their need was eclipsed by Central Park, and the lands were sold off to private owners. In 1861 a group attempted to divide and sell Manhattan Square at auction, it “having been rendered unnecessary”.∋ Luckily two years prior a group of rich science enthusiasts petitioned that the square be transferred to the control of Central Park, and additionally given to their group for a Zoological Garden. This group, which consisted of J.P. Morgan, Adrian Iselin, Henry Parish, Joseph A. Cholete, Charles Dana, Morris Ketchum Jessup, and Theodore Roosevelt Sr., were interested in spurring civic diversion in the relatively cultural arid north. They agreed to fund the organization upon a similar strategy as that of Central Park’s novel foundation, which was “under private control but public in [its] relative openness, nonprofit motives, and use of city and state resources.”∩ In 1864, the state government accepted their petition as law. Manhattan Square was given to Central Park, and subsequently offered to the scientific group. However the group soon changed tack, and decided that instead of creating a zoo, they would found what they desired to be America’s foremost scientific museum, The American Museum of Natural History.
Today, there is little indication that Manhattan Square was once part of central park. Under the auspices of the Central Park Commission, Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould designed the original museum’s facade in red brick victorian Gothic style, linking it with the rest of the park’s architecture, like the original Metropolitan Museum of Art.
However with time, both museums have changed considerably. Today the American Museum of Natural History is actually made of seventeen buildings. The cornerstone of Vaux and Mould’s five story building was laid on June 22, 1874.A Although the original Greensward Plan that won the design competition of Central Park, does not contain information outside of the original rectangle, this 1870 “Map of the Central Park” shows the undeveloped Manhattan Square in green. Although it is bisected by eighth avenue, the square is unequivocally identified as part of the park.∞ The intersection of this rectangle, with that of the original park, made the corners of 81st street and 77th street bordered by central park on two sides. Although it might not still hold the title today, assuredly a New York building parcel flanked so heavily by park land will have an advantage over the rest of the city. It is no surprise that the two buildings that have sat atop this land have been some of the most notable in the entire city. Even today, amongst post-modern skyscrapers the Beresford remains one of the city’s most prominent apartment buildings. And the crown jewels of the building today are its three coronal tower apartments, three of the most coveted residences on Earth.
Part 2 of this essay will be posted in a short while. It will discuss the Beresford’s towers and how they have come to exist.
♦ Ruttenbaum, Mansions in the Clouds; The skyscraper palazzi of Emery Roth, 126.
δ These building plots were on average twenty to twenty-five feet wide, by one hundred feet long. With each block containing the average dimensions of two-hundred by eight-hundred feet, a block contained an average of between 64 and 76 building plots. Eight plots on each avenue, and 24 to 30 plots on each street. Morris, De Witt, and Rutherford, “Remarks of the Commissioners for laying out streets and roads in the City of New York, Under the Act of April 3, 1807”.
♥ We can only speculate why the Whiteheads began selling their property just one year after they purchased it. One possibility is that the land was unsuitable or farming. One source claims that the land was “notable for its rocky terrain” in the mid-1800s. New York City Landmark’s Preservation Commission, The Beresford Apartments Designation Report (LP-1520). Report prepared by Nancy Goeschel. New York: city of New York, 1987.
Ψ “Seneca Village,” New York Historical Society, accessed February 25, 2015, http://projects.ilt.columbia.edu/seneca/village2a.html.
♣ Rosenzweig and Blackmar, The Park and the People; a history of Central Park, 66.
♠ Wall, Rothschild, and Copeland, “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African American Communities in the Antebellum New York City”, Historical Archaeology 42 (2008): 98.
◊ Rosenzweig and Blackmar, 292.
⊥ Alpern, Luxury Apartments of Manhattan, 136.
Γ It should be noted that according to this primary source article these are the prices of “rents…according to their size and location,” however it does not specify what period of time this rent involves. Today these numbers would reflect over $30,000 in 2014 dollars, and thus I would speculate that these rents are annual. Lynx, “The Hotel Beresford”, Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, 44 (1889): 1263, accessed February, 25, 2015, http://rerecord.cul.columbia.edu/document.php?vollist=1&vol=ldpd_7031148_004&page=ldpd_7031148_004_00000365.
⊗ The Beresford Apartments Designation Report (LP-1520)
ð City of New York Board of Estimate and Apportionment, Building Zone Resolution, Article III, 8, C. New York: city of New York, 1916
℘ The other, on the southern end of Theodore Roosevelt Park, currently houses the New York Historical Society. However, it is possible that southern facing views would have been more covetable as the city did not stretch much to the north, and therefore that plot was never as desirable.
ℑ Morris, De Witt, and Rutherford, “Remarks of the Commissioners for laying out streets and roads in the City of New York, Under the Act of April 3, 1807”.
β “Theodore Roosevelt Park”, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, accessed February 26, 2015, http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/theodore-roosevelt-park/history.
Θ “Peretz Square”. http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/peretz-square/history. accessed 10/27/2014.
§ I was not able to find information on the land’s original owners, especially whether it was owned previous to 1807, or bought after the 1811 plans were accepted by the city government. It seems unlikely that this land would have been owned before 1807 for any purpose except farmland. However, a post-1811 sale could signal conflict between the 1807-1811 city government and later governments. It also possible that, like with Hamilton Square on the Upper East Side, the square’s sale was intentionally temporary. The privatization of ownership for Manhattan Square and many of the commissioners’ map’s other squares were deeply questioned especially after the creation of Central Park. Most of the grid’s parkland was subsequently sold back to private owners.
∋ Anonymous, “City and County Affairs.: Board of Councilmen. Invitation to Senator Crittenden to Visit the City The Duties on Auction Sales the Location of the Post-Office Sale of Manhattan-Square Refusal to Overrule a Veto the Corporation Versus the Legislature”, New York Times, March 15, 1861, accessed February 26, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/1861/03/15/news/city-county-affairs-board-councilmen-invitation-senator-crittenden-visit-city.html.
∩ Rosenzweig and Blackmar, 354.
∞ Manhattan Square would still be part of Central Park today had the commissioners success not been so great that the city government transformed their managerial body into what is now known as the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation. The group came to govern all of New York’s parks so no official separation from Central Park was ever necessitated. However in 1958 Manhattan Square was officially named Theodore Roosevelt Park, due to the museum’s many memorials to the former president. “Theodore Roosevelt Park”, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, accessed February 26, 2015, http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/theodore-roosevelt-park/history.