The Ansonia Hotel
The Ansonia Hotel was built as a luxury apartment hotel on the upper west side of New York in 1904. Its resplendent apartments contained multiple bedrooms, parlors, libraries and formal dining rooms with high ceilings, elegant moldings and bay windows. The hotel had a central kitchen serving pantries on every floor so that residents could enjoy meals prepared by professional chefs. Its exterior turrets, balconies, carvings, scrolls, medallions and moldings make the Ansonia a Beaux-Arts confection.
In "New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City (1869-1930)", Elizabeth Hawes writes:
Inside and out, the Ansonia was theatrical building, a (W.E.D.) Stokes extravaganza. Behind the curves and cornices were apartments with oval reception rooms or immense circular parlors, ellipsoidal living and dining rooms, a bedroom with an apse; on higher floors, there were apartments with panoramic views. All the apartments were heated and cooled by a unique method of air circulation, supplied with filtered hot, cold, and ice water, and equipped with the gadgets of the latest technology.... To manage his vast domestic emporium, Stokes had hired Guernsey E. Webb away from the Plaza Hotel.
The Ansonia was designed to be "the world's largest resort hotel" with 2,500 rooms, 400 full baths and 600 additional toilets and sinks, a banquet hall, grand ballroom, cafe, tearoom, English grille, a 500-seat dining room, writing rooms, a palm court, a Turkish bath, the world's largest indoor swimming pool and a lobby fountain with live seals.
The Ansonia was built by William Earle Dodge Stokes, the Phelps-Dodge copper heir and it was named for his grandfather, the industrialist Anson Greene Phelps. Stokes acquired the Broadway frontage of the old New York Orphan Asylum from 73rd to 74th Street. He hired a French-born architect, Paul E. M. Duboy, best known as the architect of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument on Riverside Drive, to design the grandest hotel in Manhattan. Duboy also designed the original Newark City Hall, an ornate reproduction of a French palace. Standard guestroom furnishings included specially-woven Persian carpets; ivy patterned "art glass" windows and domed chandeliers inset with mosaic tiles. When it officially opened on April 19, 1904, The Ansonia was "the monster of all residential hotel buildings" according to the New York World.
In what might be the earliest harbinger of the current developments in urban farming, Stokes established a small farm on the roof of the hotel. He had a Utopian vision for the Ansonia - that it could be self-sufficient, or at least contribute to its own support - which led to perhaps the strangest New York hotel amenity ever: "The farm on the roof." As Stokes wrote years later, it "included about 500 chickens, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear." Every day, a bellhop delivered free fresh eggs to the tenants, and any surplus was sold cheaply to the public in the basement arcade. Not much about this farm charmed the city fathers, however, and in 1907 the Department of Health shut it down.
An original promotional advertisement boasted:
The Ansonia- the Largest and Most Complete Apartment Hotel in the World
There is nothing like the Ansonia anywhere. It is unique, comprehensive, modern. In the highest degree it combines luxury and comfort with refinement and exclusiveness. The Ansonia affords abundant opportunities for social intercourse and provides in an equal measure for privacy. It has all the conveniences and advantages of a first-class modern hotel and the attributes which one likes to associate with a home.
Some idea of the size of the building may be gained from the fact that it contains 350 suites of from one to eighteen rooms - or a total of 2,500 individual apartment rooms. Architecturally the building is the finest example of the French Renaissance style in this country. Its massive proportions, its towering height, together with the ornate character of its design, make it one of the most imposing landmarks in New York....
For the convenience of those who make the Ansonia their home, the hotel affords markets for all food products, a laundry, a tailor and valets, wholesale wine and liquor and cigar shops, apothecary and florist shops, a bank, dentists and physicians, together with all the minor features which you would expect to find in a first-class hotel.
As Peter Salwin writes in the "Upper West Side Story: A History and Guide":
If Stokes had built it east of Fifth Avenue, the Ansonia might have out-Waldorfed the Waldorf, but the Upper West Side location assured that it would remain relatively obscure.... In the early days, though, the Ansonia boasted a stellar clientele, heavily inclined toward the musical and sporting worlds. The oft-rehearsed roster.... (included) such operatic greats as Giulio Gatti-Casazza, Feodor Chaliapin, Lauritz Melchior, Ezio Pinza, Lily Pons, Bidu Sayao, and Tito Schipa.... Other celebrated guests have included Arturo Toscanini, Igor Stravinsky, Mischa Elman, Yehudi Menuhin, and impresarios Florenz Ziegfeld and Sol Hurok. (At one point Hurok, between successes, was locked out of his room for nonpayment and spent several nights "enjoying the fresh air and the peace of the city after midnight" on a bench in Central Park) Authors Theodore Dreiser and Elmer Rice and editor Henry W. L. Stoddard were guests at different times, as were Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, most of the post-World War I New York Yankees, several pre-World War I German spies, a deposed Mexican dictator, and a tidy selection of other eccentrics, gamblers, geniuses, hustlers, and con men.
Some of the other celebrated tenants were:
- A key player in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, first baseman Chick Gandil, had an apartment at the Ansonia. According to Eliot Asinof, in his book Eight Men Out, Gandil held a meeting there with his White Sox teammates to recruit them for the scheme to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series.
- Willie Sutton, the bank robber, was arrested at a Childs Restaurant in the Ansonia.
- " The Ansonia was also used as the apartment building where Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Leigh lived in the 1992 film Single White Female. The apartment scenes were filmed in a studio but the stairwell scenes were filmed on location at the hotel.
- In the Neil Simon film, The Sunshine Boys, the character Willie Clark, played by Walter Matthau, lives in the Ansonia.
- In the film, Perfect Stranger, Halle Berry plays a news reporter who lives in a "professional-decorated $4-million condo in the lavish Ansonia building in the Upper West Side."
In New York Magazine ("The Building of the Upper West Side," May 21, 2005), Steven Gaines reported:
The Ansonia might have been luxurious, but it was never considered chic. In spirit as well as in location, it was part of the Upper West Side, the bohemian stepchild of the city, and it would always have a risqué reputation....
The Ansonia's racy reputation also drew pro athletes. Jack Dempsey trained for the heavyweight championship bout of 1919 against Jess Willard while living there, and after World War I, the Ansonia became the preferred lodging of professional baseball players in New York. It was the home of many New York Yankees, including Wally Schang, Lefty O'Doul and Bob Meusel, as well as Babe Ruth, who moved there with his wife when the Boston Red Sox sold his contract to the Yankees after the 1919 season.....
Ruth, who thought of the entire hotel as an extension of his apartment, would sometimes wear his scarlet silk bathrobe down in the elevator to the basement barbershop for his morning shave. He was inspired to take up the saxophone while living at the Ansonia, and his squeaky bleatings were familiar up and down the hallways on his floor.
After a messy divorce from his first wife, Rita de Acosta (with whom he had one son, Weddie), W.E.D. Stokes married Helen Elwood. Ten years and two children later, Stokes divorced Helen, establishing an $800,000 trust fund for her and the two children. Stokes died soon thereafter from lobar pneumonia on May 26, 1926, just four days before his 74th birthday.
On November 7, 1925, the Hotel Gazette, reported that the Ansonia had been sold to Morris Glaser by the John McEntee Bowman hotel organization which had operated the hotel since 1915. During the first several years of Bowman's operation, Edward M. Tierney of the Hotel Arlington, Binghamton, N.Y. was managing director of the Ansonia. Later, George W. Sweeney, managing director of the Hotel Commodore was appointed as manager of the Ansonia while retaining his position as head of the Commodore also.
The restaurants and kitchens closed during the Depression and the elegant entrance on Broadway was bricked up and storefronts installed. Worse yet, Weddie Stokes allowed the Ansonia façade to be stripped to supply material for the World War II effort:
- Cooling systems, pipes and tubes were ripped out of the walls
- Plumbing fixtures were scavenged
- Copper cartouches and metal ornamentation on the building façade were removed
In 1945, Weddie Stokes sold the Ansonia to a less-than-scrupulous entrepreneur named Samuel Broxmeyer who milked the building and then sold it to Jake Starr, "the great lamplighter of Broadway", the owner of the Artkraft Strauss Company. Starr continued to exploit the building and allowed it to deteriorate badly. Starr leased the basement swimming pool and Turkish baths to Steve Ostrow who created the Continental Baths which anticipated the era of gay liberation. Aside from its attempt to replicate "the glory of ancient Rome," the Continental cabaret became a huge popular success. Ostrow booked up-and-coming stars like Bette Midler, then known as "Bathhouse Betty" and her young accompanist Barry Manilow. Other performers were the Manhattan Transfer jazz group, John Davidson, Melba Moore, Peter Allen and Eleanor Steber, former Metropolitan Opera star who recorded an album called "Live at the Bath House".
By the mid-20th Century, the grand apartments had mostly been divided into studios and one-bedroom units, some of which retained their original architectural detail. After a short dispute in the 1960s, a proposal to demolish the building was fought off by its many musical and artistic residents.
Despite Jake Starr's opposition, the Ansonia was designated a landmark in 1972 with the support of Mayor John V. Lindsay and Congresswoman Bella Abzug. The designation protected only the façade not the interior of the Ansonia.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report in March 14, 1972 wrote,
On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture and other features of the building, the Landmark Preservation Commission finds that the Ansonia Hotel has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.
The Commission further finds that, among its important qualities, the Ansonia Hotel has long been world renowned as a center of musical activity, that this tradition is enhanced by its truly splendid French Beaux Arts exterior which has a joyous quality befitting its musical associations, that it was solidly built by a noted builder with virtually soundproof partitions as one of the largest apartment hotels in the world, that the appropriate and ornamental use of its various materials has resulted in a building of architectural distinction and that is continues to provide a vital service to the music world of New York City today.
*excerpted from my book "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York" AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2011.