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From Utopia to Scandal to Luxury, The History of the Ansonia

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Welcome to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

There is some truth in the idiom that a building's legacy is shaped by the character of its creator. Given the Ansonia's elaborate history, it comes as no surprise that the man behind this stunner was William Earl Dodge Stokes. An heir to the Ansonia copper fortune, his salacious personal affairs made him infamous. The newspapers reported stories about his multiple marriages, one of them to a teenage girl, as well as his subsequent romantic quarrels and infidelity?he even reportedly suffered gun wounds to his legs after a quarrel while in the company of two of his mistresses at the Varuna Hotel on West 80th Street. Yet this press coverage didn't destroy him; in fact, the New York Times subsequently described him as a "very refreshing individual," who was full of "wild charm" and not a "slave to conventionalities." Much like the Ansonia itself.

Stokes was clairvoyant in the location he chose, 2109 Broadway; within a decade the subway would be extended north along the street just one block from the hotel. Inspired by the hotels of Paris, French architect Paul E. Duboy designed the fanciful 17-story limestone and turreted structure, although Stokes would list himself as architect-in-chief when filing the plans with the city in 1897. Stokes' vision?a lavish residential hotel that offered amenities that no other residence could offer?became a reality when the Ansonia opened in April of 1904. The total construction cost: $3 million.

Considered the "grandest hotel in Manhattan," the Ansonia covered 550,000 square feet of space divided among 1,400 rooms, 300 suites, grand ballrooms, restaurants decorated in the style of Louis XIV, a palm court, tearooms and cafes, a bank, a barbershop and tailor, writing rooms, Turkish baths, and the world's largest indoor swimming pool. Not surprisingly, residents lived in opulent apartments with multiple bedrooms, dining rooms, parlors, and libraries and dined on meals prepared by professional chefs. Adding to its grandiosity, Stokes insisted that each suite's supply of towels, napkins, table linen, soap, and stationery be refreshed three times daily.

To facilitate communication throughout the vast building, tubing was installed within the walls to carry messages in capsules between the residents and staff. There was even a curator on the payroll, charged with establishing an art collection for display within the hotel. The grand lobby, with a large open stairwell and huge domed skylight, also featured a large fountain with live seals. These were not the only animals to be found within the hotel: Stokes kept four geese and a pig, Nanki-Poo, as personal pets, and the Ansonia's roof held a farm "including about 500 chickens, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear" with fresh eggs delivered to tenants daily. But this service was short-lived: the Department of Health shut down the "farm in the sky" in 1907.

Despite its opulence, within a few years of its opening the hotel would garner an unsavory reputation. At Stokes's insistence, notorious millionaire "Policy King" Al Adams moved to the Ansonia straight from a stint in Sing Sing; two years later, Stokes found him dead in Suite 1579 of an apparent suicide (although some suggested Stokes murdered him over a gambling debt). The hotel was also where the infamous Black Sox Scandal, a plot for the Chicago White Sox to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series, was orchestrated. Many professional athletes chose the Ansonia as their home, including heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey and several New York Yankees, most notably Babe Ruth. It was said that he "thought of the entire hotel as an extension of his apartment," sometimes wearing his "scarlet silk bathrobe down in the elevator to the basement barbershop for his morning shave." When he practiced the saxophone, "his squeaky bleatings were familiar up and down the hallways on his floor." Among his neighbors were many professional musicians, including tenor Enrico Caruso, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Unfortunately, Stokes's personal affairs shortened the Ansonia's golden age. Stokes's wife, Helen Elwood, had stayed with him despite his infidelities, but his decision to move 47 chickens into their apartment finally pushed her to ask for a divorce. Stokes, enraged, sued her for infidelity, and the back and forth led to two trials. Both divorce petitions were eventually denied and Stokes settled with his wife, setting up a trust fund for her and their two children in the amount of $800,000. The building was soon turned over to Stokes's son, Weddie, and within a year, Stokes died, succumbing to lobar pneumonia in May 1926.

After Stokes relinquished ownership of the building, the Ansonia fell into disrepair. During the Great Depression, the building closed its hotel rooms, restaurants, and kitchens, and the building housed only rental units. The rooms were reconfigured and subdivided, with kitchens added, to meet the needs of families of more modest means. Changes were also made to the exterior of the building: the elegant entrance on Broadway was shuttered and storefronts installed. A decade later, the façade's metal ornamentation would be stripped and melted down for bullets and tanks for World War II. Other dreadful alterations include the removal of the copper cartouches on the corner domes and the covering of the skylight at the top of the staircase, which remains covered today.

Although the new owner, Jake Starr, claimed that the building was to be modernized and renovated, it never was. In fact, during the 1960s, the Ansonia operated illegally as a hotel. The pipes and ductwork had rusted, the roof leaked and the windows rattled, the floors were warped, and the balconies were in danger of collapse. Starr deemed the renovations needed to bring the building to code too costly, so despite countless Department of Buildings complaints, the problems only grew.

To bring rental income to the property, Starr rented the basement of the Ansonia to the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse "reminiscent of the glory of ancient Rome" with "palm fronds, flattering lighting, a waterfall that emptied into the pool, a discotheque, and, in one cubicle, drug dealers." The best-known element was the cabaret, featuring up and coming acts such as Bette Midler (known as "Bathhouse Betty") and her piano accompanist Barry Manilow. A decade later the same space would become "Plato's Retreat," the infamous heterosexual swinger's club whose reputation as a magnet for undesirable characters and actions only added to the Ansonia's problems.

But the building's fiery residents were determined to defend it. When Starr refused to conduct repairs, the residents collectively formed the Ansonia Residents Association to dispute rent hikes until those repairs were made. Not amused, Starr threatened to demolish the Ansonia, stating through his attorney that "the hotel's architectural appearance is not worthy of designation of a landmark." This, of course, fired the residents up even further, and with the aid of politicians and celebrities, they successfully appealed to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the building, and thus the Ansonia's noted exterior survived.

The landmarking ushered in a less tumultuous era for the building. A consortium of investors purchased it in the late 1970s, and the Ansonia has experienced a period of relative stability?even with a few documented rent strikes and other tenant disputes. After investing millions of dollars into the building, the owners realized the best way to manage the building was to buy out the displeased tenants and turn the building condominium, which they did in 1990. Like many other classic buildings, the Ansonia has become a highly-priced and sought-after residence for those with families. From luxurious, self-sufficient utopia to scandal-ridden, falling-down hotel back to luxury again, the building has come full-circle in its first century.
?Lisa Santoro

Further reading:
· Inside the Ansonia [Cooperator]
· The Building of the Upper West Side [NYM]
· A West Side Developer's Other Side [NYT]
· A Troubled Transition for the Ansonia [NYT]
· Ansonia coverage [Curbed]