Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Urban Living Enhanced - 240 Central Park South

Brothers Joseph L. B., Charles and Albert Mayer, separately and together, were a force in Manhattan real estate and development.  Joseph was an officer in the real estate firm Gruenstein & Mayer Corp; Charles held a master's degree in engineering and helped found the construction firm J. H. Taylor Construction Co. of which he was chief engineer; and Albert was both a civil engineer and architect.  In 1935 Albert partnered with architect Julian H. J. Whittlesey to form Mayer & Whittlesey.

When wealthy brewer George Ehret died in 1927 he owned 181 parcels of Manhattan property, among which was the entire blockfront on the east side of Broadway between 58th and 59th Street.   The two-story store and automobile showroom building on the property had sat vacant for years as the Depression years drew to a close in 1939.  The Mayers, working as a syndicate called 240 Central Park South, Inc., purchased the property from the Ehret family that spring for $500,000.

On May 18 Albert Mayer released a rendering of the proposed 26-story apartment building.  The following day The New York Times remarked "A building operation recalling boom days soon will be under way at Columbus Circle."  Projected to cost $4.5 million (more in the neighborhood of $79.5 million today), the building had no shortage of innovations.

Mayer's rendering showed the staggered storefronts on Broadway and the unexpected open spaces.  The New York Times May 19, 1939
The Times reported "Modern accommodations in the 350-family building will include wiring for television, living rooms with open fireplaces, outside exposure and balconies and terraces in nine lines of apartments."   The newspaper was taken with the "open-air dining balconies overlooking Central Park."  For the convenience of residences the Broadway stores had entrances inside the building as well as on the street.  In the basement were two steam turbines and a diesel engine which composed the building's own private electric plant.

Most surprising, perhaps, was that the structure occupied only 48 percent of the plot.  A central landscaped courtyard provided open space, light and air to the two buildings which would be connected on the ground floor.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide pointed out, "By sacrificing ground coverage, the builders have been able to incorporate a maximum number of corner suites."

Albert Mayer explained "This building will introduce the philosophy of modern architecture, allowing the purpose of the structure and its location to dictate its style."  Indeed, 240 Central Park South, completed in 1940, was a model of modern architecture.  It included elements of the waning Art Deco and Art Moderne while venturing into the Modernist style that would gain a firm foothold within the coming decade.  Architectural Forum commented on the modernist lack of ornamentation, saying "The architectural character of these buildings stems directly from the plans as developed on different levels, and the fenestration.  There is no applied 'architecture.'"

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford, writing in The New Yorker in December that year, congratulated the design, saying "architectural imagination has not gone stale."

Mayer & Whittlesey's modern building was not totally devoid of decoration.  Above the entrance was Amedee Ozenfant's abstract mosaic mural entitled "The Quiet City."

240 Central Park South was a departure from upscale pre-Depression Era apartment buildings in that its largest suites had only four rooms and none offered servants' rooms.  Instead, maid service was available through building management. 

Residents signed leases well before the building was completed.  The tenant list filled with a mixture of business leaders--like Louis M. Stern and William Steinway--and well-known figures in the arts.  Opera singer Helen Jepson signed a lease in August and sculptress Catherine Barjansky moved in in September.

On December 5, 1940 Le Cafe Arnold opened.  Partners Arnold Grass and L. C. Pani had run the Petroleum Roof on top of the Petroleum Industries Building at the 1939 World's Fair.  The men had commissioned Mayer & Whittlesley to design "the decorations and furnishings of the new restaurant," said The Times on December 1.  "The dominant motif will be plants and vines placed behind wainscoting."

A postcard showed Le Cafe Arnold's interior, where patrons dined on French cuisine.
Arnold Grass would become known as the "host to the discerning" and Le Cafe Arnold would be a popular destination for decades.

French author and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupery moved in in July 1941.  Two years later his most memorable book, The Little Prince, was published.  Another resident, Samuel Solomon, alias Sam Boston, was equally celebrated, but for more nefarious reasons.  For nearly three decades police knew he was the head of an illegal gambling ring, but were unable to get hard evidence.

His wife was involved in a terrifying incident earlier that year.  A bungled burglary at the nearby New York Athletic Club on the morning of April 24 resulted in a policeman being shot.  The three thugs involved scattered.  One of them, San Quentin ex-convict Lyman Finnell, ran towards 59th Street where Mrs. Solomon's car was stopped at a red light.

Flashing his gun Finnell jumped into the back seat, next to Mrs. Solomon, and ordered her chauffeur, Edward Horton, to drive fast, saying "no one will get hurt if I can get away."  Instead, Horton jumped from the car and ran.  Finnell, according to The Times, "got into the driver's seat" with the terrified Mrs. Solomon as his unwilling passenger.

Her ride would become even more horrific after the car inched through heavy traffic only a few feet.  A policeman suddenly hopped on the running board and pointed a pistol at the crook.  "At the sight of the patrolman Finnell raised his weapon to his head and killed himself," reported The Times.  "The machine careened on for about fifteen feet, sideswiping two other cars and injuring [pedestrian George] Gambon."

Better known to newspaper readers by his alias, Sam Boston ran his betting operation with three partners.  That organization came to an abrupt end when one of them, Max Fox, shot and killed the other two in August 1942.  And yet despite his numerous arrests and Fox's fingering him, Boston continued to evade conviction.

He quickly took on a new partner, Frank Silinksy.   Boston installed four phone lines in what The New York Times described as "his luxuriously furnished thirteenth-floor apartment at 240 Central Park South," and started taking bets.

Police, however, were one step ahead--they had tapped the apartment's phone lines as they were installed.  On Friday night, January 29, 1943 plainclothes officers arrived at Boston's door.  The New York Times reported "Boston tried to push them out...but they made their way into the apartment and found Silinsky at a long table, equipped with four telephone instruments."  Police found two sheets listing $16,000 in bets on sporting events.  The article noted "Boston's wife and daughter were in the apartment but were not taken into custody."

Boston was found guilty on November 9, 1943.  Newspapers called the 240 Central Park South apartment "central office" for his sports betting operation.  On November 19, the day of his sentencing, his lawyer urged leniency, insisting "he always has conducted himself in a businesslike manner.  He is a home man, and only mingles with the finest of people."

The judge was not especially moved, saying in part that "the fact that he was able to enjoy a luxurious home did not mean he never maintained gambling there.  He hoped the apartment would not be suspected by the police as a gamble resort."  He sentenced Boston to a year in prison.

Astonishingly, New Yorkers woke up on March 11, 1944 to find that the courts had overturned the conviction.  The court of appeals ruled that because guilt was not established beyond a reasonable doubt, the "conviction of defendant Samuel Solomon should be reversed and a new trial ordered."  Sam Boston came home to Central Park South.

The family of Jack Wessel lived on the same floor at the time.  In September that year a notice from the police department caught the attention of Mrs. Wessel.

On September 6 six youngsters were seriously injured when a bazooka rocket exploded in a Bronx apartment.  Authorities issued a "strong request to holders of dangerous war souvenirs to turn them over immediately to the Police Department, which would ask no questions."  On September 10 The Times reported "It was mid-afternoon when Mrs. Jack Wessel of 240 Central Park South phoned.  She had a bazooka rocket that had been occupying a prominent place in her living room...Mrs. Wessel explained that a soldier had given the rocket to her daughter, Gloria Anne, three months ago as a souvenir."

Five months later the population of 240 Central Park South was reduced by one.  On February 6, newspapers reported "Samuel Solomon, 58 years old, known among midtown gamblers as Sam Boston, was convicted yesterday."

In the summer of 1950 240 Central Park South rose like a sculpture above the park.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Wessels were still in their 13th floor apartment in 1952 when the building was the scene of a tragic incident.  Regina Oblatt was 72-years old and an invalid.  The widow of jewelry merchant Rudolph Oblatt, she shared her apartment with a nurse-companion, Anneliese Jargstorff.

At around 10:00 on the morning of March 21 Anneliese left the apartment.  In her absence the elderly woman opened the five gas jets on the kitchen range.  Whether she was confused or not will never be known, but quickly the apartment filled with gas.  Then, at 10:40, just before Anneliese returned, it ignited.

The force of the explosion blew out plate glass windows for blocks and tore up wooden flooring in other apartments.  The sound was heard as far away as 70th Street to the north and 57th to the south.  Both apartments on either side of Regina's were wrecked.

Nervously aware of Cold War tensions, some New Yorkers thought the city was under attack.  Jack Wessel told police he "was sure the city had been bombed" and that he and his wife "grabbed their 12-year-old pet dog and headed for an emergency shelter."   Regina Oblatt, of course, was killed in the blast.  Amazingly, while the occupants of the apartments on either side were slightly injured, no one was else was seriously hurt.

William R. Steinway, chairman of the piano firm, died in his apartment on September 22, 1960 at the age of 79.  His widow, Marie Kiesler Steinway, survived him.

Another veteran resident at the time was Dr. Jack M. Greenbaum.  His four-room apartment contained an impressive collection of modern art which he acquired through a most unusual means.   Starting around 1938 he proposed to his artist patients (artists, he said, made up about ten percent of his clientele) that he would trade dental work for paintings.

Greenbaum's patients were by no means amateurs--they included, for instance, Larry Rivers, Franz Klein, Milton Resnick and Willem de Kooning.   By August 6, 1961, when the Museum of Modern Art's associate curator of painting and sculpture William Seitz dropped in to do an appraisal, the collection numbered 125 paintings.  (Although the doctor had insured the collection for $150,000, he found out that his best de Kooning, alone, was worth about $50,000.)

Seitz told a reporter "Certain of the pictures, notably those by Franz Kline, Mark Tobey and Jan Mueller, are major examples of the artists' work."  Greenbaum recounted the story of doing "extensive work" on Franz Kline, after which the artist told him "you can have any damn thing in this place."  Greenbaum rode home in a taxi to 240 Central Park South with another rolled up canvas.  The New York Times noted "An indication of Kline's generosity is that his paintings can fetch as much as $35,000 each."

In 1968 actress Sylvia Miles took an apartment on the 19th floor in the building.  And interestingly enough, not long afterward Albert Mayer, the building's designer, moved in with his wife, Clara.

In October 1977 The New York Times architectural critic Paul Goldberger put together his list of "The City's Top 10 Apartment Buildings."  At the top of the list was 240 Central Park South.  He said in part "this often-overlooked building at the edge of Columbus Circle contains not only good apartments, but also some splendid urban lessons.

"The apartment house is thoughtful, intelligent and unpretentious throughout--one of the last pieces of luxury housing in New York about which that can be said."

In 1978 a news reporter lived at 240 Central Park South.  Lois Lane received a celebrated visitor when Superman dropped onto her balcony that year.  Well, at least that all happened in the movie, Superman.  The building had earlier played an important role in the 1957 A Face in the Crowd.  In a climactic scene, Andy Griffith's character, Lonesome, screams into the night from his apartment near the top after his career as a radio celebrity crashed.

In 2001 State Senator Thomas K. Duane spearheaded efforts to have the building designated a city landmark.  His concern, and that of several residents, was that a history of piece-meal repairs was damaging the architectural fabric.  Replacement bricks, for instance, did not match the originals.  Certain areas showed more than half a century of wear.  "The courtyard is filled with shattered tiles and dry fountains," wrote Kelly Crow in The New York Times on September 2 that year.

Sylvia Miles told Crow, "It's upsetting to me to see the bricks aren't the right color, because this is a truly great building.  I think it's one of the flowers of New York architecture, and we shouldn't let anyone hurt it."

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council chimed in saying "As a modern design, it urbanistically tackles the jagged, receding edges of the circle;" and John Jurayj of the Municipal Art Society added, "It has a pedigree that is so important to New York.  This building was among the first to have balconies, and it's one of the best pieces of functional architecture we have."

Within the year the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated 240 Central Park South a landmark.  A subsequent $25 million rehabilitation and upgrade project included brick and terra cotta replacement.  It received the 2007 Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. In the 1970's one of my best friends father, Gianni Minnale, ran an Italian restaurant, 'Alfredo's', at ground level of this building. It may have not been an "in" spot, but I saw a fair share of celebs in there, Willie Mays, DiMaggio,Buddy Hackett, Cronkite, etc.
    I spent many afternoons after-school sipping Shirley Temples at the bar, and playing with my friend Stefano in the wine cellar.