Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Emery Roth & Sons' 1939 Normandy Apartments - 140 Riverside Drive

photo courtesy of LandMark West!

For thirty years beginning in 1903 Emery Roth designed apartment buildings throughout Manhattan embellished with Renaissance and even Art Nouveau decoration.  His first major work, the 1903 Belleclaire Hotel on Broadway at 77th Street was a delightfully fussy confection of shapes and materials that dripped with carved festoons and sculptured faces.  But changing times bring changing tastes, and Roth would adapt.

On August 26, 1938 The New York Sun reported that the 140 Riverside Drive, Inc., of which Roth was first vice-president, intended to replace the eight mansions along the block front of Riverside Drive between 86th and 87th Streets with an 18-story and penthouse apartment building.  Emery Roth & Sons had filed the plans the day before, placing construction costs at $1.45 million (more in the neighborhood of $26.3 million today).

The plans called for 16 suites and doctors' offices on the ground floor, 15 apartments each on the second through ninth floors, 13 each on the tenth through fifteenth, and 11 each on the upper three floors.  "On the penthouse floors there will be nine suites, some duplexed," said The Sun.

Roth still held true to Renaissance Revival, announcing that the "architectural design will be in the Italian Renaissance style of the same character as the San Remo Towers and Beresford Apartments on Central Park West."  Nevertheless, these were modern times and Roth was designing for well-to-do post-Depression apartment dwellers who expected cutting edge style. 

In the September 10, 1938 issue of The New York Sun Roth explained (perhaps defended) his design:

It will be definitely 1939.  That doesn't mean 'modernistic.'  Every building is ultra modern when erected, whether it is inspired by one of the historic periods of architecture or whether it was planned with a conscious search for originality...I am fond of so-called old Italian architecture.  If today I designed a building of old Italian architecture it would emerge nevertheless as a modern structure, always to be recognized as of 1939.

And so it was.  Roth's melded Renaissance with the streamlined Art Moderne movement with rounded corners, a dramatic concave entrance glittering with in mosaic tiles, and, instead of terra cotta decorations, simple flat surfaces.  It caused architectural critic Paul Goldberger of The New York Times to deem the design "schizophrenic" decades later on February 17, 1978.

photographs via streeteasy.com

The Normandy Apartments were built on an H plan embracing two gardens that totaled 9,000 square feet.  The sunken lobby looked out onto one of them.  Apartments had up-to-date amenities.  Every bedroom had its own bathroom, there were numerous closets, terraces on the setbacks, and in the penthouse apartments, wood and marble fireplaces.

The Normandy Apartments filled with moneyed residents, like City Court Justice Lewis L. Kahn, who signed a lease on a seven-room apartment before the building was completed; and Dutch financier Jacques Rosenstein, who also took a seven-room apartment with three baths.   Herman Wouk moved into his apartment on December 1, 1939.  He would leave to join the U. S. Naval Reserve following the attack on Pearl Harbor two years later, years before he wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Caine Mutiny.

Atypical of the Normandy's residents were Morris Wolensky (who most often went by Wolen) and his wife, actress Marion Callahan.  A beautiful blonde, Marion had already reached her theatrical peak with her appearance in the 1934 movie Murder at the Vanities.  Morris was known among gangland figures as "Dimples."  He and his partner, Tom Cuddy, according to the rackets bureau of the District Attorney's office, were "one of the three big [gambling] outfits of the prohibition days," according to The New York Times on August 4, 1942.

Wolen had first been arrested in 1918 in East Boston for petty thievery.  While other residents of the Normandy were hosting cocktail parties and attending the theater in evening dress, Wolen was avoiding detectives.  The Times explained "The police said they wanted to 'hustle him out of town,' as part of the drive against gamblers."  Unfortunately for the detectives and for Morris "Dimples" Wolen, another gangster, Max Fox, found him first.

On August 3, 1942 The Kingston Daily Freeman reported "As they sat in shirtsleeves playing a quiet game of bridge, a big-shot Broadway betting commissioner and a little-shot crook and gambler were shot to death early today by a masked gunman who escaped."  Max Fox trailed Wolen and Robert B. Greene to the White House Bridge Association's clubrooms near Times Square, strode in and fired six direct shots into the men.  The article said the fatal wound to "Dimples" was "a bullet behind the right ear."  It noted "Wolenski, reported recently married a chorus girl, lived in Riverside Drive.

Marion Callahan was unlucky in love.  original source unknown.
It is unclear how much longer Marion Callahan remained in their Normandy apartment.  Her luck in romantic relationships did not improve, however.  On July 25, 1945 the Elmira Star-Gazette reminded its readers that "About three years ago blonde Marion Callahan, former Vanities beauty, was bereaved by the spectacular slaying of her husband, Morris Wolenski, bodyguard for the late Lepke Buchalter.  Now death has stalked a boy friend, George Lee."  Marion and Lee were together the evening before when Lee got into an altercation with a sailor in uniform.  The sailor landed a blow that knocked Lee to the pavement, fatally injuring him.

photo courtesy of LandMark West!
The financial status of the Normandy's residents was reflected in an absent minded oversight by Mrs. Joseph Marcus in 1948.  Like many socialites, she volunteered time to worthy causes--hers being the American Red Cross.  That spring she sent her uniform to be mended at a tailor, who then sent it to the Commercial Cleaners in Mount Vernon to be dry cleaned.  There a young worker, Merrill J. Marshall, stuck his hand in the pocket and pulled out a little red bag in which was a sparkling brooch.  He took it home and gave it to his girlfriend.

Before long Mrs. Marcus was in a panicked search for her $2,700 diamond brooch (around $28,700 today).  The search led to Marshall who faced a judge on April 7.  He admitted taking taking the pin, but insisted he had not realized its value.  Luckily for him, the Marcuses interceded and had managed to have the original charge of grand larceny dropped.  Instead he was found guilty of stealing the red bag, which by itself was valued at more than $950 in today's money.  Before he left the courtroom, Judge Harry Krauss advised Marshall "to buy his girlfriend's gifts in the future."

The names of the Normandy Apartments residents appeared routinely in the society pages as daughters became debutantes, children were married, and dinner parties were hosted.  Rhoda Unger's name, however, appeared in print for a far different reason.

The wife of Mel Unger, on October 17, 1966 she returned to her parked car on Third Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets to find it broken into and looted.  Among the missing items was a valise containing "valuable business papers."  She rushed to find a phone to call her husband and in the excitement forgot that not only had the meter run out, but it was now past 4:00 making her parking spot in a no-standing zone.

When she returned her car was already hooked up to a tow truck.  As she later described it, "I got mad."  Indeed, she was so mad that she jumped upon the hood of her car and refused to dismount.   Soon there were policemen and a crowd of onlookers, many of them rooting "Stay there...don't get off...don't give up."  Their chants were countered by police, one of whom pleaded, "Come on, lady.  We won't tow the car if you'll come to the station house."

Rhoda Unger was steadfast.  She finally exhausted the patience of Police Lieutenant Thomas Long, who declared "This has gone far enough."  The protesting Rhoda was physically removed and hauled away in a patrol wagon while the crowd cheered "Rah, rah for Rhoda!"  Her maddening adventure cost her a $25 towing charge, $5 a day for tow pound fees, and $10 for parking in a prohibited zone.  

Among the moneyed residents at the time were Herman Steinlauf and his wife, the former Hannah Kerness.  Steinlauf had opened a record shop on Nassau Street in 1921.  Three years later he changed course, turning to sporting goods.  Now, Herman's World of Sporting Goods was said to be the largest sporting goods chain in the world.

The hands-on businessman told a reporter "Mostly I like to work around the store like anyone else, in my shirtsleeves.  That way, you see, I don't look any different from anyone else.  Even the people who come in to see me, they can't spot me so easily.  That's okay with me--they might want discounts or some other privileges."

Hannah Steinlauf died in May 1970.  Within the year Herman sold the chain to W. R. Grace & Co., remaining as chairman.  He stayed on in the Normandy apartment until his death in January 1974.

Another noteworthy resident was attorney Mathilda Miller Cuneo, who lived on the second floor.  She was living here in November 1975 when she was honored for her "outstanding contributions and involvement with her profession" by the New York League of Business and Professional Women.  Eleven years later a legal case would strike very close to home.

On November 14, 1985 The New York Times entitled an article "A New Battle of Normandy Raging on Upper West Side."  It all had to do with windows.

Emery Roth had incorporated casement windows into his design.  In 1979 the Normandy Apartments became a cooperative and, according to the residents' attorney David Warmflash, "many windows leak water and air."  Mathila Miller Cuneo sat on the building's board and in its September
meeting a vote was held to replace all the windows with "new, double-paned windows, as well as air-conditioners that go through the wall of the Normandy."  Of the seven members, Cuneo cast the only negative vote.

Unwilling to give up, she rallied sixteen residents to write letters to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Hers warned of "an urgent and threatening situation."  She told Joyce Purnick of The New York Times that replacing the windows "would have absolutely ruined the integrity of the design of the building, which is the finest example of Art Moderne in the City of New York."

The Landmarks Preservation Commission reacted by holding a hearing on November 12 to consider landmark status.  Remarkably, the Normandy Apartments was designed a landmark on the same day, putting a halt on what might have resulted in a hodge-podge of fenestration.

photo courtesy of LandMark West!
In its subsequent designation report, the LPC called the Normandy "one of the great monuments of Riverside Drive" and said it "symbolized the grand era of 20th century urbanism."

1 comment:

  1. A good part of my youth was at 160 Riverside.
    Marvelous work.
    You just keep on giving.