photo by Bilby
The once magnificent San Remo Hotel on Central Park West and 75th Street, opened in 1891, was decidedly out of fashion by the 1920's, when modern Art Deco buildings were luring residents. And so it was not especially surprising when The New York Evening Post reported on November 28, 1928, "An apartment house representing an investment of about $7,000,000 is to replace the San Remo apartments, on Central Park West, and adjoining dwellings on Seventy-fourth and Seventy-fifth Streets."
Senator Henry W. Pollock had assembled a syndicate for the massive project. A year later, on October 24, the Stock Market crashed. With construction of the luxury structure well underway, the investors must have been nervous at best.
On September 13, 1930, The Sun reported, "the San Remo, the twenty-six-story, twin-towered apartment building, overlooking Central Park West...is scheduled for occupancy October 1. The building, which commands striking views, is an example of the modern trend of architectural treatment as applied to finer apartment construction." The article said the suites would range from six to sixteen rooms, "with simplex tower apartments of six rooms, one apartment to a floor, and duplex tower apartments of fifteen rooms, each occupying two tower floors." There would also be a maisonette--a street level two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a private entrance.
The syndicate had hired Emery Roth to design the San Remo. Born in Hungary in 1871, he was responsible for several medium height apartment buildings before designing the 41-story Ritz Tower with Thomas Hastings in 1926. When hired for the San Remo, he was at work on the Eldorado Apartments and Beresford Apartments, also on Central Park West.
For the San Remo, Roth turned to the Late Italian Renaissance. Writing in the New Yorker, architectural critic George S. Chappell said, "the Italian baroque [is] skillfully adapted to modern conditions...The proportions are well-studied and the warm light brick used above the limestone substructure give a delightful effect." Chappell was taken with the treatment of the towers, topped by Corinthian temples and 22-foot-high copper lanterns.
An advertisement in The New York Times touted:
Every detail of these sumptuous apartments has been carefully planned to make living in them the last word in luxury. Only private homes have ceilings as lofty as these and rooms as spacious. Every chamber [i.e., bedroom] has its own colored tile bathroom and is well-supplied with deep closets. Many have dressing rooms too. The long galleries and living rooms with fireplaces offer splendid decorative possibilities....Up in the towers are apartments such as New York has never before seen with windows on all four sides and views of Central Park, the Hudson, and Westchester.
The Sun noted that the interior garden had been designed by horticulturist Lou R. Strauss, Jr., and the lobby by decorating firm Theodore Hofstatter & Co.
Among the initial residents were Herbert Sondheim, owner of the upscale clothing company that bore his name, and his fashion designer wife, the former Etta Janet Fox. The year they moved into the San Remo, a baby boy was born, Stephen Joshua Sondheim, who would become the world's most renowned composer-lyricist of the 20th century.
A grainy photograph shows the Sonheim dining room, "decorated by Thedlow with Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture." The New York Sun, March 7, 1931
The family of Sol Brill were also initial residents. Brill was the owner of fifteen motion picture theaters and president of the Meserole Securities Company. Sharing the apartment were his wife, Sadie, and their daughters Hortense and Lillian. When he died on January 26, 1932, his estate was estimated at around $16.8 million in today's dollars.
Also living here at the time was Sara Shubert Davidow, the widow of theatrical manager Edward Davidow. Sara came from a theatrical family, her famous brothers being Lee, Jacob (J. J.), and Sam S. Shubert.
Rival motion picture executives Jack Cohn and Joseph R. Vogel lived in the San Remo by 1935. Cohn was a vice president of Columbia Pictures and Vogel was vice president of Lowe's Theaters. Vogel's sister, Adele, was also a resident (in a separate apartment). She was described by The New York Sun as "one of the few women stock brokers in Wall Street."
Perhaps the first celebrity to sign a lease was Jack Dempsey, former boxing champion and, now, restauranteur. He and his wife, Broadway singer Hannah Williams, moved into an 11-room apartment in May 1936. Hannah was the pugilists' third wife. They would have two children while living in the San Remo.
Dempsey nearly lost his life on June 29, 1939. He had been too sick to attend a boxing match a few days earlier, but it did not seem serious. But that night, while he and two friends were playing cards in the apartment, Dempsey collapsed. He was taken to Polyclinic Hospital suffering from gangrenous appendicitis. The following day doctors told reporters he was "still in a critical condition." Dempsey's personal representative, Billy Taub, said that "Dr. Brennan told him shortly after the operation that Dempsey escaped death by an hour."
In the meantime, things were often rocky within the Dempsey household. Hannah later related her husband's alleged abuse. She recounted a time when he complained that the food bills were too high and called the cook and a maid in. "Don't take orders from Mrs. Dempsey," he told them, "she's crazy half the time."
And on one occasion, when she returned home after being out with her sister and two female friends, he accused her of adultery. "He pushed me down on the bed and held his fist up, and started to bring it down," she told a judge. She pleaded for him not to strike her, but he punched her face, giving her a black eye. "He said he was going to kick me downstairs and out of the house," she recounted. The couple divorced in 1943.
In January 1939 world famous actor John Barrymore and his wife, Elaine, signed a lease. It came at an inconvenient time, since 60 San Remo employees--elevator operators, maintenance men and attendants--had walked out on October 28, 1938. Pickets were marching outside the San Remo when the Barrymores moved in. Nevertheless, services were being carried out by replacements, denounced by the Building Employees' Industrial Union as "scabs."
Labor negotiations in the 1920's and '30's often involved violence. In February 1939, the problems at the San Remo nearly was tragic for one resident family. The sympathies of wealthy attorney Harry Bijur and his wife, the former Madeline Ryan (daughter of multi-millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan), were on the side of the workers. For three months Madeline had been providing monetary assistance and food for 23 San Remo striking employees. By now, she and her husband had donated around $4,000--nearly $75,000 in today's money--to the men and their families. Their charitable and political stand did not sit well with the union that supplied the replacement workers.
On February 3 Madeline received a phone call saying, "Mrs. Bijur, get that picket line off the street. I'll break your neck and throw you and your boys into the furnace." One of the couple's sons, 15-year-old Ryan, was away at the Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut. The following day he received a telegram telling him his mother had been killed and his father injured. It directed him to take a specific train to the city.
The school's headmaster, however, was suspicious, and called State Troopers to accompany the boy. The delay caused Ryan to take a later train. Later in the afternoon, an automobile carrying three men pulled up in front of Ryan's dormitory, but left suddenly when the headmaster, Arthur N. Sheriff, came out to investigate. The failed kidnapping did not intimidate the feisty Madeline Bijur. She sent Ryan "to a hideaway in Connecticut with a bodyguard of detectives," according to the New York Post on February 6, and told reporters, "If by this scare they think they have me licked, they are all wrong. I'm going out on the picket line myself."
The long list of celebrity residents continued with former vaudeville and Broadway entertainer Eddie Cantor. Following mid-century, well-known groundbreaking photographer Diane Arbus lived here as did actors Tony Randall, Dustin Hoffman and Mary Tyler Moore. The widely talented Carl Van Vechten was a resident by the first years of the 1960's. His impressive resume included critic, author, portrait photographer, and "discoverer of young or overlooked talent," according to The New York Times.
The San Remo was converted to co-ops in 1972. The affluence of the owners was evidenced on June 15, 1973 when thieves made off with $200,000 worth of jewelry from the apartment of Eugenia Gladstone. (That figure would top $1 million today.)
Following the conversion, The New York Times noted that Madonna had been rejected by the board, but "boldface residents," like Dianne Keaton and Steven Spielberg had been accepted.
The long list of famous names in the San Remo continued. Motion picture star Rita Hayworth lived here until her death in 1987. Her apartment was bequeathed to her daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs purchased a tower duplex in 1982, but never moved in. After spending years renovating it, he sold it to singer Bono. In 1986, following his marriage to actress Victoria Tennant, Steve Martin purchased and joined two apartments. (Following their divorce in 1994 he had them separated and soundproofed.) At one point, Barry Manilow sublet his apartment to actress Raquel Welch.
In 1986, motion picture producer Robert Stigwood put his 28th floor, 14-room apartment on the market. Designer Calvin Klein and his wife Kelly hoped to purchase it, but were rejected by the co-op board "because The San Remo was afraid they'd throw wild parties," according to Klein's biographer Steven Gaines. Instead, Stigwood sold it to actor Bruce Willis and his wife, Demi Moore. (Around that same time, the couple purchased the maisonette, apparently for investment purposes.) The couple did major interior renovations, eliminating almost all of Emery Roth's detailing in favor of "Southwestern Mission."
The Willis-Moore renovations went as far as replacing the windows. photo by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times, May 5, 2017
Over the years the San Remo has been home to a seemingly endless list of celebrities--Donna Karan, Zero Mostel, Peter Allen, Aaron Spelling and Hedy Lamarr among them. Emery Roth's twin-towered structure earned individual landmark status in March 1987.
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