Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The 1927 Hotel Windermere - 666 West End Avenue


image via transparentcity.com

Residential hotels were essentially apartment buildings.  Their occupants signed leases for a year or longer, and only in a few cases did they accept transient guests.  The differences were that they offered hotel amenities like maid service, and the apartments had no kitchens.  As with a transient hotel, a large dining room, usually on the ground floor, was provided for tenants' use, or ordered meals could be delivered to the residents' suites.  The concept was embraced on the Upper West Side early on, with residential hotels offering luxurious lifestyles and often sprawling apartments.

The Great Depression would end the era of the residential hotel.  Getting in under the wire was the 666 West End Avenue Corporation, formed in 1926 to erect a 22-floor structure on the east side of West End Avenue between 92nd and 93rd Streets, where five brick-faced homes stood.  The prolific architectural firm of Schwartz & Gross designed the Hotel Windemere in an Art Deco inspired take on the neo-Renaissance style.

from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries' The New York Real Estate Brochure Collection.

Completed in 1927, the Hotel Windermere sat on a three-story rusticated stone base decorated with Renaissance details and capped by a stone cornice.  The relatively undecorated eleven-story midsection was clad in buff-colored brick.  It was the eight-story top section that made an architectural statement.  A series of setbacks created terraces and provided extra light and ventilation to the apartments.  Here Schwartz & Gross made up for the absence of ornamentation on the midsection by lavishing the corners with terra cotta quoins, adding Renaissance style terra cotta cartouches, and hefty broken pediments with urns.

The Hotel Windermere was different from most Upper West Side residential hotels, which boasted suites that rivaled private homes.  The Windermere's moderately priced apartments ranged from one to three rooms with "large serving pantries."  An advertisement touted, "attractive apartments that provide the best in living at a minimum cost."

Apartments ranged from one-room to two-bedrooms and a living room.  from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries' The New York Real Estate Brochure Collection.

Another difference was that the residents' names appeared in newsprint not for dinner parties and debutante teas, but often for darker reasons.

Among the earliest residents were Bernard Edelhertz and his wife, the former Clara Greenberg.  They shared a two-bedroom apartment with their daughter Helen Ruth and her husband Usevolod Scher.

Edelhertz had already had an astounding career.  Born in Kharkoff, Russia in 1880, he arrived in New York with his parents at the age of 13.  In 1901 he was admitted to the bar, and for a while was chairman of the Motion Picture Theatre Owners Chamber of Commerce of New York.  

In 1916 Edelhertz became publisher of The American Hebrew, and the following year was appointed Assistant United States Attorney General.  He would remain in the position until 1922, during which time he visited Poland "officially to investigate outrages against Jews," according to The New York Times.  The newspaper added, "while there he also was active as a member of the American Anti-Typhus Commission."  Shortly after moving into the Hotel Windermere, he wrote The Russian Paradox.

The 51-year-old suffered a nervous breakdown in December 1930, and was admitted to a sanitarium.  He was released seven months later.  At 8:00 on the morning of July 17, 1931, the family was prepared to go downstairs to breakfast.  Usevolod Scher knocked on the bathroom door to hurry Edelhertz along.  Receiving no reply, he opened the door to find his father-in-law's body hanging by the belt of his pajamas.  He had left a note on his dresser that read, "To my children:  I can't stand the suffering any longer.  Please forgive me.  Daddy."

Less than three months later, on October 9, 1931, tragedy struck again.  Belle Clyde was out of town and every morning she called the apartment to speak with her 70-year-old husband Peter.  That morning no one answered.  The real estate operator had thrown himself from the window of their 15th floor apartment.  

Living here at the time were Albert J. Simmons and his wife.  He had been the passenger agent of the Lehigh Valley Railroad for years.  The New York Sun recalled on February 21, 1933 that while in that position, "he paid special attention to arranging road tours for theatrical troupes and so became known to many famous stars of the past half century."  The relationships earned him a membership in the Lambs.  But then, said the article, "the Government consolidated the ticket offices in wartime."  When he and his wife moved into the Hotel Windermere, he was working with the brokerage firm of Walter J. Fahy & Co.

Max Fleischer and his wife wife Ethel Goldstein (known as Essie) moved into an apartment around 1933.  Born in Krakow, Poland in 1883, Fleischer's family had arrived in New York in 1887.  Max spent his teen years in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood of poor Jewish families.  His career would take him from an errand boy at The Brooklyn Daily Eagle to the head of Fleischer Studios and a pioneer in animated cartoons.  Also an inventor, he created innovations like the rotoscope, famous for the "follow the bouncing ball" technique.

Max Fleischer, Moving Picture World, July 7, 1919 (copyright expired)

In the pre-Disney years, Fleischer's animated characters like Betty Boop and Popeye were wildly popular, "sometimes billed above feature films on marquees," recalled The New York Times in 2005.  The article remembered that he "basked in the studio's success by moving to a river-view apartment in the Windermere Hotel, at 666 West End Avenue."  Unfortunately for Fleischer, the bubble was about to break.  Greg Ford, a cartoon producer and animation historian, told The New York Times journalist Kathryn Belgiorno, "But in 1937, when Disney released the world's first full-length animated feature, Mr. Fleischer's tides turned.  Snow White is what did it.  The Fleischers never really came back."

Three residents faced serious problems in 1933.  The first was 35-year-old Harry Augustern, who headed the Longacre Employment Agency on Sixth Avenue.  The problem was that Augustern did not have any real clients.  He took a $10 fee from out-of-work men and promised to find them employment.  None of the hundreds of desperate Depression Era applicants ever found jobs.

On August 9, 1933, Augustern appeared in court on a complaint by Alvin Gaudy "who gave Augustern $10 to get him a job, and got neither a job nor the return of the money," as reported by The Sun.  He was fined $25.  But getting safely out of the courthouse that afternoon would be a daunting and dangerous endeavor.  The newspaper reported that 214 other victims were waiting outside.

"With cries of 'Lynch him!' more than 200 victims of an employment agency fraud tried to take the $1,711 they had lost out of the skin of Harry Augustern outside the West Side court," said the article.  "A ring of policemen, one of whom was knocked down and hurt, fended the mob away, and gave the employment agent a chance to escape.  He took it avidly."

Less than two weeks later, on August 18, Emanuel Morganlander was arrested and his 111-foot yacht the Felicia seized by the Coast Guard.  The commander of a patrol boat noticed that the vessel was riding low in the water, and boarded it to investigate.  There were "ten men and two women aboard," reported The Sun, "all of them dressed in trim yachting costumes."  Also on board were 1,800 cases of liquor, a cargo difficult for Morganlander to explain away in the Prohibition Era.

And on November 25, 1933, the Hotel Windermere was rocked by another horrifying suicide.  Delia Rothschild, a 75-year-old widow, jumped from her tenth floor apartment.  She left a sealed suicide note to her sister behind.

William H. Walker, Jr., and his wife lived in the Hotel Windermere at the time.  A nephew of Mayor James J. Walker and son of well-known physician William H. Walker, Sr., the 29-year-old narrowly missed prison time in 1934.  Rose Rosenberg was a nightclub hostess who went by the name Margaret Shore.  On a night in August 1933 she was found in a semiconscious condition in the Hotel Richmond where she worked.  She would spend several weeks in Bellevue Hospital.

Rosenberg charged William Walker with brutally attacking her.  She and nine witness appeared before the grand jury on February 8, 1934.  Also testifying that day were Walker and "another man, who was supposed to have been with him at the hotel," as reported by The Sun.  Despite the evidence against him, the jury refused to indict Walker and he was released.

Another resident at the time was Sadie C. Langmuir.  A fascinating figure, she was born in Massachusetts in 1848.  Her husband, Charles Langmuir, had died in 1876.  One of the couple's two sons, Dr. Irving Langmuir, received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1933.

After the death of her husband, Sadie began traveling.  According to The Herald Statesman in 1936, she "had visited every country except Siberia during three trips around the globe."  At the age of 78, she crossed the Andes in South America.  When Sadie was not traveling, she was active in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

With American embroiled in World War II, scrap drives became a popular way for patriotic citizens to help with the war effort.  The residents of the Hotel Windermere did more than their part.  On September 30, 1942, The New York Sun reported they "have contributed 2,300 pounds of scrap iron and 200 pounds of rubber to the war effort."

In the 1950s, Russian-American novelist and poet Vladimir Nobokov lived here.  He became an American citizen in 1945, and while living in the Hotel Windermere was a professor of Russian literature at Cornell University.  (Among his students was future United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)  His 1955 Lolita, published while living here, was deemed by Random House in 2007 to be one of the 100 greatest 20th century novels.

By the early 1960s another Russian immigrant, Abram Haitowitsch, resided here alone.  Born in Ekaterinoslav in 1894, when he was three years old he suffered a fall that paralyzed his optic nerve, blinding him.  Nevertheless, he learned to play the violin and with the aid of his brother, converted the music he wanted to play into Braille.  He attended the Imperial Russian Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg and played as a soloist with the Odessa Symphony Orchestra.

In 1918 Haitowitsch first appeared on the stage of Carnegie Hall.  He continued to give concerts until the late 1930s.  The blind virtuoso died in his apartment at the age of 70 on July 9, 1964.

By the time playwright and actor Charles Grodin moved into  his one-room apartment in the Hotel Windermere in 1967, what had been called a serving pantry was now called a kitchenette.  His rent was $250 per month that year (about $2,190 in 2023 terms).  Grodin told The New York Times writer William Neuman in 2006 that when playwright Herb Garner looked around his apartment, he said, "I know a good lawyer who can get you out of here."

Charles Grodin in 2013.  photo by Adam Schartoff.

Shortly after moving in, Grodin played in the 1968 film Rosemary's Baby, and won the lead in the 1972 The Heartbreak Kid.   While living here he played in several other films including Catch-22, the remake of King Kong, and Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait.  Grodin married Elissa Durwood in 1983, and three years later the couple left the Hotel Windermere for a larger co-op.

Soviet citizen Valeriy Ivanovich Markelov moved into the building in 1967 with his wife and daughter.  Markelov worked as a translator for the United Nations Secretariat.  He also worked for the Soviet Government.  

On February 14, 1972, he was arrested outside a restaurant in Patchogue, Long Island, charged with espionage.  Markelov had been under investigation for two years after he made contact with an engineer of the Grumman Aerospace Corporation.  The engineer immediately contacted the F.B.I.  Markelov was accused of "having classified information pertaining to the Navy's new F-14A Tomcat jet fighter."

In the meantime, the Hotel Windermere was at the center of a neighborhood battle.  The property had been approved by the State Board of Social Welfare for conversion into a home for the elderly.  On February 15, 1974, The New York Times began an article saying, "The Upper West Side, often a turbulent test tube for social experiment, is again in process of eruption."  The Community Board obtained an order to halt work.  Frustrated, the owner of the Windermere told a Times reporter seven months later that he "might give up and sell for the best price."

image via transparentcity.com

The Windermere (the word "Hotel" was dropped) was recently given an interior makeover by Combined Architecture and Interiors.  There are now 200 one, two, and three bedroom apartments throughout the building.

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
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1 comment:

  1. The concept of a residential hotel cum block of flats was brilliant. Long term occupants, especially retired people, would appreciate the hotel facilities like a cleaner, but they would have no need for a kitchen. A boiling water tap and a mini fridge would be more than enough.
    Wouldn't it be wonderful now, when so many retired people cannot afford to buy or rent a house.