Tortoise Strolls

Archive for November 2011

2109 Broadway “The Ansonia”

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It was a calm cool afternoon right before the showers were expected. The sky was dark, the air slightly humid and very still. I took the opportunity to take some photos of a magnificent building called the “Ansonia”. A little twinkle of a smile appeared on my face knowing that this building once had a chicken coop on the roof and a swinger’s club in the basement. It was originally built as a hotel for musicians and others who worked in the arts and opened in 1904 by W.E.D. Stokes. Doors to each apartment were made double width enabling grand pianos to be moved in, a luxury many of the singers and actors had demanded. With its Beaux-Arts style of architecture and a Parisian mansard roof, one would think the 7th arrondissement would be a more suitable spot for this monolithic, 50,000 square foot piece of history. Somehow  the Ansonia’s presence has always worked well with the Upper West Side having something to do with the drawl of talent who prefer the west side and its close proximity to Lincoln Center and other artistic venues.

In Steven Gaines’ book “The Sky’s the Limit”, there happens to be a detailed history of the Ansonia without any omissions of juicy details. There were so many in fact, that Gaines was probably forced to hold back a little. One such story involved Al Adams, known as the ‘Policy King” who moved into the Ansonia straight from Sing Sing, and ended up dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound in his room #1579. Jack Dempsey trained for the heavyweight championship of 1919 against Jess Willard while residing in the Ansonia. 1919 was also the year that the World Series was invalidated by the courts. The Ansonia hotel room of Arnold “Chick” Gandil was were the eight White Sox players met and agreed to throw the World Series for $10,000 a head. I guess they must have not been good actors because before the game was over, most people already knew it was fixed. Arnold “Big Bankroll” Rothstein,was never caught for bankrolling the fix, but all eight players were banned from ever playing professional baseball again. Conductor Andre Kostelanetz rented an apartment at the Ansonia, before moving to 10 Gracie Square. Many other musicians and opera stars did the same such as Geraldine Farrar, the Metropolitan Opera’s principal soprano for many years.

After W.E.D. Stokes died, the Ansonia fell into disrepair under his son Weddie Stokes’ ownership. Upkeep was minimal during the years of the Depression as well as World War II. In 1945 Weddie Stokes sold the Ansonia to a crooked landlord named Samuel Broxmeyer. As Broxmeyer went to prison, the Ansonia made it through bankruptcy court and into the hands of Jake Starr, the “Great Lamplighter of Broadway”. In 1967 Starr let opera singer Steve Ostrow rent the abandoned basement swimming pool. Steve turned it into the all-too-famous “Continental Baths“. This gay bathhouse had Puerto Rican drug dealers with their own cubicle, K-Y jelly was sold in the candy machine and a colored lights warning system tipped of patrons when the vice squad was making a visit to make sure no one was having any sex. Everyone did have sex at the Continental Baths and there were even peep holes allowing outsiders to look in, for a price. The most impressive event at the Continental Baths was the cabaret where as-yet-unknowns Bette Midler and her pianist at the time, Barry Manilow were given a chance to perform. One example is called “Fatt Stuff” and was filmed live at the Continental Baths in 1971. The Continental Baths closed in 1973 as gay men preferred more hard-core bathhouses opening up around the city. In 1977 the space was rented to Larry Levenson who opened a swinger’s club called “Plato’s Retreat”. He installed a fifty-person Jacuzzi as well as an orgy room as a finishing touch.  This documentary highlights what kinds of things went on in Plato’s Retreat. I especially liked how one man mentioned going there just for the food buffet.

Plato’s Retreat closed at the Ansonia in 1980 and moved to West 34th Street and 10th Avenue, until it was officially shut down in 1985. The Ansonia continued now under new ownership represented by Jesse Krasnow who made no secret about how he wanted to clean things up. The residents were not too thrilled as that would mean their rents would rise, so they banded together and hired a lawyer. They were now called the Ansonia Residents Association and they sued Krasnow claiming that all the repairs he made to the building were just touch ups. According to Steven Gaines, the Ansonia would become the single most litigated residence in the history of New York. At present there are still 29% rent-protected apartments where residents pay a few hundred dollars a month for rent. Some of these apartments are next to ones that have been bought for millions of dollars now that the Ansonia has gone Condo. Even if things are still a little dowdy at the Ansonia, at least there’s some charm left on the Upper West Side amidst all the new construction.


Written by agnesbstanton

November 20, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Posted in Upper West Side