Kirk Henckels Here you have the super wealthy; they have a city house with a staff of 20 and another house with a staff of 40 because their wife made them build one in Newport. And income tax is creeping round. The economies of apartment buildings looked good. The problem was just getting that first person to sign on. Senator Elihu Root was highly respected and a member of Mrs. Astor’s 400. He moved into 998 as the first tenant because he got a deal. Value drives real estate in New York, even for the super wealthy.
The floor plans you publish look like townhouses were pancaked and spread over vast apartment floors.
Mr. Henckels When the Dakota was built, architects didn’t really know what to do with apartment buildings. It took a long time for that floor plan to evolve as it did. The difference in style from the Dakota in 1884 to 998 Fifth in 1912 was huge. The Dakota has long, very narrow hallways. You could almost call it, in quotes, “mostly hall.” The foyers were not big, the bathrooms were small and sparsely located. Things really changed.
Ms. Walker And 998 is a lot more lavish than some of the later apartment buildings in the ’20s and ’30s because it was really trying to replicate those public rooms from the townhouses. By the time you get to the Beresford, buildings still had huge apartments but were less elaborate in terms of interior design and carvings and ceiling heights.
The book describes the hard times some of these buildings fell on after the Depression, but the postwar years were prosperous. Weren’t any great apartment buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s?
Mr. Henckels None. Zero. Not one built for this moneyed set between the ’30s and the turn of the 21st century. The early condominiums were for foreign investors and were really mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments. It wasn’t until 1998 that 515 Park Avenue became the first condo building targeting Upper East Side families.
Part of this transition in the 21st century comes from the spreading of money around New York. Back in the 1980s, luxury was defined by Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue and Central Park West. But now the young people want to be downtown. And many of them are self-made. They haven’t necessarily grown up with the traditional trappings of wealth. You see this throughout all the decorative arts — the death of brown furniture, for instance. It doesn’t fit the contemporary modality.
What was the most surprising thing you uncovered in your research?
Ms. Walker For myself, it was the history of 778 Park Avenue. The address was originally 780 and then construction stopped for a year because it went bankrupt. It’s such a celebrated building; we don’t think of it in those terms.
Mr. Henckels What I thought shocking was that the initial buildings were rentals. It was not just a jump from a mansion to an apartment building, but also a jump to not owning your own home. These were rentals because the prior co-ops had failed in the late 1800s. The cooperative structure did not have a great history at that point.
Will anything like the Dakota ever be built again?
Ms. Walker I think 15 Central Park West is probably the closest you’re going to get. One thing we loved about the Dakota apartment in our book was it could have existed more or less in the 1880s, except for the kitchen.
Mr. Henckels Making the Dakota apartments really serviceable today without ruining their integrity takes some creativity. Some renovations are more successful than others. You have no closets, but there are a lot of fireplaces and enormous windows and great woodwork.
How many historic apartments have maintained their original layouts? Does anyone ever keep those warrens of servants’ quarters?
Mr. Henckels Most of the Candela buildings and others won’t permit major renovations, thank God. They will generally allow you to gut the staff areas and the kitchen and service areas. It doesn’t mean you can’t make the place contemporary or maybe take down a wall between the living room and dining room, but you can’t destroy the integrity of the apartment. The cooperative system has fortunately served a landmarking function for these architecturally spectacular buildings.
If you were to do a sequel, what other buildings might you show?
Ms. Walker I would include 770 Park by Candela, which is one of my favorites.
Mr. Henckels And his 765 Park. There are five Candela sisters, as I call them. We only did three of them. And we were just itching to do the Osborne at 205 West 57th Street, and maybe the Gainsborough at 222 Central Park South.
Ms. Walker We also considered including the Woolworth Building as an example of an office building turning residential. That’s another trend that’s emerging in New York.