Scandalous and stylish, the Ansonia is a Parisian vision on the streets of New York
- Location: 2109 Broadway, between West 73rd and West 74th Streets
- Architect: Paul E. Duboy
- Built: 1904
Much like people, buildings have faces. The Ansonia is like a beautiful French lady whose Parisian looks and New York proportions make her singularly unique.
The Ansonia was dreamed up by real-estate tycoon William Earl Dodge Stokes. A public personality with a scandalous reputation for unlikely marriages and loud divorces, W.E.D. Stokes was steadfastly devoted to the development of the Upper West Side.
At the end of the last century, when apartment living was still not acceptable for respectable people but hotel living was quite in vogue, Stokes decided to erect an apartment hotel the likes of which had never been seen before. It was to be lavish, provide services that none others would dream of having, and bear the name Ansonia. Stokes participated in every detail of Ansonia’s creation, starting with the choice of style – the flamboyant Second Empire.
Wearing that sloping roof like an elegant hat, the Ansonia stands seventeen stories high. It was supposed to be taller, but Stokes liked the view from the 17th floor well enough. He controlled construction and manufacturing and even invented his own elevators designed specifically for Ansonia. Stokes claimed that Ansonia always kept cool, never exceeding 70 degrees even in the heat of the summer. Icy slush was pushed through 125 miles of pipes within its walls to maintain the climate-controlled environment. Not afflicted by false modesty, Stokes billed Ansonia as “the most perfectly equipped house in the world.”
No other hotel in town came even close to what the Ansonia had to offer. It was advertised that “for the convenience of those who make the Ansonia their home, the hotel affords markets for all food products, a laundry, a tailor and valets, wholesale wine and liquor and cigar shops, apothecary and florist shops, a bank, dentists and physicians and many more minor features.” This impressive array of conveniences failed to mention a theater, palm garden, Grand Ballroom, garage, barber shop, several cafes, roof garden, tea rooms, Turkish bath, live seals in the lobby fountain and the world’s largest indoor swimming pool.
At the time of its completion, in 1904, the Ansonia stood as the largest hotel in the world. It had 1400 rooms, 4.5 miles of hallways and, at full capacity, could accommodate 1300 dinner guests. There were oval and round rooms, rooms shaped like a half oval and half rectangle, rooms which held the shape of a heraldic shield, and rooms with semicircular sculpture niches.
But the most unique of all of Ansonia’s features was her inhabitants. The most notorious of them was Mr. Stokes himself. W.E.D Stokes stories always start with that of his first unhappy marriage to a 16-year-old beauty (he was 40-something). His next marriage to a 24-year-old lasted for 10 years, and ended in four-year long divorce, which became the most infamous scandal in the city. The New York Times famously published over 70 articles about it, since Stokes motivated by his determination not to pay his ex, accused her of cheating on him with 12 men, including his son. Other episodes of Stokes’ colorful life included being shot by a duo of chorus girls. Tabloids had a field day!
Stokes had a farm. Not in Connecticut, not in New Jersey, but on the roof of Ansonia. According to his son, Weddie, “The farm on the roof included 500 chickens, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear.” Tenants enjoyed farm-fresh eggs while the urban farm lasted. It had to close in 1907 when city’s health department claimed a Sanitary Code violation, and the animals happily retired to Central Park.
Stokes refused to pay for fire insurance. Instead, he made Ansonia fireproof by making the walls so thick that, as a side effect, Ansonia became completely soundproof. Whether it was the soundproofing or the perfectly maintained even temperatures, the fact remains that Ansonia became a favorite among musicians. Every Monday night after the opera performance at the Met, Ansonia came alive with operatic stars with their entourages, opera lovers, fans, plumed hats, fancy gowns, flowers, champagne, and fine dining. Arturo Toscanini, Feodor Chaliapin, and Igor Stravinsky called Ansonia their home. Theodor Dreiser, the author of American Tragedy, was Ansonia’s resident, and Babe Ruth, the baseball legend, lived here. He ate a lot, drank a lot, and walked the hallways in his bathrobe. Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld lived here in a 13-room suite with Anna Held, his wife, and star of his Ziegfeld’s Follies, while on the other floor he kept an apartment for another one of the Follies, his mistress. A genius in attracting attention, he arranged for a milkman to sue him for unpaid bills. Headlines ran throughout all the papers that the milk was bought for Anna Held to take baths in so as to maintain her special marble-while complexion.
Like most other luxury buildings, the Ansonia was hard hit by the Depression: the restaurants closed, furniture and oriental rugs disappeared from public areas, lobbies were converted for commercial use, and apartments were cut up into smaller units. During World War II the exterior was stripped of its metal ornamentation, and the rooftop lanterns were also removed. Changing hands and suffering tremendous financial difficulties, Ansonia fell from her operatic glory to poverty and disrepute. In the 1960s it became the home for the first gay bathhouse/cabaret called the Continental Baths. Bette Midler and Barry Manilow, the stars that later made it into mainstream fame and recognition, started their careers performing for crowds of well-dressed couples sitting next to half-naked young men clad in nothing but bath towels. When Continental Baths closed, its place was taken by a seedy swinger’s club called Plato’s Retreat. The times for Ansonia were so dismal that if it hadn’t been landmarked in 1972, it would have been demolished. Ansonia has been through a lot, but it’s still here. In part, an expensive condo and in part, still rent-controlled, Ansonia, with her oddities, is quite true to herself. Look at her once more. Unlike many buildings of the same style, the Ansonia is not overwhelmed with decoration. The delicate ironwork of balconies, graceful balustrades, and decorations around windows make the building’s surface appear like delicate lace. Made of gray colored terra-cotta, it appears airy light, and in keeping with its Second Empire affiliations, it proudly wears its three-story mansard roof. If it were not for its size, the Ansonia could easily have been imagined on a Parisian boulevard, but it was proportioned to belong here, on the streets of New York.
Like an operatic star, it stands here – flamboyant, foreign, delicate, and breathtakingly beautiful.