The Ansonia (2109 Broadway), located in the heart of the Upper West Side, was built to be a grand residential hotel. It is the second most recognized building in the neighborhood, after the Dakota; but compared to its more demure neighbor, this decadent marvel has a far more scandalous history.
Though the French-born Paul E. Duboy is the listed architect of record, the owner, W.E.D. Stokes, was actually responsible for much of the hotel's design. It is rumored that Stokes caused Duboy to have a nervous breakdown and then had the architect institutionalized in an insane asylum back in France.
Heir to the Ansonia copper fortune, Stokes planned for a base of 20 floors to be topped with a slim nine-storey tower. By the time it was completed in 1913 it had only managed to reach 17 stories; already the construction budget was over by 800 percent, for a total exceeding $6 million.
With 1,400 rooms and 340 suites, it provided over 550,000 square feet of space. A system of pneumatic tubes connected each and every room, and a network of brine pipes in the walls provided an early version of air-conditioning, keeping the building cool at 70 degrees in the summer. The interior was fitted with the most opulent of materials, including double-wide mahogany entrance doors for each apartment and a continuous white marble spiral stair that spanned the whole height of the building.
In those early days, the building attracted some of the most nefarious characters. Al Adams, boss of the New York numbers racket, moved in following his release from Sing Sing. In 1919, Babe Ruth occupied a room after his trade from the Boston Red Sox, just as Wally Schang and Lefty O’Doul eventually did. The Ansonia was also the site of the fateful September 21, 1919 meeting where a group of players from the Chicago White Sox agreed to throw the World Series.
The basement of the hotel housed, for a time, the world’s largest indoor pool. Originally intended as a Turkish bath, it was rented out to a former opera singer in the late 60s who converted it into a gay bathhouse reminiscent of the “glory of ancient Rome.” Complete with an orgy room, the Continental Baths, as they was first known, became the hottest spot in town to watch emerging cabaret acts while lounging in a small bath towel. Bette Midler’s career began there, earning her the nickname “Bathhouse Betty”; her accompanist, Barry Manilow, was frequently spotted in only a skimpy towel.
By 1977, the Continental Baths had closed, succeeded by a far seedier establishment, Plato’s Retreat. Complete with K-Y dispensing candy machines and mattress lined rooms, this swingers' club—strictly for heterosexual couples only—charged $30 at the door and provided free booze and a buffet. A sex shop also opened in one of the storefront retail spaces carved out of the building’s former main entrance on Broadway.
For many years, the building suffered considerable neglect. The roof, which was once a farm that provided fresh eggs and poultry to the residents, leaked ceaselessly. Because of changes to the NYC building code in 1968, rent in the building became fixed under the Rent Stabilization Board; the then-owner decided that since he could not demolish the landmarked building, he would let it fall apart from within. But the decay had begun long before. Much of the original metal ornamentation on the building was removed in 1942 to supply materials for bullets during World War II, including the enormous half-ton, seven-foot copper cartouches on each corner dome. At this time, all the pneumatic tubes and cooling pipes were also removed.
Today, the building shows every sign of returning to its former glory. Almost three-quarters of the apartments are now condominiums, and much has been done to repair the inside and out. The remaining terracotta and stone decorations on the exterior are just as exquisite as when they were first crafted, including the numerous leering satyrs that embellish the façade.
Though it was fashioned in a Beaux-Arts style, the building seems more like a Bohemian Baroque castle. The exterior is broken up horizontally every several floors by a continuous cornice capped with ornate metal rails. Vertically, the façade is divided by embellishments such as huge archways over central windows and multiple ornate corner quoins. Deep recessed light wells break the plane further. All these delicate details manage to break the otherwise full-block building into smaller, digestible bites. And though patches of repair are still visible on the enormous two-level mansard roof, it shines well in its prominent location at the bend of Broadway at 72nd Street.