I.C.P. Sells Town House, but $17.5 Million Buyer Can’t Get In Until 2001

First, society milled about in it. Then bird-watchers did. Then shutterbugs. Now, the landmark town house at 1130 Fifth Avenue will be reintroduced to society. That is, after New York investor Bruce Kovner gets his hands on it.

On Nov. 9, Mr. Kovner, a Wall Street fund manager, paid $17.5 million for the five-story mansion near East 94th Street that is currently a branch of the International Center of Photography. Under the terms of the deal, he has agreed to give I.C.P. two years to vacate while it expands its main gallery and offices in midtown and searches for a home for its school. After I.C.P. has moved out, Mr. Kovner will renovate the 40-foot-wide home for his family.

The “Museum Mile” mansion, which was built for Willard and Dorothy Whitney Straight by the architectural firm Delano and Aldrich in 1915, was donated to the National Audubon Society in 1952, then passed to I.C.P. in 1974. It houses two floors of gallery space, the museum school, some administrative offices and a basement darkroom that is open to I.C.P. students. Unable to expand or modify the landmark building, I.C.P. put it on the market for $15 million in November 1998. Mr. Kovner signed a contract last August.

“It was a much-sought-after property and the ultimate purchase was negotiated very intelligently,” said S. Jean Meisel, who brokered the sale with Elise Hillman Green of Brown Harris Stevens.

It may well have been Mr. Kovner’s sensitivity to the arts–plus the extra $2.5 million he tacked onto the price, and his agreeing to a waiting period–that won him his own little museum. More than a decade ago, Mr. Kovner established himself as a serious art benefactor–and one of the seriously rich–when he endowed artist Barry Moser with $2 million to establish Pennyroyal Caxton Press (in honor of William Caxton, the first English-language printer, who set up his press in London in 1476). The company published 50 copies, priced at $30,000, of a Bible illustrated by Mr. Moser’s watercolors. In the fall, Viking Press released a less expensive edition, priced at $65. Mr. Moser used Mr. Kovner’s likeness for Solomon (see page 30). In real life, Mr. Kovner, who also named his investment company, Caxton Corporation, after the printer, helps run a $13.8 billion proprietary fund of Lord Jacob Rothschild de Botton.

His new home features a grand entrance with a cathedral ceiling, a large library and six large rooms on its first two floors, which currently house the exhibit Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930′s in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. A wide staircase leads to the second floor of gallery space, and there is also an elevator. In 1968, the house was designated as a New York City landmark.

Mr. Kovner would not comment on the deal, referring The Observer ‘s questions to his lawyer, Joel Hirschtritt, from the firm Tannenbaum, Helpern, Syracuse and Hirschtritt.

“Mr. Kovner has been very supportive of the institution, and whenever it leaves he will begin a renovation of the interior,” said Mr. Hirschtritt.

I.C.P.’s midtown space, at 1133 Avenue of the Americas, is currently being redesigned and expanded by the architects Gwathmey Siegel & Associates and is expected to reopen in September. “We’re looking for a [second] space for the school in midtown, to create a kind of campus facility,” said Phyllis Levine from I.C.P.’s public information office.

That will all have to happen before November 2001, when Mr. Kovner is supposed to take ownership. “He wants to return it to its original elegance,” Mr. Hirschtritt added. That elegance may take some serious renovations since the town house has been in institutional hands for about 50 years.

“Given his current living situation, Mr. Kovner is in a position of planning renovations of the building,” Mr. Hirschtritt added. “He has a residence that he’s comfortable in, and he can easily wait the two-year period before moving in.” Mr. Kovner currently resides with his wife and family at 667 Madison Avenue, near East 61st Street.

THE RETURN OF LADY FAIRFAX: SHE FIXES HER SON UP ON CENTRAL PARK WEST For almost 10 years, Mary Fairfax owned one of the finest residences in Manhattan–a triplex atop the Pierre Hotel at 795 Fifth Avenue, which she purchased for $12 million. With much fanfare, the Australian newspaper empire heiress sold the place to mutual fund magnate Martin Zweig for $21.5 million in January 1998. In mid-December, Ms. Fairfax returned to the bargaining table and signed a $2 million contract for an eight-room apartment at 257 Central Park West, which real estate sources said will be a wedding present to her son.

Ms. Fairfax is buying the apartment for Geoffrey (Garth) Symonds, her son with Cedric Symonds, a lawyer who was her first husband. After they divorced, she married Sir Warwick Fairfax in 1959. Ms. Fairfax did not return a phone call to Fairwater, her mansion on Sydney’s harbor.

Garth, 36, is a hedge-fund manager in New York. He received a law degree from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Earlier this month, his wedding was postponed due to the death of his father.

No. 257, near West 86th Street, was named the Gotham House when it was erected in 1906 as a luxury apartment building, but was renamed the Peter Stuyvesant when it was transformed into a hotel in the 1920′s. In 1968, the hotel was converted back into an apartment building and, when it reopened in 1971, Mr. Haberman christened it Orwell House, after his favorite author, George Orwell.

The apartment Ms. Fairfax is buying her son has eight rooms and no terrace. “It feeds your soul,” said Ms. Fairfax’s broker, Barbara Cardozo, about the apartment’s views of Central Park.

According to Ms. Cardozo, who has worked at Douglas Elliman for 30 years, the apartment sold for just under the asking price. “It was an apartment everyone wanted,” said Ms. Cardozo. “There’s nothing on Central Park West.”

Ms. Fairfax signed a contract for the apartment in mid-December, but Ms. Cardozo had shown it for a few weeks since she got the exclusive in mid-November. “She had to fight for it,” she said about Ms. Fairfax’s aggressive bidding.

Ms. Fairfax is expected to go before the building’s co-op board soon.

UPPER WEST SIDE

100 West 78th Street

Two-bed, 2.5-bath, 1,400-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $679,000. Selling: $701,000.

Charges: $1,107. 45 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: one week.

SUPERPOWER PRICES This address was once known as the Superman building, back when actor Christopher Reeve lived here. Located between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, it underwent a gut renovation in the early 1980′s and was transformed from three brownstones into one building with just 10 apartments. This apartment is a triplex, with a fireplace and 20-foot ceilings in the living room; it was purchased for $590,000 by a young couple last spring, after much haggling. Six months and thousands of dollars later–after installing new windows, hardwood floors, renovating the kitchen and making other improvements–the couple was transferred to California. They had to sell their apartment; their only consolation was $100,000 in profit. Broker: Halstead Property Company (Andrew Phillips, Lisa Fountain, Shelly Sklarsh).

101 West 67th Street (Millennium Tower)

One-bed, 1.5-bath, 1,100-square-foot condo.

Asking: $1.95 million. Selling: $2.85 million.

Charges: $1,100. Taxes: $300.

Time on the market: one month.

THE $3 MILLION BEDROOM This sale answers the question, “Can I really pay almost $3 million for a one-bedroom apartment?” Yes, you can! This apartment was dumped by a Swiss couple who own two other apartments on the same floor. They decided that three were simply too many to manage and, besides, why not take advantage of an offer like this? A couple who were also purchasing the apartment next door from someone else offered $2.85 million for this penthouse apartment on the 56th floor, which has 10-foot-high ceilings, a top-of-the-line kitchen with Sub-Zero fridge, a marble bathroom, a walk-in closet and–best of all–a balcony that offers some pretty spectacular views. They plan to combine this place with the 2,800-square-foot, three-bedroom unit next door–which they got for $4.8 million a month earlier–into one grand and massive home. When they move in, they’ll have free use, as all residents of the Millennium Tower do, of the luxurious Reebok Sports Club downstairs. Broker: Sumitomo Real Estate Sales Inc. (Sachiko Goodman).

MURRAY HILL

630 First Avenue (Manhattan Place)

Two-bed, two-bath, 1,274-square-foot condo.

Asking: $460,000. Selling: $469,000.

Charges: $554. Taxes: $648.

Time on the market: three weeks.

COUPLE CAN WAIT FOREVER: ‘WE’LL BE IN THE HOT TUB!’ After living in a one-bedroom apartment in this super-high-rise, right next to F.D.R. Drive between 36th and 37th streets, a couple has waited for a two-bedroom apartment to become available since the spring of 1999. A 27th-floor apartment finally came along, but the sellers accepted a higher offer from someone else. But when the high bidders took too long to wrap up the deal, the sellers came creeping back. Now the couple is waiting again–for renovations to be complete. Their new pad has great views, overlooking the East River. It also has two marble bathrooms, custom-built closets and a renovated kitchen. The building has a concierge, a round-the-clock doorman, a sundeck, an indoor pool and a health club. The waitin’ is easy! Broker: Douglas Elliman (Kenny Shusterman); Bellmarc Realty.

GRAMERCY PARK

61 Irving Place

Two-bed, two-bath, 1,800-square-foot prewar co-op.

Asking: $1.295 million. Selling: $1.375 million.

Charges: $2,182; 60 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: one week.

HERE COMES THE BROKER A broker woke up on her daughter’s wedding day and did what brokers do–got on her cell phone. Just when it looked like she would be negotiating right through the ceremony, she managed to convince her client that it was perfectly O.K. to accept an offer higher than their asking price. Finally, she rested the two phones back in their cradles just in time to get her handkerchief ready. At issue was a Gramercy Park apartment at 18th Street, a sunny eighth-floor penthouse with a wood-burning fireplace, a glass-enclosed eat-in kitchen and a terrace with a garden. The client wanted out of a one-bedroom place, and the sellers had already found a 5,000-square-foot Victorian house in Portland, Me. The seller took the plunge, the broker got to the wedding on time, and the seller got a big, big pile of cash. Broker: A.J. Clarke Real Estate (Emily Tannen); William B. May Real Estate (Sue Marcus).

GREENWICH VILLAGE

2 Fifth Avenue

One-bed, one-bath, 900-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $425,000. Selling: $410,000.

Charges: $912; 18 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: three weeks.

WHERE THEY ALLOW HOUSE PETS–LIKE ED KOCH Former Mayor Ed Koch lives in this full-service building with a circular driveway, just north of Washington Square. Now, after buying this second-floor corner apartment, so does a single woman who works for a record company. She’s moving from Stuyvesant Town, where they don’t allow pets. Her desire to own a dog–and a home–brought her here. Her future pup can roam the apartment’s wrap-around terrace while she hits Home Depot and starts attacking the galley kitchen. Broker: Corcoran Group (Jane Cibener).