The Zeckendorfs and company had paid about $690 per buildable square foot for the property, and then spent about $1,130 per square foot to build their 886,000-square-foot two-tower behemoth. Would anyone buy? Were they out of their minds?
A sales office opened in September 2005 with the average asking price for apartments hovering at $3,300 per square foot, well above the general Manhattan average of around $1,000 a foot. By December 2006, all 15 penthouses had been sold. A few months later, the apartments were all gone, the sales office shuttered. The Zeckendorfs’ bet had paid off. The average sales price realized was $9.5 million per apartment, and 15 sold for sums in excess of $20 million.
It’s telling that both the Zeckendorf brothers have taken apartments at Fifteen, presumably unconcerned about hearing complaints when they run into their new neighbors. That could happen in either of the two concierge-staffed lobbies—a grand, English oak, red-, pink- and purple-marble-trimmed one on Central Park West, complete with two fireplaces, and the other in the circular copper-topped pavilion that divides the space between the two towers into a cobblestone circular “motor court” and a private park for residents only. Or in the walnut-lined private library; the private residents’ club complete with a 20-seat screening room, a game room, a conference room and a large terrace; the garage; the 60-seat lobby dining room (with a private chef who will also offer room service); or the subterranean health club, complete with a 75-foot lap pool with a skylight above and a reflecting pool in the garden over that. There are even waiting rooms for real-estate brokers, the Zeckendorfs joked, and chauffeurs; the latter one, near the garage, will boast a TV tuned to the Weather Channel.
There can be little argument with Mr. Stern’s design: The building is classic, grounded in the past, yet soaringly modern; serious, yet whimsical, and oddly appropriate both to the street it faces and the one it effectively turns its back to (there is no entrance to the residential building anywhere near the retail spaces that will open on Broadway). Within, light is used as a signature design element. Only a few of the apartments lack views, and even the worst of those offer glimpses of the Hearst and Time Warner towers, which, though they’re not Central Park, are pretty dramatic nonetheless. From without, too, as Mr. Stern has said in the building’s promotions, the limestone seems to glow; the roofline has a sense of whimsy; and (imagining the canopy yet to come) the main entrance makes you take a breath and straighten up a bit. The driveway, entered from 61st Street, opens into a private courtyard that will surely make residents feel cosseted by more than their money.
For the moment, at least, Fifteen’s financial promise seems as solid as the building itself: The New York Sun has even front-paged a claim that with its arrival, the southwest corner of Central Park (which is also home to distinctive apartment houses such as the Gainsborough Studios, 200 Central Park South, the Osborne, Alwyn Court and Hampshire House) has ascended to the status of a new Gold Coast. Unlike the East 70’s, where its inspirations lie, this new hood is within walking distance of Lincoln Center, all of midtown and Madison Avenue, and is well-served by public transportation. It may not have Swifty’s and Sette Mezzo, but Gabriel’s, Jean Georges and Per Se will do. (N.B. I know. And have a vested interest—I live in the neighborhood.)
Though no one has moved in yet, the scale and volume of Fifteen’s rooms also bespeak grandeur. About 80 percent of the apartments are floor-throughs (there are only a handful of one-bedroom pied-à-terres without views). Public rooms have the sort of scale normally seen only in 1920’s buildings by the likes of 740 Park’s architect, Rosario Candela. Windows on Central Park are huge and generous (they even open—no small detail), their distortion-free glass magnifying clear views of Central Park from the “house” apartments and, seemingly, all of America from the upper tower apartments. The kitchens are also huge, one of the modern touches Mr. Stern added to the classic template (well-represented by lots of glass-fronted pantry cabinets). Private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms are designed to be just that. The closets are abundant and generously sized. Some apartments have their own tiled laundry rooms, and those on setbacks have spacious terraces. And, separately, the Zeckendorfs offered buyers 29 maid’s suites on low floors that look out over the driveway entrance, allowing live-in staff but eliminating the need to actually live with them. (Thirty wine rooms surrounding an octagonal tasting area were also sold separately.) The hat trick of thoughtful layouts, space and style is as strong a selling point as Fifteen’s location location location.
SO WHAT'S THE DOWNSIDE? Some time ago, I asked Mr. Stern if the building would be as good in every way—i.e., down to the concrete and pipes—as its Roaring 20’s forebears. “I’m not going to answer that,” he said. “We’re trying to build very well. I would say that aspects of our building are comparable.”
But some are not. Some ceilings are only 10 feet high. While the master suites are huge and luxurious, with high-end fixtures and marble slabs that are typically book-matched stone, the secondary bedrooms are smaller and their bathrooms could be in any condo. And this may be just me, but I loathe family rooms separated from kitchens by breakfast bars and think Mayor Bloomberg should outlaw them as a blot on our metropolis.
According to the Zeckendorfs, most buyers plan to just move in (unlike Jeff Gordon, who bought a white box and plans to customize it). The bottom line is that flippers (should there be any—the Zeckendorfs expect no more than 10 tops) may need to invest more money if they expect a decent return on investment. And they will. Count on it.
“Early on, about half of the first 70 contracts we issued fell through,” says Will as we climb aboard the elevator and descend from the summit of the gods, or rather, the Terrace of Loeb. What happened? The buyers decided the apartments were too expensive, Will says.
Arthur Zeckendorf laughs out loud. “They’re kicking themselves now!”
Michael Gross is the author of 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building. He is writing an unauthorized biography of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.