River House, the co-op so snooty that it makes 15 Central Park West seem like a hippie-dippy Woodstock for the monied classes, is, in a heartening development for those who yearn for a less obnoxious society, declining in prominence.
Consider this. While co-op owners at the 52nd Street and East River apartment house have listed rambling units for more than $20 million, the most expensive sale ever at the River House, according to the database of a broker who has done business in the building, is $12.25 million, and that was nine years ago, in a bull market. A rival broker put the most expensive sale ever at a mere $10 million for a four-bedroom unit in 2008. In the era of $26 million sales at the newer 15 CPW and $14 million transactions at Superior Ink, that is, dare we say, kind of pathetic.
Moreover, as recently as 2008, before Lehman crashed, the 26-story edifice had three units on the market, an embarrassing glut for such a self-consciously elite institution. Today, according to Streeteasy.com, there are five active listings, from a four-bedroom, third-floor apartment asking $24.5 million to a three-bedroom on the 12th floor asking $4.9 million.
How has this terrible state of affairs come to pass at River House—the River House—the one that Henry Kissinger has called home for decades, the apartment house so uppity it rejected the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt and Diane Keaton, the apartment house sooo exclusive that it prohibits brokers from naming the building’s address or even its name in listings?
In the immediate vicinity of the River House, there are, to wit, no chic restaurants, no hot cocktail bars. There are no art galleries or beautiful young things strutting about in the latest frocks.
There are many ways to answer that question. Most of them tend to involve the excrescences of Robert Moses; the citywide decline in crime, which has rendered Manhattan one big playground for the rich; and the rise of the condominium.
RIVER HOUSE, designed by William Lawrence Bottomley, rose between 52nd and 53rd streets and the East River in 1931, on a site where cigar and furniture factories once stood, and at a time, not so unlike our own, when the rich found the contrast between urban grit and the high life aesthetically charming, according to The Times’ architectural writer Christopher Gray.
Charming from a decent remove, that is. According to Mr. Gray: “With a yacht landing, a mid-block driveway, a walled garden, apartments of nine to 17 rooms and private tennis and swimming club in the basement, River House offered accommodations that few New Yorkers had any hope of enjoying. Sleek chauffeured limousines entered a landscaped courtyard on 52d Street and exited down a ramp to 53d Street.”
Today, what charm existed in peering at the laboring classes while sipping a sherry in the confines of one’s 17-room flat is no longer. River House now finds itself surrounded by suitably posh neighbors. Nor, for that matter, can the resident, à la Marshall Field III, waltz outside onto one’s yacht, and after a 35-minute ride alight at one’s Port Washington home. For that, River House residents have Robert Moses to thank.
Just nine years after the building’s erection, the span of the F.D.R. that ferries cars from 14th to 92nd streets opened for business. And so the yachting dock went the way of the Manhattanite’s unfettered access to the waterfront.
What remains in lieu of yachting access is something a tad more austere. On a recent Sunday afternoon, where the easternmost tip of 52nd Street ends in a cul-de-sac bluff overlooking a River House patio below, an elegant lady in a red baseball cap lounged below browsing through the weekend paper, protected from the roar of the cars on the neighboring F.D.R. by nothing more than an ivy-covered wall.
Strike one: Robert Moses. Strike two: the passage of time.
“Over the passage of time, some buildings lose their fashionable cachet, others gain it and others maintain it throughout, like those on Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue,” said a broker who’s done deals in River House.
Indeed, much has happened since its heyday, which extended well into the ’80s and ’90s. For one, the city has gotten much, much safer—a trend that has transformed countless traveler-beware precincts in Manhattan into paradisiacal playgrounds for those with too much discretionary income.
“New York had these enclaves, just because the city wasn’t that safe,” said Laurence Jones, an architect who’s worked in his share of wealthy buildings. “It was totally secure, isolated, protected. Now, you can’t imagine a neighborhood less interesting.”
In the immediate vicinity of River House, there are, to wit, no chic restaurants, no hot cocktail bars. There are no art galleries or beautiful young things strutting about in the latest frocks. Rather, there are at least three florists (rich people just love their fresh flower arrangements); the stuffy restaurant Le Perigord; a furniture store; a D’Agostino; Tal Bagels; an oddly placed McDonald’s; a Parnell’s Pub and Restaurant; a diner; and a GNC.
“It’s not a question of not being able to get the architecture and quality,” said another well-positioned broker. “It’s purely location.”
AND, THEN, LET US NOT forget the rise of the condominium, a form of housing that predominates in other, more livable cities, but that has somehow only recently gained steam in New York.
“I’ve seen a tremendous increase in demand for condos for the super rich, versus the co-ops,” said Tamir Shemesh. whose Prudential Douglas Elliman group is now marketing the über-lux condos at One Madison Park. “A lot of buyers want hassle free.”
William Zeckendorf, a pioneer of condo development in New York, including that of 15 Central Park West, traces the birth of the condo here to the St. Tropez on East 64th Street, which was built in 1964. But, he added, condos didn’t really begin to take root in New York until the 1980s. Mr. Zeckendorf has since built some 30 condo buildings, including Worldwide Plaza, the Vanderbilt, the Columbia and, of course, the Zeckendorf Towers on Union Square.
“Starting in 1990, condos began to outpace co-ops in pricing,” he said, “and starting in 2000, the difference exploded.”
Not only are condos units growing, but co-op boards have become, particularly during the recent boom, even more restrictive. And few if any are more difficult than that of River House. Which leaves a wealthy apartment-buyer with the following question: Deal with an ornery co-op board all for the sake of an inconveniently located, albeit stunning co-op, or buy a centrally located condo and save yourself the hassle.
Doesn’t seem like much of a dilemma, now does it?