River House Makes Desperate Bid for Relevance With $130 M. Listing

A rendering of the possible townhouse.

A rendering of the possible townhouse.

In years past, diplomats, movie stars and the crème de la crème of New York society clamored for entry into River House—the art deco co-op on the East River so elite, so elevated, so refined that it famously prohibited the use of its name in all advertising materials. It admitted only the staidest and most moneyed of applicants, snubbing movie stars and the young socialites alike, among them Diane Keaton and Gloria Vanderbilt.

But in the years since the snootiest of all co-ops first opened its closely-guarded gates, society has changed. There was World War II, and then all the hippies and feminists and radical activists of the 1960s and 70s, the yuppie splendor of the 1980s, the rise of the internet and these days, a real estate market swayed by the whims of Russian billionaires. Along the way, River House lost its place at the pinnacle of New York society. The closing prices of its well-appointed apartments lag tens of millions of dollars behind other top tier co-ops, Beekman and Sutton places have declined in prominence and the social register is now a quaint anachronism, like women wearing hats and gloves when they leave the house.

A rendering of the grand library.

A rendering of the grand library.

But now, the co-op is trying to claw its way back into the game with an outrageous $130 million townhouse apartment carved out of the famous River Club, the club-within-a-club that has operated since River House first opened in 1931. And this is no lone wolf move engineered by a mogul with money signs for eyes, but a plan hatched by the co-op board itself.

The townhouse/mansionette/attached castle would comprise 62,000-square-feet, with the buyer getting raw space and architectural plans drawn up by Tony Ingrao, according to The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of the listing, held by Brown Harris Stevens brokers Kyle Blackmon and John Burger. The unprecedented listing, asking an unprecedented $130 million, would set price records if sold. And while Mr. Blackmon and Mr. Burger are the dream team if ever there were one—it was Mr. Blackmon who brokered the $88 million sale at 15 Central Park West and the $70 million sale at the Ritz Carlton; Mr. Burger, meanwhile, is the maestro of tony Upper East Side co-op sales—we doubt it can be done.

An 82-foot pool would open onto the garden.

An 82-foot pool would open onto the garden.

First of all, the five-level townhouse would be so vast that it’s hard to see how it would actually function as a home in addition to a trophy—the largest townhouse in all of New York, at least by our measure, is the 45,000-square foot complex on East 72nd Street that was cobbled together out of the old Lycée Français by the Emir of Qatar. Most other baronial residences top out around 20,000 square feet. And while The Journal mentions the possibility of the space being used as an ambassadorial mission, embassies, though known to spend profligately on real estate, are not usually looking to bag the biggest trophy of them all.

There also exists the problem that River House without the River Club is not really River House at all—the tennis courts and swimming pool and restaurant were part of what made the isolated East River co-op an attractive destination for elites in the first place. Not to mention the fact that trophy hunters these days usually expect a broad compliment of building amenities. And while the proposed townhouse would be replete with them, the rest of the co-op would suffer their loss. (The lawyer and president of the board of managers at the 900-member club told The Journal that the club was “still very much in discussions with River House” because there was a “broad recognition that the club adds significant value” to the building.”)

But all these pale in comparison to the biggest sticking point of all—the kind of person, is such a person even exists, who is able and willing to pay $130 million, is likely not be the kind of person that the River House would admit. A Russian fertilizer mogul in brutal divorce negotiations with his wife, a casino king—these are the men setting real estate records in New York. The co-op record still hovers under $60 million for good reason: social credentials rarely align with the deepest pockets. The last time the Pierre penthouse, now listed for $125 million, was on the market, the board reportedly turned down several buyers that were not up to social snuff.  And while the grand dame of real estate has relaxed her ways a little bit—one can now speak her name in real estate listings—we doubt the board will be adopting condo admittance procedures anytime soon.