57th Heaven: How a Boring Boulevard Became the Billionaires Belt

For a few glorious decades more than 100 years ago, 57th Street was one of the city’s most sought-after addresses, the home of Manhattan’s first luxury apartment towers.

Up until the late 19th century, crowded tenement houses served as refuges for the masses, while patricians kept to their own townhomes. Only with the construction of buildings such as The Osborne at 57th and Seventh in 1885 were the well-to-do convinced to abandon their own private buildings. Then as now, it was amenities like doormen and sprawling layouts that made the move so attractive, the most important of all—as always—being the views, albeit only 10, 11, 12 stories above the low-slung hordes.

The Alwyn Court, Mr. Gross’s home, still stands at the corner of 58th Street and Sixth Avenue, a limestone grandee built in 1907 with etched sculptures running up and down its façade, every inch detailed by a mason’s hand. Then there are Cass Gilbert’s Rodin Studios, the Art Deco Parc Vendome apartments of the 1930s and the Ritz Tower at Park Avenue, the tallest residential building in the city when completed in 1927. And one of the saddest examples, at 57th and Ninth Avenue, the horribly dilapidated but still grand Windermere.

“In a lot of ways, the city’s craze for apartment living began here,” Ronda Wist, vice president of preservation at the Municipal Art Society, said during a recent walk along 57th Street. “The archetypes are all here.”

While the grand dames were soon eclipsed as the city continued its inexorable move northward, 57th Street still had other attractions to recommend it. It was an art hub long before there was Soho or Chelsea, owing to the Fuller Building, the Steinway Building, Carnegie Hall and The Art Student League, the former home of Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder and Ai Weiwei.

It has also long been home to some of the city’s most exclusive shops, starting with the arrival of Henri Bendel at 10 West 57th Street in 1913. The Louisiana milliner had left behind Ninth Street in the Village to cater to the emerging uptown set, and it was here that he would introduce them to the likes of Coco Chanel. Bergdorf Goodman followed in 1962, when it bought and demolished the old Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion that had lorded over the northwestern corner of Fifth and 57th, taking up the entire block. Now, LVMH Row stretches the entire length of the block on the other side of the street, clear down to Madison.

“It may not be Fifth Avenue, but there’s a five in the address, and that’s all a lot of these buyers care about; for the foreigners, it’s all they even know,” said retail real estate maven Faith Hope Consolo. “It could be Fifth Avenue in the 60s or Fifth Avenue in the 20s, their friends back home aren’t gonna know. All they see is the postcard address. It’s the same with 57th Street. They know Bendel’s, and now they know One57. To these people, the address matters more than what’s outside the door.”

57th Heaven: How a Boring Boulevard Became the Billionaires Belt