New York City in the 1920s was already a melting pot of peoples and ideas from every corner of the globe.
With the urban centre besting London to become the most populous metropolis in the world, which was home to 7 million industrious new citizens by the early 1930s, profound social change was under way in the Big Apple.
For those with the cash, it was an exciting time of swaggering ambition, of pink gins and jazz. Fortunes were being made and New Yorkers were swept along on a tide of rampant consumerism. Noisy streets filled with cars and wild speculation in real estate fostered a foot-to-floor building boom never seen before.
To reflect the toe-tapping, finger-clicking zeitgeist, fashion-conscious Manhattan society fell head over its high heels for art deco, the in-vogue design style emphasising clean, simplified lines to express the dynamism and sophistication of the modern age.
Soon art deco was generously applied to everything from cigarette lighters to cinemas, from cufflinks and cutlery to saltshakers, as well as to the sky-scraping new hotels and office blocks springing up across the city.
Today, London, Paris, Miami, Shanghai, Chicago and Melbourne brag of their art deco architectural gems, but only New York City has the cloud-busting Empire State, the shimmering Chrysler Building, the distinctive 1929 Fuller Building that has housed some of the city’s leading art galleries, and several imposing, Gotham-esque edifices on Wall Street – potent symbols of the most go-getting metropolitan powerhouse on the planet. And at the end of long days spent wheeling and dealing in the trading houses and advertising agencies within those stone and concrete temples of Mammon, Manhattan’s young urbanites would return home to art deco apartment buildings, there to kick back with their gramophone records and their whiskey sours.
The height of chic NYC living in their day, such structures remain some of the most exclusive Manhattan addresses in the 21st century. Running north-south along the western edge of Central Park and forming the eastern boundary of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Central Park West is a landmark avenue running 50 blocks from Columbus to Frederick Dourglass circles. It’s also home to some of the most dramatic art deco architecture in the city.
One of Manhattan’s most coveted avant-garde residences in the 1930s was the Majestic at 115 Central Park West. The twin-towered housing cooperative, completed in 1931, was designed by pioneering art deco architect Irwin Chanin, whose developer family championed the “streamline moderne” geometric style and was also behind six Broadway theatres.
The Majestic was designated a “New York City Landmark” by the city’s preservation commission in 1988. Notable residents down the years have included actor Milton Berle and fashion guru Marc Jacobs, who lived there as a teenager in the 1980s with his grandmother, as well as members of the Luciano crime family, including the notorious Charles “Lucky” Luciano. TV host Conan O’Brien sold his space in the building in 2010.
A luxurious four-bedroom apartment with three and a half bathrooms on the 24th floor of the Majestic is currently offered for sale by Douglas Elliman at US$12.4 million. Its height delivers exceptional unbroken views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, and allows the interior to be flooded with natural light.
The apartment, which extends over more than 3,000 square feet, opens into a formal gallery, making it an ideal space for the art lover with a collection to display. The huge master bedroom also delivers unrivalled views of the park. Another room, originally planned as staff lodgings with an adjacent full bathroom, makes for a study or home office. All residents at the Majestic enjoy 24-hour, white-glove service, as well as full use of the fitness centre with an adjacent children’s playroom, bicycle storage and a landscaped roof terrace with solarium.
A lazy stroll north along Central Park West brings you to the Eldorado (at 300 Central Park West). Also sporting twin spires, the massive, 30-storey structure fills the entire block between West 90th and West 91st streets and overlooks Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir.
Initially financially troubled due to the Wall Street crash of 1929, it was completed in 1931 to the design of revered Hungarian-American architect Emery Roth and supporting practice Margon & Holder, the Eldorado – which is elaborately decorated with futuristic sculptural details and geometric patterns – is today judged to be one of the finest art deco structures in the city, with the lobby having been restored to its original opulence and elegance.
Early tenants of the Eldorado included Barney Pressman, boisterous founder of luxury department store Barneys New York, and New York senator and homeopathy pioneer Royal Copeland. Owners in recent years have included celebs such as actors Faye Dunaway, Bruce Willis, Carrie Fisher and Michael J Fox, as well as musos Bono and Moby.
A five-bed, five-bath duplex with park frontage, currently on the market by the Corcoran Group (corcoran.com) at a fraction under US$14 million, extends over 5,400 square feet on the 18th and 19th floors. With an exceptionally high window-to-wall ratio, the grand space is frequently filled with light, which is notable on arrival.
Entering from a semi-private landing, the visitor is greeted by a 15-metre-wide vista of Central Park that fills the eastern side of the living room. The adjacent library opens on to a magnificent terrace overlooking the reservoir. The floor is completed with spacious formal dining room, an eat-in kitchen, two staff accommodations and an additional northwest facing terrace.
A grand staircase leads to the bedroom floor, which has a generous master suite with sweeping park views from oversized windows and a large dressing room, as well as four further bedrooms. Additional amenities include a powder room and multiple walk-in closets. All Eldorado residents enjoy unlimited access to a top-flight gym, bike room, half basketball court, children’s playroom, laundry room, garage and impeccable white-glove service dispensed by a concierge, doormen and hall operatives.
To the south of both the Eldorado and the Majestic, 55 Central Park West holds special significance in American popular culture for its starring role in the much-loved 1984 comedy movie Ghostbusters. In the film, “550 Central Park West” (also known as “the Shandor Building”) is home to the bumbling spook-chasers’ first client, a possessed cellist played by Sigourney Weaver.
After many spooky shenanigans, the Ghostbusters learn that the building had been designed by bonkers architect Ivo Shandor as a magnet for the world’s ghouls and demons. To this day 55 Central Park West is referred to locally as “Spook Central”.
Opened in 1930 and the first art deco structure on Central Park West, 55 was actually conceived by local architects Schwartz & Gross and was considered “second tier” by the city’s snobbier socialites. That didn’t stop the building pulling in a who’s who of prominent occupants, including Ginger Rogers during her 1930s Broadway years, and society milliner Lilly Dache and husband Jean Despres of Coty Perfume. Later came Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, David Geffen and other VIPs.
A two-bed, three-bath, 1,500-square-foot apartment at 55 Central Park West, currently on the market by Warburg Realty at US$3.75 million, is entered via an entry foyer that leads to a huge, step-down living room with eye-popping views of the park. With attached gallery, library and dining room and well-appointed kitchen, this well-kept 10th-floor home also features a large, light-filled master bedroom and ample space for guests.
Not all Manhattan’s art deco apartments are on Central Park, however, and Greenwich Village’s desirable One Fifth Avenue is a prestigious pre-war landmark built in 1927 by architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, a native of San Francisco best known for his advocacy of tall buildings and modernism, with notable projects in both New York and London.
Dubbed “a thing of rare beauty” by Variety magazine on completion, One Fifth Avenue’s flat exterior incorporates bricks of different colours to create the illusion of depth. Its magnificent two-story lobby, full-time doormen and convenient location make it perfect for those embracing the 24-hour lifestyle of a city that never sleeps.
Perched on the 18th floor and formed by the merging of two smaller apartments, a two-bed, two-bath penthouse residence of more than 1,000 square feet is on sale by Ann Weintraub for just under US$7 million and is currently available for viewing.
The one-of-a-kind space benefits from two deep-set private terraces – one eight metres in length, with amazing views from the Hudson River to the Empire State Building. A formal dining room makes the space ideal for entertaining, the huge master bedroom boasts a walk-in closet and attached bath, while the second bedroom offers access to the smaller terrace.
One of the most sought-after art deco addresses in Manhattan in 2020 actually started its life as a call centre for the New York Telephone Company. Completed in 1929 at 212 West 18th Street in the heart of Chelsea, and designed by Ralph Thomas Walker (hailed in 1957 by the American Institute of Architects as “the architect of the century”), Walker Tower was reconfigured into 50 luxury condominium residences in 2010 with the promise that the building’s original design would be complemented by the conveniences of modern residential living.
Consequently, the building’s elaborate brick façade was painstakingly restored, as was the art deco ornamentation that Walker also employed at One Wall Street and at the Barclay-Vesey Building in Lower Manhattan.
All units now feature radiant floor heating, French herringbone oak flooring, Smallbone of Devizes kitchens, marble bathrooms with Waterworks fixtures and steam showers, and Crestron home automation systems. White-glove service at Walker Tower also includes a 24-hour doorman, lounge, playroom, gym, sauna and a roof deck.
Since the renovation, Walker Tower has reportedly become home to A-listers such as Cameron Diaz, Hollywood power couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, and former Barnes & Noble boss Leonard Riggio.
On the 15th and 16th floors of Walker Tower, a 4,700-square-foot, four-bed, 4.5-bath duplex apartment, which is currently on sale by Compass Real Estate at US$27.8 million, features a huge, light-filled double-width living room with views of the Hudson River, Freedom Tower and Statue of Liberty that leads to a private terrace with a further 686 square feet. The corner dining area has southern and western exposures and also has access to the terrace.
The kitchen boasts a wine cooler, induction cooktop, two wall ovens by Viking, speed oven and a built-in coffee maker by Miele and a Franke water filtration system. The second floor, however, is where the apartment truly becomes a home, with three beautifully designed bedrooms and a central media area. The master suite has a massive walk-in closet and a custom marble bathroom with separate vanity, double sinks, a large steam shower and a cast iron bathtub.