Broadway & 73rd Street

19 May

Surprise! I’m back on to the rich folks people. I can’t help it; they seem to have built everything around here. And because they had a lot of money their stories were well recorded too. I can actually find out about them, these people who died decades before I was born, whose lives had absolutely nothing to do with mine. I don’t even know as much about my own great-grandparents (okay, maybe my own great-great-grandparents). It points towards one reason humans build giant houses and monuments — to make sure they are remembered, to have their names stuck on to something physical. And guess what? It works. So much of the history I learn is incidental. It’s because of what I see around me, and look into.

But guess what again? It’s all just a drop in the bucket isn’t it? Our lives I mean, who we’re actually going to touch in the long run. What’s even a thousand years, in the scheme of things, especially when you’re no longer living? But isn’t that inspiring? Really, I’m serious. When I read about someone who’s dead and gone, someone I never knew, I often get that faintest whiff of their life, the world they lived in and the way it thought. Just enough for me to think, “well huh, that’s how they did it. I guess I can do anything I want. I think I’ll try it this way.” Honestly, sometimes the assholes inspire me more than the good ones. They hammer home the fact it’s all a choice. It’s all a choice. Who do you do it for? That’s up to you. Who ultimately judges your life? Well I don’t know. Uh, me? No wait, my mother! Oh yeah, or nobody.

Or maybe yourself. I wonder how William Earl Dodge Stokes rated his own. He was the gentleman who financed and built the Ansonia Hotel as well as a lot of other property on the Upper West Side. He was born into a wealthy family in New York, the grandson of Anson Greene Phelps, co-founder of the Phelps, Dodge & Company mining business and the Ansonia Clock Company. And he seemed to be a bit of a bastard. When his father died in 1881 he contested the will and sued his brother, earning a million dollar inheritance out of the affair. Four years later he began building brownstones in the Upper West Side, at a time when it was still considered the Manhattan frontier, undeveloped and cut off from the rest of the city. It was his belief that Broadway, then called the Grand Boulevard above 59th Street, would become the premier thoroughfare in New York. He was a big player in getting the city to pave the road in 1889 (ahead of Fifth Avenue) and ten years later he opened his Ansonia at 73rd Street and Broadway, the “monster” of all NYC residential buildings.

By then he’d already been divorced from his teenage wife, with the cash settlement of 2 million dollars said to be a record for his day. He’d go on to marry a much younger tenant of the Ansonia years later, ending in another litigious divorce, but that was after being sued for child support by another woman and before being shot and wounded three times by a third. I feel like Daniel Day-Lewis probably wants very badly to play this guy in the biopic of his life. His style seemed to fit, or maybe set the tone for the Ansonia. Its ornate, Beaux Arts exterior was matched by an equally sumptuous inside, including the largest swimming pool in the world in its basement, sound-proof and fire-proof walls (he hated insurance companies and did without them) and steel pipes in the walls that pumped frozen brine in the summertime, keeping the building at a uniform 70 degrees. Oh, he also kept farm animals on the roof, until the Board of Health shut him down in 1907.

It makes sense then that, despite appearances, the Ansonia was never considered fashionable by New York’s elite. It was run as a residential hotel, with furnished apartments that tenants could check in and out of as they wished. It was tied early on with pro-athletes, musicians, gamblers, and various sundry and shady types. Babe Ruth lived here and supposedly liked to stroll the halls in his silken bathroom. Chick Gandil lived here too; it was in his room that the plan was made for the Chicago “Black Sox” to throw the 1919 World Series. The opera star Toscanini, and composers Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Mahler, all called it home as well. You get the idea: it was a rockin joint. A lot of names, a lot of personalities. And what are they to us now? Just stories really, right? Just moods. I feel like Babe Ruth today, strolling down the hallway. I feel like 1919. I’m going to stare up at this building. I’m going to snap my suspenders, stick my hands in my pockets, and say “shucks.” You wanna buy a paper mister?

(Originally posted June 5th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

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