The Iconic Residences of Central Park West
By Kate Wood
The twin towers of the residences on Central Park West create an Art Deco skyline profile that is practically synonymous with the Upper West Side and New York. This residential architecture, each building in its own way, exemplifies the last exuberant blast of development before the Great Depression and create the distinctive skyline silhouette so prized today. Among them are three significant Art Deco buildings dating from 1931—the Eldorado, Majestic, and Century Apartments.
The Central Park West Skyline.
On September 11, 1984, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) held a public hearing to consider landmark designation for these three iconic Central Park West residences and two others, the Beresford and the San Remo. At that time, the Upper West Side had fewer than twenty-five designated Individual Landmarks and a handful of small historic districts. The neighborhood was just starting to become, for the first time in fifty years, a hotbed of real estate development. It was also attracting the attention of preservation activists.
Two years earlier, a citizens’ committee had formed to save the Second Church of Christ, Scientist on the corner of 68th Street and Central Park West from demolition and replacement with a residential tower. And just one day before the hearing, local activist Arlene Simon wrote a letter to Kent Barwick, the President of the Municipal Art Society and former LPC Chair, calling for a coordinated effort to achieve more landmark protection for the Upper West Side where many of the city’s significant Art Deco residences are located. As Chair, Barwick had begun a building-by-building survey of the Upper West Side from 59th to 110th Streets to identify potential landmarks and historic districts.
The moment was ripe. By 1984, New York City was in the midst of rekindling its love affair with Art Deco after a period of neglect (a pattern that appears repeatedly; Pennsylvania Station was barely fifty years old when it was demolished, and the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport was considered obsolete at forty). The interior and exterior of the Chrysler Building and the interior of Radio City Music Hall had become the city’s first Art Deco landmarks in 1978, and the Empire State Building, both interior and exterior, was designated in 1981. In 1985, LPC voted to protect Rockefeller Center and the five Central Park West apartment buildings that had been the subjects of the September 11, 1984 hearing.
The Eldorado, Majestic, and Century, the three Art Deco buildings, demonstrate the compatibility of that style with the soaring, twin-towered massing enabled by 1929 changes to the Multiple Dwelling Law that allowed increased heights and towers for residential buildings.
They each occupy a full block fronting Central Park West, their bases line up with older, pre-1929 buildings on the street, and their dramatic height neatly frames the row house blocks on the area’s side streets. By 1990, persistent community advocacy—under the banner of the citizens’ organization LANDMARK WEST!—succeeded in protecting not only the individual icons but the entire picturesque ensemble within the boundaries of the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District. With 2,020 buildings, this area constitutes one of the two largest historic districts in New York City. It includes the following three residential towers that, like the Empire State Building, celebrated their eighty-fifth anniversary this year.
Eldorado Apartments, 200 Central Park West between 90th & 91st Streets
The Eldorado, the northernmost of the twin-towered Central Park West apartment houses, broke rank with the traditional style of other residential development in the area. Consulting architect Emery Roth, whose experience designing large-scale apartment buildings such as the San Remo and the Beresford made him a natural asset to the Eldorado project, envisioned a Neo-Renaissance building. However, architects Margon & Holder chose Art Deco for the façade and lobby.
Roth’s dramatic massing and Margon & Holder’s fine detailing—including the wonderful Central Park West entrance and “rocket-like pinnacles” atop each tower—combine to create what architectural historian Andrew Dolkart, a member of the LPC staff at the time of the Eldorado’s designation, described in the Landmark Designation Report as “one of the most distinguished buildings erected as part of the early 20th-century redevelopment of Central Park West.”
Rocket-like pinnacles on the towers of the Eldorado Apartments.
Majestic Apartments, 115 Central Park West Between 71st & 72nd Streets
While the Eldorado was under construction, architect and builder Irwin S. Chanin was conducting his own “experiment” eighteen blocks to the south. Chanin, a pioneer designer and developer of commercial buildings in the Art Deco style, had ambitious plans to construct a forty-five story apartment hotel in the same innovative vein on the southwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. The 1929 crash forced him to shift gears, but Chanin adhered to his vision for an Art Deco style residential building.
The minimalist ornamentation of the thirty-one story Majestic may reflect the austerity of the Depression, although it does so to great advantage. As stated in the Designation Report, “It was a sophisticated exercise in the later Art Deco style, relying almost exclusively for its dramatic impact on profile, tower terminations, and the interplay of soaring vertical and anchoring horizontal elements.” The towers are stars in the Central Park West skyline, as extraordinary and beautiful from the low-rise mid blocks as they are from the park.
Art Deco terminations on one of the two towers of the Majestic Apartments.
Century Apartments, 25 Central Park West Between 62nd & 63rd Streets
Chanin made one more contribution to Central Park West’s remarkable skyline before the interwar building boom halted for good. LPC called the Century “one of the major Art Deco apartment buildings in America,” and the architect himself considered it to be finer than the Majestic. He was especially proud of the Century’s “more complex” crown and the dynamic play between the horizontal elements, which include the long corner windows and cantilevered balconies, and the strong vertical window bays.
As with the Majestic, after the stock market crash, Chanin had to retool his “revolutionary” sixty-five story office and hotel scheme in “modern French [style]”—i.e., Art Deco—for the site. The thirty-story Century, with small two- to seven-room apartments more suited to the Depression market than the larger units of the Majestic, was Chanin’s serendipitous Plan B.
The future of these Art Deco landmarks has yet to be secured. Residential lobbies, no matter how sumptuous, are not eligible for Interior Landmark designation and rely solely on the good stewardship of their owners. In 2007, LANDMARK WEST! commissioned a study of Central Park West and discovered the existence of at least ten potential development sites where new towers—possibly even on the scale of Midtown’s “supertalls”—could compromise the integrity of the existing skyline. As the Upper West Side preservation movement reaches towards its forty-year mark, let us be mindful of the perils of taking good things for granted.
Art Deco detailing on the towers of the Century Apartments.
About the Author:
Kate Wood is President of LANDMARK WEST! and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
All Photos: Richard Berenholtz
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.