BY RAANAN GEBERER
The once-elegant Windermere apartment house on West 57th Street and Ninth Avenue, for years an empty, deteriorating hulk, is coming back to life. Through construction netting, one can see a refurbished brick exterior, newly installed windows, and once-again prominent architectural details that had been obscured for decades.
In between its construction in 1880-81 and now, the building has had several incarnations, including as one of the city’s most upscale, elegant residences; housing for independent “bachelor girls”; and a down-and-dirty SRO.
The Windermere was probably named after Lake Windermere in the English Lake District. At eight stories, it was one of the first large apartment houses in the city. Not only did it have three elevators, rare enough in the early 1880s, but it had telephone service, which is extraordinary when you consider the fact that the city’s first telephone exchange was established just two years beforehand. Each apartment had five or six bedrooms, and the building boasted uniformed servants and marble fireplaces.
Still the building was soon overshadowed by larger, grander and more modern apartment buildings such as the Chelsea Hotel and the Dakota. In addition, a series of fires plagued the Windermere in its first decade.
Around 1890, the building’s policy changed, in part due to the hiring of superintendent Henry Stirling Goodale, described as “a man of artistic tastes,” and the father of two young women who wrote poetry. Goodale began to rent rooms within the suites to respectable young, single, employed women, as well as a smaller number of young single men. By 1900, the U.S. Census reported only four families in the building.
After Goodale’s departure, more men and families began to move in once again. Many families took in “roomers.” Census records of the building’s occupants in the first few decades of the 20th century, according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, reveal a somewhat mixed tenant body, including stenographers, clerks, a railroad conductor, a nurse, a detective, medical students, a plumber, a doctor, a dressmaker, actors, and several chauffeurs and waiters.
The Windermere, from its earliest days, also had a reputation for housing artists. During the 20th century, some of these included Quinto Manganini, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his opera “The Argonauts”; sculptor, painter and photographer May Mott-Smith; and photographer Alonzo Hanagan, known as “Lon of New York,” whose semi-erotic photos of male bodybuilders often got him in trouble with the law.
By the 1960s and early 70s, the Windermere was basically a rundown SRO. Among those who lived there when they were first starting out were actors Steve McQueen and Yaphet Kotto. In 1970, Kotto told The New York Times in 2002, he was filming “Across 110th Street” when he heard a knock on his trailer door. There stood his old landlord from the Windermere saying “McQueen owes me money.” Kotto paid the landlord several hundred dollars. He told the Times that one of the happiest days of his life was when he left the Windermere.
The Windermere’s worst days were still to come. In 1980, Alan B. Weissman took over. According to court papers and testimony, tenants’ rooms were ransacked, doors ripped out, and prostitutes deliberately moved into the building, presumably in an effort to empty the building. The Times wrote that several of Weissman’s building managers went to jail, and Weissman himself, earned a spot in the Village Voice’s “New York’s Worst Landlords” series in 1985.
By the early 2000s, only about half a dozen residents were left. I remember walking by the building and encountering one of these residents, who was having a sidewalk sale. Almost all the windows were covered with aluminum sheeting, and the former stores on the ground floor had been boarded up long before. By this time, the Windermere was owned by a Japanese company, Toa Construction.
In 2005, the city designated the building as a landmark, but that didn’t help conditions there. Two years later, the Fire Department evacuated remaining residents, saying the building was unsafe. Toa Construction had to pay nearly $4 million in penalties and lawsuits related to the building’s condition, The Times reported in 2007.
In 2009, Mark Tress bought the building for $13 million, announcing that he would convert it to an upscale hotel, with some affordable housing and stores on the ground floor also included.
Hell’s Kitchen has become fashionable again, and the Windermere is finally going along with it.