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Refuge from Reality on the East Side

Gated Entrance to River House

Gated Entrance to River House

When I was the Associate Editor of Quest in the late ‘90s, I wrote a story about River House for my “Open House” column. The building, at 435 East 52nd Street, had long piqued my curiosity. I was aware that it was home to some of the city’s most powerful players and that it was extremely difficult to crack the River House board. I also knew that it contained enormous layouts with spectacular East River views. But mostly, I was attracted to the location. Situated at the end of a cul de sac overlooking the river, it is a vast, handsomely proportioned property with a gated cobblestone courtyard, two 14-story wings, and a graceful 26-story tower with setbacks. River House advantages also include full-time drivers for hire. Scores of maid’s rooms (many with 14-foot ceilings and courtyard views) are spread throughout the building and available for shareholder rental.

Scene from Dead End

Queensborough Bridge in Dead End

Adding to my fascination was the rumor that the co-op had been the inspiration for the luxury apartment building in Dead End. The dilapidated area off 53rd Street is believed to be the cul-de-sac that inspired Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 play, which hinged on the contrast of rich and poor. In the drama, as in reality, the well-heeled residents of a River House-style apartment building called “River Terrace” live side-by-side with impoverished, tenement dwellers. The Broadway hit was adapted for the screen in 1937 by Lillian Hellman, starring Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sydney and, of course, the Dead End Kids. The set for the film cost $90,000 and was built inside a Goldwyn Studios soundstage in California, complete with an immense tank to reproduce part of the East River. Dead End received 1937 Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography and Supporting Actress— Claire Trevor as Bogart’s prostitute girlfriend, Francey.

Poster Art for Dead End

Poster Art for the 1937 Film

Bogart and Claire Trevor in Dead End

Bogart and Claire Trevor

Just two years after writing about River House, I moved to an apartment in a neighboring building that was constructed in 1931, the same year that River House was erected on the sites of the Cremo Cigar plant and the Nahon & Gianini Furniture factory. Fifty-third Street included the back of River House, shabby tenements, a gravel plant and a loading pier that children used for diving into the East River on hot summer days. The neighborhood was home to primarily Irish immigrants long before the area became fashionable. The riverfront was lined with coal yards, breweries, wharves and slaughterhouses. The slums were removed and the piers were replaced with picturesque parks when the FDR Drive was constructed between 1938 and 1940.

Kids Swimming on East 48th Street Pier

East 48th Street Pier in 1938

The William L. Bottomley design, neo-Georgian with a courtyard base of River House, is regarded as a milestone in the evolution of the New York skyscraper apartment house. The 40,000-square-foot River House contained only 64 apartments. Those in the two main wings were eight to 13 rooms, many adorned with loggias and balconies. The tower, from the 16th to the 26th floors, consisted almost entirely of 17-room, seven-bath duplex apartments.

On the top three floors, Bottomley created a triplex with 17 rooms, nine baths, multiple terraces and a private elevator. The palatial drawing room was 46 feet long and 22 feet in height. The asking price: $275,000. When 19-room apartments on Park Avenue were being sold for $20,000, River House’s least expensive unit was offered at $37,000.

Of special distinction, however, was the private marina and yacht landing—a frequent mooring for Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal. Several resident tycoons commuted to their Wall Street offices by motorboat until 1938, when the landing, along with the remaining tenements and wharves, gave way to the FDR Drive.

Dock at River House

Floating Motor Boat Dock in the 1930's

On the East River side, the building drops three stories below courtyard level. When Bottomley deemed the space unsuitable for apartments, society decorator Dorothy Draper came up with the idea of creating The River Club, which she likened to a “country club in the city.” She decorated the comfortable facilities and expanded them to five floors. The River Club still contains a drawing room, dining room, ballroom, bar and bedrooms, plus a gymnasium, swimming pool and two tennis courts that are beautifully maintained.

Entrance to the River Club

The Five-Floor River Club

The “100% co-operative” was dubbed “the latest addition to the increasingly popular riverfront residential district.” Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney, Marshall Field III, William Rhinelander Stewart, Jr., Huntington Hartford, Harry Cushing, James A. Burden, Jr., and yachtsman Harold S. Vanderbilt, the inventor of contract bridge, were early residents. In 1937, Henry and Clare Boothe Luce leased a 15-room duplex with five bathrooms. Before she married the founder of Time, Inc. and after her divorce from millionaire George Brokaw, Clare had lived in high style at River House, gathering inspiration for her 1936 play, The Women, while in residence.

Recent former dwellers have included Dina Merrill; Blackstone Group’s Pete Peterson and his wife Joan Ganz Cooney (Sesame Street); Robin Chandler Duke; former head of Tiffany & Co. Walter Hoving; Susan and John Gutfruend ; and Barbara and Gerald Levin, the former Time Warner CEO. As of last December, the 14-room duplex maisonette of Broadway producer Marty Richards (Chicago, Sweeney Todd) was in contract after being on and off the market for a decade.

During election years or when the UN is in session, town cars fill the courtyard and the line-up outside Le Perigord, the old-guard French restaurant up the block. The inhabitants of River House continue to be a mix of finance, politics and society. They include longtime residents, Henry and Nancy Kissinger; and William McCormack Blair, Jr, former ambassador to Denmark and the Phillipines, and his socially prominent wife, Deeda. Muriel Siebert, the first woman to buy a seat on the NYSE, was also a groundbreaker at The River Club. One of the most impressive apartments at River House is the duplex tower home of former WorldCom CEO Francesco Galesi. The eight-bedroom apartment has 66-feet of river frontage, 11-foot ceilings and 360-degree views.

Tower of River House

The 26-Story Tower

You will rarely see an apartment in River House advertised for sale; many residences change hands privately. The board is so publicity shy that their by-laws disallow listing brokers from mentioning the name of the building or street address. Among current offerings is the 15-room apartment of romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford is now offered at $15.9 million. It has four bedrooms, each with a dressing room and bath.

It takes more than a great deal of money—the cash requirement is 50 percent—to be accepted by the board. River House was thrust into the spotlight in 1980 when Gloria Vanderbilt was not even granted her board interview and sued the board, lodging a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights, claiming that her friendship with the entertainer Bobby Short had exposed her to discrimination. In the 1970’s, Diane Keaton, who had been dating Woody Allen at the time, was turned down at River House. It is rumored that Richard Nixon was also refused.

New Dead End Sign

Fair Warning on East 52nd Street

I was fortunate to gain access to River House from Alexandra Penney, who was then riding high as a best-selling author. The former editor of Self magazine had agreed to chat with me in her riverfront apartment. I remember walking through an elegant lobby with glossy black floors and being shown to a bank of private elevators. The doors opened directly into Penney entrance hall, paneled in gleaming pearwood.

Penney sold her apartment in River House long before losing all her savings to Bernie Madoff. She has written about this in The Daily Beast, describing herself as a “bag lady”. Other River House denizens may have met a similar fate, but somehow I doubt it. As one resident said, dismissing the Vanderbilt contretemps, “we’re not one of your chichi buildings; we don’t like the limelight”.

8 Comments

  1. barryblogs wrote:

    Wow–another great inside story! I’ve always wondered about the history of River House, and you’ve really brought it to life, right along with the great classic ’37 film. This piece is dead-on!

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Chris Stromee wrote:

    River House is about as elite as you can get. What fun to think that the characters in The Women might have been inspired by its female residents!

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  3. DLM & GAS wrote:

    Another wonderful story…a peek into the lifestyles of the exclusive few. Our favorite neighborhood in Manhattan comes to life in your story. We remember seeing Henry Kissinger arriving at River House in his limo when we discovered this hidden gem, driving home one night to 61st Street.

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Sandi Flocken Ashton wrote:

    Great article. My father worked at The River Club, early 1930′s. Both parents spoke of this club often as I was growing up. Wish I had even more information about it.

    Saturday, December 7, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  5. Mark wrote:

    River House is definetely underrated at the moment.If one factors in architecture and amenities, it might just be the finest prewar apartment house in the City…
    I do have to tell you though, there were no 19 room apartments on Park Ave selling for 20,000$ in the 1930s…
    The top prices back then were in the 200-300,000% range (in premier buildings on Fifth and Park Ave’s).

    Wednesday, December 31, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  6. Andrew Kay wrote:

    Thank you for contributing this valuable information. Please forgive the belated reply, as a I am returning to this blog after a long absence. Using 1020 Park Avenue as an example, the duplex penthouse was purchased by Samuel Kress, of the five-and-ten-cent chain, for $150,000 in 1925. However, other apartments in the building ranged from $40,000 to $120,000. At the depths of the Depression in the Thirties, some of those $40,000 apartments could possible have been purchased for half that amount. However, these were most certainly not the 19 room ones!

    Wednesday, June 24, 2015 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Mark wrote:

    I have the original selling brochures of prime Park & Fifth Ave co-ops from the late 1920s.It is true that there were relatively few apartments priced at more than 100,000$
    back then.The top price at 740 Park was 250,000.At 834 Fifth Ave it was 270,000.At 960 Fifth the highest priced was a staggering 450,000$.At 2East 67th street the PH cost 310,000 $. Obviously these are 15+ room units on high floors , not all the units in these structures cost that much, but most were definetely above 70,000$.
    But you are right in the Depression many of these could be rented at quite low rates.As a rule of thumb however , the rent was about 10% of the selling price.So a 200,000 duplex at 834 Fifth was generally leased for about 20,000$/year.
    Thank you for replying.

    Thursday, June 25, 2015 at 3:26 am | Permalink
  8. Andrew Kay wrote:

    Those brochures must be fascinating. I am aware of the 17-room apartment at 960 Fifth, which sold for $450,000 in 1929. Thanks for all the great information!

    Thursday, June 25, 2015 at 7:39 am | Permalink

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