Manhattan’s most ornate early apartment house comes back into view

In 1907, the developers behind Alwyn Court announced their plans to build this 12-story luxury apartment house on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 58th Street. “It will have ornamental facades of limestone, with terra cotta trimmings,” the New-York Tribune dutifully reported.

That ho-hum description of the facade hardly did the Alwyn justice. When the aristocratic edifice opened to well-to-do tenants two years later—advertising itself as a place of “city homes for people with country houses”—the limestone and terra cotta facade proved to be one of the most ornate ever unveiled.

Alwyn Court’s exterior is an “intricate stone tapestry” of baroque scrolls, floral motifs, grotesques, angels, and crowned salamanders. The salamanders represent Francois I, the French king during the Renaissance whose style the building emulates. (The Alwyn is one of two New York buildings that feature salamanders on the facade, both by the same architects, Harde & Short.)

“This is the finest building of its type in New York City,” states the 1966 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, which designates Alwyn Court a city landmark.

Most luxury apartment buildings of the era only used terra cotta on the base of the facade and thus didn’t have excessive room or ornamentation, the LPC report explains. “Here at Alwyn Court, instead of limiting the decoration, the architects went to the other extreme, leaving hardly any surface undecorated,” states the report.

A lot has changed at the Alwyn since 1909. Originally the building had two apartments per floor with at least 14 rooms and five baths each, along with personal wine cellars for tenants and other exclusive amenities. (Remember, apartment living for the rich was still a new concept, so they tried everything to lure in residents.)

But that layout was eventually altered in favor of more apartments per floor that had fewer rooms. In the 1930s, the lobby was redone, then remade again in 1982 when an air shaft was turned into a central atrium. After a protracted battle with longtime tenants (including many senior citizens living in rent controlled units), Alwyn Court went co-op in the early 1980s.

By Berenice Abbott in 1936

Now, following a long stint behind construction scaffolding, Alwyn Court’s filigreed facade is fully on view. It looks as beautiful as it did in 1936, when Berenice Abbott photographed a portion of the building for her book, Changing New York.

[Last photo: Sotheby’s]

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12 Responses to “Manhattan’s most ornate early apartment house comes back into view”

  1. Jo Says:

    You might say what happened to the seniors who resisted the bldg.going coop. Were they displaced?? It matters as much or more than filigree architecture.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I wish I had a clear answer for you about the co-op conversion battle, but based on the reporting I’ve come across, it’s really hard to say what happened to tenants who didn’t want to purchase their apartments. Apparently many of the longtime senior tenants were protected under rent control—they would not lose their apartments if they chose not to buy. And many chose not to buy because financially it didn’t make sense to commit to that kind of investment. I welcome any additional info about this from readers. My focus in this post was simply the facade of the building.

      • jtsteckle Says:

        Cooperative apartments begin in the early 1920’s. In 1929 when the market
        crashed, most coops reverted to banks.
        Then the banks sold to buildings to rental companies. My building was
        built in 1908. After the crash it became a rental and in 1961 tenants got together to form a cooperative.

  2. bridgetmansfield Says:

    Nice article, but the photographer’s name was Berenice Abbott, not Beatrice. Her first name is shown correctly in the caption to the photo, but not in the text.

  3. jtsteckle Says:

    The architects, builders and laborers of the early 20th Century apartment buildings were
    unbelievable masters. The unknown workers who sculpted extraordinary gargoyles, carefully chiseled faces, animals and other decorative adornments will probably be forever unknown,
    but if a person looks up at these buildings,
    they will see humorous, frightening and beautiful faces and objects.

  4. Greg Says:

    One of the finest buildings in a city with thousands of remarkable buildings.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Nice to see the scaffolding come off something in Manhattan; once that stuff goes up, it seems to be (semi-)permanent! And yes, what a beautiful facade. (By the way, according to Wikipedia, there are now 75 co-op apartments in the building.)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The residents of those 75 apartments have a stealth doorman. I convinced him to let me take a very quick look at the building’s atrium but I had to agree not to take any photos.

  6. Beth Says:

    The Alwyn was Ira Levin’s inspiration for the Bramford in Rosemary’s Baby. Of course the Dakota was used in Roman Polanski’s film.

  7. Alexei Says:

    Whenever I pass by this building I always take an extra minute or two to appreciate the craftsmanship that went it all the details of the beautiful facade.

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