By Megan Bungeroth
Additional reporting by John Friia
Perhaps it’s a sign of relative austerity that New York City’s current most expensive rental listing, a title newly bestowed on an Upper East Side mansion, is actually being offered at a substantial discount—though it’s not exactly a steal at $150,000 per month.
Only a handful of rental listings at any given time rise past the $100,000 mark in the city, and several of them can be found on the Upper East Side, where townhouses and penthouses regularly sell for tens of millions. The Woolworth Mansion, at 4 East 80th Street, made real-estate and price-shocker headlines last week when it was yanked from the sale market and made available for rent. It had originally been listed for sale at $90 million, a record itself, and is now available for a two-year lease term (that’s $3.6 million for those two years, in case you’re counting).
Potential renters would certainly get a lot for their money. The mansion boasts an impressive array of features and has been meticulously restored and decorated in opulent prewar style (it comes furnished or unfurnished). Designed by famed Beaux Arts architect Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert, who is known for his townhouses and mansions throughout the city, it was commissioned by Frank Woolworth and is actually the middle one of three adjacent homes that he had built for his three beloved daughters in 1915.
The mansion is 35 feet wide, which is unusual even by luxe Upper East Side townhouse standards. There is a roof garden, a dining room that seats 50, staff quarters, office space, a gym, and 20 rooms on seven floors, covering over 18,000 square feet.
The current owners inherited the massive home from ladies’ fitness mogul Lucille Roberts, who purchased it for $6 million in 1996, and it’s been listed for sale and for rent (previously at a shockingly high $210,000 and then at $165,000 before being placed back on the sale market) several times over the years.
Brown Harris Stevens broker Paula Del Nunzio declined to comment for this story, but hinted at the reason for the extraordinary price in the company’s promotional material for the property.
“While the other great mansions that have come on the market in New York have been shells requiring total renovation, this is the only mansion to be formally available for rent that has been fully renovated in a traditional prewar style,” Del Nunzio said.
But beyond the live-in art museum feel with the hefty rent statement, practical and financial concerns are usually what motivates high-end renters, according to Gary Malin, the president of Citi Habitats.
“There’s always been high-end rental properties; the prices have escalated over the years as the world has escalated over the years. There’s always a market for those properties, although they may take some time to rent,” Malin said. “You don’t have all the headache of the maintenance of it and all that comes with buying; you want to deploy your capital elsewhere.”
Malin said that as unfathomable as it may be for the average citizen, these super-expensive rentals make sense for people with high net worth. Someone in that market will often own several homes around the world, he said, so the prospect of purchasing another—with the requisite taxes, large mortgage, legal fees, upkeep, renovation costs, staffing, insurance and responsibility for yet another property—isn’t as appealing as signing a lease and moving right in. He also pointed out that people who are able to write a check for over $100,000 every month usually spend much more than that on other things, like summer homes and vacations, every year.
“In a city like Manhattan, this is the type of clientele that gets attracted to property like this,” Malin said. “If you’re willing to spend $200,000 a month to live in the Hamptons for three months, $100,000 for 12 months in Manhattan doesn’t sound so bad. It’s very stress-free, comparatively speaking.”
Those shopping in the $100K-plus range have options if they’re not inclined to inhabit a gigantic mansion. The property that previously held the highest monthly rate title is quite different in obvious ways—square footage, type of residence, location, architectural style—from the Woolworth Mansion, though the spare-no-expense restoration and design is the same.
The Astor Suite at the Plaza is now listed for $125,000 with a minimum term of one year, and a few months ago held the high-price crown at $165,000. Dina Lewis, one of the listing agents of the property for Prudential Douglas Elliman, said that the nearly 25 percent price drop was just a reflection of the market.
“We want to find the right person for this, so dropping the price is fine,” Lewis said. “So many people want to rent it for a week here, a month there. At a property at this level of furnish and finish, we wouldn’t want to anyway.”
The suite at the coveted 768 Fifth Avenue address is considerably smaller than the Woolworth Mansion—5,087 square feet, making it 72 percent smaller—but it has some unique features of its own, starting with past inhabitants. It’s named for onetime resident John Jacob Astor and was later occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the recent redesign was deployed by the artisan who rebuilt parts of Windsor Castle after a fire in 1992) and John F. Kennedy.
“It’s pretty spectacular,” said Lewis. “They went around the world literally searching for pieces to bring back to this space. Every single detail, every inch of it, has been thought out and beautifully redone.” The old-world touches—like hand-hammered leather walls from France—combined with the technology-enabled HVAC system, controllable with an iPad, and the location right across from Central Park in the historic hotel all account for the price, she said.
Brokers accustomed to listings in this stratosphere say that price is rarely a factor, however, for renters and for owners, which is why these kinds of properties sometimes go back and forth on the sales and rental markets.
“Owners of high-end properties are not cash strapped, so if they do not get their sale price, they try to rent it, since renting has a number of tax advantages,” said Astrid Pillay, a broker with Halstead Property who has several Upper East Side townhouses listed at over $60,000 a month. “Short-term high-end is also extremely rare and price is not an issue here, since most buildings do not allow short-term rentals.”
Even with price not an issue, who’s renting these types of places? Brokers say that high-end renters are usually either testing the waters of New York or waiting out a renovation on another pricey property.
“The renters of high-end properties are either executives relocating to New York who are not yet ready to jump into the market with such astronomical price tags or they have already bought high-end properties and need the space while renovating,” Pillay said.
Lewis said the same thing of people who have considered the Astor Suite; even the uber-rich are cautious in this market.
“We also have people who are not interested in buying in this market but want to have a place to stay here,” she said. “Not everybody’s looking to commit to a purchase right now.”
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