The Duplex


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I went to see a $4500-a-month apartment last week?a one-bedroom in The Century. There was a two-bedroom being shown that day as well, by a broker from Halstead. An open house. That one was going for $5950. I thought of sticking my head in, but I decided $4500 a month was my outside limit.


The Century, you may or may not know, is one of the truly great prewar apartment buildings on Central Park W. It's the southernmost one, the first you come to as you walk north along CPW from Columbus Circle. I grew up in one of the great Upper West Side prewars myself?The Ardsely, farther up on CPW?and just moved into a pretty nice one even farther uptown. But The Century (I hope it will offend neither my former nor my current neighbors for me to say) is in a whole other class.


Built in 1931, it's called The Century because it stands on the site where the Century Theater stood from 1909 until 1931. Known during its first instantiation as the New Theater, The Century had been the Brooklyn Academy of Music of its day, the city's first-ever nonprofit theater, conceived and built by the great arts patron and impresario Otto Kahn. It's where Caruso sang and Diaghilev and Isadora danced, where Duse blushed and where Stanislavsky brought the Moscow Art Theater when they first came to New York in 1923. The young Gershwin worked there as a rehearsal pianist and accompanist, and "God Bless America" would have debuted there if Irving Berlin had not cut the song from Yip, Yip, Yaphank! at the last minute. Texas Guinan ran a speakeasy in the basement of The Century during Prohibition, and at one point there was a nightclub?the Century Grove?in the rooftop garden.


The smart money is rarely ever on nonprofit theater, and the Century was never a great success. Both the theater's location and its fare, it seems, were too out-of-the-way?first in 1910, when Kahn gave up on the enterprise and sold the theater to the brothers Shubert, and again in the late 1920s, when they, too, decided that they had had it with trying to run an uptown opera house and traded the site to the real estate and theater developer Irwin S. Chanin in exchange for his interest in the Roxy, the Biltmore and the Majestic.


Chanin had envisioned (planned, had designed and laid the foundations for) a 65-story multi-use building, part office building, part luxury apartment house, part hotel, part embassy and part mall. Several floors had been allotted for retail space, another 30 to the French consulate. It was to have been called the Palais de France. Construction had already begun in 1929 when the stock market crashed and Chanin had to rethink things entirely, redesigning the building in such a way as to lure people who could no longer afford a kind of luxury to which they still longed to pretend.


The result was a garland of idiosyncratic dwellings designed for ordinary people with a view to making them feel as though elegance and gracious living had not entirely vanished from their lives. Particularly ingenious was a series of one-bedroom duplexes unconventionally laid out with upstairs bedrooms periscoping off to one side of the downstairs drawing-room space?for purposes of privacy and delicacy, no doubt, as much as to avoid the boxlike symmetry of the bilevel flat.


I've walked past The Century many times, bought the occasional hair comb at the Jaros pharmacy on the 63rd St. corner of the building's ground floor and the odd bottle of mineral water at the 62nd St. Gristedes. I went to a party at one of the penthouse apartments once, and even got thrown into the fountain in the rooftop garden. But I'd never seen one of the famous duplex one-bedrooms. Then, the Sunday before last, I saw an ad in the real estate section of the Times. "CPW, #25 at 62nd St." was the heading: "1 BR duplex, new kitchen, facing park, in PreWar Art Deco landmark condo. $4,500 per month."


Now that's interesting, I thought. Who in the world were they going to find to pay four and half grand a month for a one-bedroom apartment? Who could, in this economy? Who in the newly serious and anti-decadence social climate would countenance such a thing? Conspicuous consumption and hubris on that kind of scale disappeared with the World Trade Center. It struck me that the plight of these little apartments, orphaned by history and the Dow Jones index, echoed the circumstances that had brought them into existence in the first place. Still, there are always rich people in transition?movie stars just out of rehab, CEOs who have separated from a spouse and need a little place of their own to think things over. Looking at the ad in the Times, I conceived a burning desire to find out, if even for a moment, what it would be like to be someone who could afford that kind of luxury. I wanted to see that apartment.


Unfortunately, the management company that handles the apartments in The Century didn't feel any burning desire to show it to me?even when I explained that I wanted to write about it. On the contrary, they seemed a bit leery?not suspicious so much as ashamed of the apartment. Both women I spoke to kept saying that they couldn't see why anyone would want to write about this apartment, as though they didn't think it was anything special or didn't realize how special it was. Besides, they were busy showing apartments in one of the other two buildings they manage, and they kept insisting that they only worked 10 to 6.


People who work in real estate think very differently from other people. Anyway, their ideas about what's interesting or extraordinary differ from mine. It took me a day and a half to find a broker who found the plight of the luxury one-bedroom apartment intriguing, and who was willing to take time out from her busy day to show me an apartment I manifestly wasn't going to rent. Her name was Walanne Steele, and I found her finally at Insignia Douglas Elliman. Walanne tries to find what you are looking for. Many brokers only want to show you what they have. Once they've shown it to you, chances are you'll never hear from them again. Walanne calls you back?even if it's only to say that she hasn't yet found what you want but is still looking. You have to have looked for an apartment in Manhattan recently to appreciate how rare that is.


But not even Walanne seemed to see the extraordinary appeal of the one-bedroom duplex we finally saw at The Century. It was, I thought, the most beautiful apartment I had ever seen?small, yes; that was its charm?the extraordinary ingenuity and imagination that had made this relatively small space seem somehow opulent and luxurious. It had a walk-in closet with another, smaller closet inside (whoever heard of an inlaid closet?) and a little foyer, about eight feet square, that led to a galley kitchen where a single pantry cupboard created an illusion of bounteous hidden space.


I flew about the apartment oohing and ahing, opening doors and closets, peering into things, while Walanne stood quietly by, watching. I pointed out to her the building's signature deco pattern in the detailing of the wrought-iron staircase, which turned sharply to the left and led off to the side. Off to the left was a linen closet with a charming bathroom across from it, to the right. (The sink wasn't original, but that had been replaced with a fixture of the most gracious and tasteful kind.) The bedroom seemed spacious, even if it was only about 20-by-15 feet, and it had a dressing room off to the left, a long corridor-like area, paneled on two sides by built-in closets, that led to a second front door.


I loved the dressing room, but it was chiefly the view?you got it from both the bedroom and the sunken living room?that I thought made the apartment. Most sunken living rooms seem to me claustrophobic, but here it didn't matter because your eye was immediately drawn toward the window, where a high sill gave onto a view of Central Park unlike any I had ever seen. I know Central Park views, have lived with them all my life?panoramic ones, tree-level ones. They're nice, very nice. But I've never seen one that was like a movie set, where you could actually see into the park and see, through the trees, a quiet parade of quotidian life flowing past your window: bicyclists, bladers, the horse-drawn carriages, joggers, people walking home from midtown. From outside it was all ordinary. From in here it was the urban equivalent of the burbling brook or rushing stream.


It was a little jewel of an apartment, the perfect pied a terre, ideal for the tryst or the triste. Oh, the things you could write there, the affairs you could have, the problems you could solve. I thought of various celebrities I'd read about over the years whose widely publicized personal affairs had made me think unaccountably of real estate. Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Graydon Carter, Robert Downey Jr. But no, it wasn't a place for a heterosexual man?except, of course, a writer. It was a flat for a woman. Looking around I felt sure that if Princess Di had rented this apartment she'd be alive today.


I wanted to stay and look around some more, to furnish the place in my mind, but I knew that wasn't fair to Walanne. Better to do that on my own time and in the privacy of my own home. I thanked her profusely, but neglected to tell her I thought she was the best real estate broker in town.


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