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Central Park West

View of Central Park West from Nirvana Restaurant on Central Park West

View of Central Park West from about 62nd to 77th Streets from Nirvana Restaurant on Central Park South

By Carter B. Horsley

Central Park West is the city's most architecturally distinguished residential street.

Although Park and West End avenues are more homogeneous and consistent, they do not have the bravura of Central Park West's magnificent towers.

The twin-towered San Remo, Majestic, Century and El Dorado apartment buildings and the triple-towered Beresford apartment building created the city's most romantic residential skyline. The San Remo (see The City Review article) and the Beresford (see The City Review article) were designed by Emery Roth, whose architectural firm, Emery Roth & Sons, went on to design many of the city's major office buildings in the post-World War II era. The El Dorado (see The City Review article) was designed by Margon & Holder with Emery Roth as a consultant. The Century (see The City Review article) and the Majestic (see The City Review article) were designed by the Office of Irwin S. Chanin and Jacques Delamarre. The Majestic, San Remo and Beresford replaced hotels of the same names that were erected in the prior building generation around the turn of the century. The Majestic Hotel even had a roof garden. The Century replaced the splendid Century Theater, one of the city's finest.

The great towers, of course, are not the avenue's only glories and its most famous building is the Dakota at 1 West 72nd Street (see The City Review article). The Dakota was designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh who would later be the architect of the Plaza Hotel.

When the Dakota was built in 1884, it stood as a fairly isolated building in an area that was little developed although it was only a few blocks south of the sprawling American Museum of Natural History. It has withstood the test of time well and its very spacious apartments with high ceilings, entered through a two-story archway on 72nd Street leading to four lobbies at the corners of its large courtyard, are among the most desirable in the city and have attracted many celebrities, including the late John Lennon of the Beatles. Its fame was somewhat augmented by its use in the movie, "Rosemary's Baby." The fortress-like, yellow brick building, which was one of the city's first luxury apartment houses, is surrounded by a dry moat with a fabulous, low, cast-iron fence.

The same year as the Dakota was completed, the city changed the name of Eighth Avenue above 59th Street to Central Park West. Five years earlier, the Ninth Avenue "El" reached as far north on what is now Columbus Avenue as 81st Street.

What distinguishes Central Park West from Fifth Avenue, of course, is its flamboyance. Fifth Avenue had initially been developed north of 61st Street with mansions that resulted with it being known as "Millionaire's Row." Central Park West, on the other hand, had been developed more commercially, in part because many theaters were in its vicinity. The apartment buildings that replaced the Fifth Avenue mansions tended to be elegant, but quite conservative, and many were not developed until soon after World War II when standards, and ceiling heights, were lowered dramatically. In contrast, Central Park West was largely fully developed before the Depression set in fully and its architecture reflects an appropriately optimistic grandeur.

The "new" post-war economy can best be seen just to the west of the Dakota where a stark, white-brick, 36-story apartment building, known as the Mayfair Towers at 15 West 72nd Street, designed by Horace Ginsbern & Associates, replaced the tennis courts of the Dakota in 1964.

Fortunately, most of Central Park West has been spared the ignominy of post-war construction and its ambiance is almost Parisian especially in front of some of its more ornamented facades such as the Prásáda, designed by Charles W. Romeyn and Henry R. Wynne, (see The City Review article), the Langham, designed by Clinton & Russell (see The City Review article), and the St. Urban, designed by Robert S. Lyons (see The City Review article), or its Art Deco masterpieces such as the Ardsley, designed by Emery Roth & Sons, at 320 Central Park West (see The City Review article) and 55 Central Park West, designed by Schwartz & Gross (see The City Review article).

The avenue's two most important cultural institutions, the American Museum of Natural History, designed by Calvert Vaux and J. Wrey Mould originally and center Theodore Roosevelt Memorial entrance designed by John Russell Pope, and the New York Historical Society, which are adjacent, are very important because of their vast treasures although a bit ungainly in their designs. The natural history museum, which occupies a four-square-block site known as Manhattan Square, at one time had a master plan that called for a uniform Romanesque-style design that was very impressive, but economics led to its unfortunate abandonment. The south facade of the wonderful institution indicates the kind of architecture that the master plan contemplated. In 1942 Robert Moses and his design collaborator, Aymar Embury II proposed a radical remodeling of the museum's facades that was approved by the museum's adminstration but fortunately not undertaken and the fine 77th Street facade was designated a landmark in 1967. In 1997, the museum's famous Hayden Planetarium was demolished for rebuilding and was soon replaced by very striking, glass-enclosed facility donated by Frederick Rose, one of the city's leading residential developers.

View from Central Park reservoir

View of Central Park West from Central Park reservoir with El Dorado at 91st Street in center

One of the major design controversies on Central Park West involved the New York Historical Society, designed by York & Sawyer and Walker & Gillette, which has a very major collection of Hudson River School paintings and many other fine collections. The institution was hard-pressed economically and it commissioned Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer to design a mixed-use tower behind it for expanded museum space and condominium apartments. The design was fabulous because it was very compatible with the institution's own low-rise building, but it also carried on the great high-quality tradition of the San Remo and Beresford buildings and would have been a significant and fine addition to the Central Park West skyline.

The community, apparently led by a few building in an adjacent building who would have had some views obstructed, protested and, incredibly, blocked the project. The design was neither modern, nor garish and strongly reinforced the architectural distinction of both Central Park West and the Upper West Side and would have used private sector funds to greatly assist a noble and desperate local institution.

The Upper West Side has replaced Greenwich Village as the city's most vocal community politically, but sometimes, as in this case, the protesters were not only near-sighted, but blind, and the entire city has suffered as a result. Hopefully, the New York Historical Society will someday revive the plan and carry it though to completion.

All of Central Park West from 62nd to the south side of 96th Street is contained in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, a landmarks designation by the city that requires that all exterior alterations to buildings within the district be approved by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

(The district extends westward to Broadway at 69th Street and to the east side of Amsterdam Avenue from 71st Street to the south side of 77th Street and to the west side of Amsterdam Avenue from the north side of 79th Street to the south side of 84th Street.)

There are several notable religious structures on Central Park West including the First Church of Christ, Scientist at 1 West 96th Street, designed by Carrère & Hastings (see The City Review article), the Universalist Church of New York at 4 West 76th Street, designed by William A. Potter, Congregation Shearith Israel at 99 Central Park West, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, designed by Brunner & Tryon, the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, at 77 Central Park West, designed by Frederick R. Comstock (see The City Review article), and the New York Society for Ethical Culture at 64th Street, designed by Robert D. Kohn (see The City Review article).

Unlike Fifth Avenue, Central Park West retains two-way traffic above 62nd Street. The Eighth Avenue subway has several stops along Central Park West and cross-town buses run at 96th, 86th and 81st Streets and on 66th and 65th Streets.

Because of its stupendous Central Park vistas, fine architecture and good transportation, Central Park West is the best address on the Upper West Side.

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