For a Good Cause

by johntauranac

The Ansonia Hotel, The West Side of Broadway between 73rd and 74th Streets

I have always wondered what happened to the roofline on the Ansonia Hotel. As Andrew Alpern wrote in Luxury Apartment Houses in Manhattan (Dover, 1992), one of his many wonderful books on the design of apartment houses, when the Ansonia opened in 1904, its façade, was “aggressively French…. Especially French-looking were the three-story crested mansard roof and the rounded towers framing the Broadway façade. These corner sentinels were topped with high domes, capped by corbelled circular platforms and surmounted with turreted openwork-iron pavilions,” as you see from this Wurts Brothers photograph.

However, as you see from this photograph, which Christopher Little shot for our book, Elegant New York, by 1985 much of the elaborate detailing from the 73rd Street roofline was gone, as were the pavilions. I knew that much of the trim had been gone a long time, and I had always assumed that the cause had been structural flaws. Far more sensible to remove an “appurtenance,” as the Buildings Department would describe it, than have it fall and injure someone.

Just think of Local Law 10, which was passed in 1980 after a Barnard student had been killed by a piece of falling masonry on Broadway and 115th Street. The law said that an architect or engineer had to inspect buildings taller than six stories every five years to ensure that “a building’s exterior walls and appurtenances thereof (were maintained) in a safe condition.” A report was to be written, and if there were dangerous conditions, they had to be repaired. It’s a perfectly reasonable law, but there was an unanticipated downside. The landlords were obliged to pay for the inspections and the reports, and, of course, for any repairs. The result was that many landlords figured it would be cheaper in the short run to strip off any potentially hazardous ornamentation, so they had the “appurtenances” ripped untimely from their mothers’ breasts. It explains why so many cornices landed in the junk heap, and why we have been left with so many mutilated buildings.

But that wasn’t the case with the Ansonia, and I have just now discovered why. Lorraine B. Diehl explains in her marvelous book, Over Here! New York City During World War II (Smithsonian Press, 2010), that “nothing was overlooked during the city’s scrap metal drive.” She goes on to say in her caption to the photograph below that “here, workers remove one of four 100-pound cornices on the roof of the Ansonia Hotel at Broadway and 73rd Street. Thousands of pounds of metal would be gathered from the hotel roof’s ornamentation.”