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It’s So New York! Singers, Mafiosi, and Swingers: the Many Lives of the Ansonia

Born as a hotel at the end of the 19th century, its life has seen so many transformations, including being an animal farm

Ansonia Hotel in the early 1900's.

She was born in 1897 at 73rd and Broadway in what was then still the outskirts of New York. Her father was the rich multimillionaire and property developer William Earle Dodge Stokes.

Stokes named his most beloved daughter after his grandfather Anson Green Phelps, and from the very beginning you knew that she was destined for something extraordinarily grand, something that New York City had rarely seen. With her stunning beauty, combined with her grace and charm, she had no rivals. She was elegant, sophisticated, maybe a bit unorthodox but with the enticing innocence of a country girl.

Ansonia 1905, courtesy Museum of the city of New York

At first glance you would think she was educated abroad, and by the way she was dressed and by her manners and sophistication, most likely France; however, she was a true New Yorker.

Her name is Ansonia!  The lost Grand Dame of New York.

Stokes went on to develop much of the Upper West Side which, at that time, was just a semi-deserted area of rocks and shacks. His vision was to transform Broadway into the Champs Elysees of Manhattan.

The Ansonia Hotel was built on a scale of grandeur and magnificence seen only in very few hotels of those days, such as the Plaza, the Astor and the Waldorf Astoria.  The 18-story edifice was built in the fashionable Beaux Arts style with oversized mansards clearly inspired by French architecture.

The Ansonia had 1,400 rooms and 340 suites, its façade had an overly ornate and intricate design, with balconies made of lacy wrought iron, a fancy grand ballroom, a palm court, an elegant lobby featuring a center fountain with live seals splashing in it, and in the basement, sumptuous Turkish baths and the world’s largest indoor swimming pool.

Despite all this dramatic ornamentation, the Ansonia Hotel managed to stay light and elegant and in harmony with the surroundings and the nearby Central Park. It opened as a lavish residential apartment hotel, looking to lure rich tenants from midtown Manhattan.

Taking inspiration from nature, Mr. Stokes opened a real farm on the rooftop of the Ansonia Hotel. Well ahead of its time and ahead of our health-conscious hipster’s brunches, the Ansonia was in fact serving in its restaurants fresh eggs produced in a chicken coop by 500 hens.

Fresh milk was produced by some goats and the three cows happily roaming on the roof in the company of pigs and geese. And to complete the bucolic environment, a little bear was also added to the farm.

A change of environment must have inspired military officer Victorian Huerta who let power go to his head and staged a short-lived coup in Mexico. He was swiftly kicked out of the country and moved to New York into the Ansonia where he found himself now, with a coop over his head.

The Ansonia sustainability was however unsustainable for the Department of Health however, which raided the rooftop of the hotel, closed the farm down and removed all the animals, including the seals that were joyfully splashing in the fountain.

While little is known about the bear, Mr. Stokes went on to save his son’s pig Nanki-Poo and he also successfully saved 47 chickens by hiding them in his apartment. He was not so successful in saving his marriage. While his wife might have been fine to share him with some occasional “chick” she was not fine to share him with those chickens.

The Ansonia faced a constant New York real estate problem; location!  While the construction of the Dakota improved the area, Broadway was never considered as chic as Fifth Avenue and certainly not the right location for a luxury hotel.

Nevertheless, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld moved into a 13-room apartment at the Ansonia with his wife and Follies star Anna Held. He loved her so much that he kept a gold life-size statue of her in their apartment–and noblesse oblige–he also kept a life-size statue of his mistress Lillian Lorraine in another apartment, also at the Ansonia.

 If its walls could talk…

They would tell you that trouble started very early on, as soon as racketeer Albert Adams checked into the luxurious Ansonia Hotel after having spent a year in a more spartan accommodation at Sing-Sing.

It was from the Ansonia that he directed his racketeering business and where he later committed suicide, staining the hotel’s reputation.  The hotel tried to move on until Arnold Rothstein showed up. He was Kingpin of the Jewish mob of New York and the mentor of Italian mobsters Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. In the rooms of the Ansonia Hotel, he met with a group of players of the Chicago White Sox team and conspired to throw the World Series of 1919. However, the loss was so suspicious that the guilty players were found and later banned for life.

The Ansonia was back in the game, however, when shortly thereafter it became the home of baseball legend Babe Ruth, who was so comfortable in the hotel that he famously wandered around it in his robe.

Arturo Toscanini, frequent guest at the Ansonia

And if the walls could sing…

The Ansonia would be its own symphony. As a matter of fact, the hotel was the perfect dwelling for musicians. It was built several blocks north of the Metropolitan Opera and the doors of the apartments were apparently built to ensure that grand pianos could be easily moved in and out.

The hotel, with its many scandals, had already gained a reputation for drama and melodrama, so it was only logical for the elite of the opera to feel at home there.  When La Scala manager Giulio Gatti Casazza became the general manager of the Met, he moved into the Ansonia and pretty soon the entire Met followed him. The greatest tenor Enrico Caruso moved in followed by legendary orchestra director Arturo Toscanini and a string of composers; namely, Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff plus an entire stage of opera stars.

After the death of Stokes in 1926 the Ansonia slowly started to fall into disrepair, a great deal of damage to its structure was done in a patriotic gesture during War World II.  The wonderful copper sheathing of the domes of the Ansonia was swiftly removed, together with the copper pipes that had created the most advanced cooling system of the 20’s by pumping air through ice in order to keep the hotel at a steady 70 degrees. Also, the futuristic pneumatic tubes that delivered the mail between  rooms and to lobby were stripped off the walls.

The Ansonia was later sold to a greedy landlord who let the building rot over several decades, and almost managed to have it demolished in the 1960s.

In 1968 former opera singer Steve Ostrow brought the Ansonia back into the limelight when he took over the swimming pool and the Turkish bath of the hotel and, reminiscent of Caligula’s Rome, he filled them with roman columns, waterfalls, half naked gays and palm trees, and named them the “Continental Baths.”

With 400 private rooms the baths lured 10,000 gay male patrons a week. Among its clients were Alfred Hitchcock, Mick Jagger, Rudolf Nureyev, Valentino and Andy Warhol.

This mafia-protected illegal gay club was a bizarre marriage between the not-yet-born Studio 54 and La Cage aux Folles and attracted star singers and DJ’s like Patti LaBelle, Sarah Vaughn, Frankie Knuckles and the Pointer Sisters, as well as young gay icon Bette Midler accompanied by Barry Manilow.

With its princesses, paupers, disco- pop and poppers it represented the very best of New York’s 70s.

With that swagger it took no time for the swingers to swing into action…

In 1976 the Continental Baths closed, and it soon reopened as a straight sex club for swingers from the suburbs called “Plato’s Retreat.”  Since no single men were allowed, a creative employee made a hole in the wall of the basement and as a precursor of in-room pay-per-view, started charging single men two dollars for a sneak-preview.

Bette Midler

Fortune tellers and mediums had meanwhile moved into the now bohemian Ansonia Hotel, without foreseeing that they would soon be evicted. In 1980 the hotel was designated as a landmark and in 1992 anyone willing to pay bought a piece of the Ansonia, now transformed into a condo-apartment.

Ansonia in her long life went through the most bizarre changes and transformations ever seen, something that even her better-known sisters in the city have never experienced. She had affairs with famous musicians and opera singers, but never married. Following the pattern of Gotham itself, she went through scandals, robberies and even some mafia connections. She even flirted with homosexuality, a scandal in those days. In short, she did what she had to do to survive. As old age progressed Ansonia managed to come out of it all like a diva, with noble composure and dignity.

In the end everyone got a piece of her but her beauty still shines. Ansonia survives and lives her life like a true New Yorker.


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