Actor Richard Thomas Explains the Allure of “The City’s Most Ornate Building”
By Bart Boehlert
Like an elaborately decorated angel food cake with a hole at its center, the Alywn Court rises at Seventh Avenue and 58th Street, completely covered with a confection of French glazed terra cotta and features inside a dramatic central courtyard atrium that ascends to a skylight. Built in 1909 between Central Park and the Broadway theater district, the Alywn Court has been called “the city’s most ornate building” by architectural historian Carter Horsly, and is today home to a galaxy of performers, producers, and artists, including actor Richard Thomas and his wife Georgiana, who are currently selling their two-bedroom apartment.
The Alywn Court was built by Walter Russell, a painter who helped create artists’ studio buildings on West 67th Street, and developer Alywn Ball Jr. The team hired the architectural firm Harde & Short to design a “studio palace” meant to appeal to the wealthy who were moving out of private homes into apartments. Indeed, the architects created a castle-like effect, designing the building in the French Renaissance style and covering the facade with glazed terra cotta, which was provided by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company from Staten Island, and sculpted and shaped into flowers, vines, urns, cherubs, and mythical creatures. Inside, the splendor continued as the building’s twelve stories had only two apartments per floor, with fourteen rooms and five bathrooms each.
The residence suffered a terrible fire in 1910 but fully recovered. In the 1930s it was redeveloped and renovated into 75 apartments, and decorator Dorothy Draper was brought in to update the lobby and public corridors. Today it remains a highly desirable address and is home to theater professionals, given its close proximity to Broadway. “This building draws creative people; every sale I’ve done has been with a creative person,” observes Brown Harris Stevens agent Louise Phillips Forbes, who currently has two offerings in the building -- Apartment 4B and Apartment 4A, which has been home to the family of celebrated Broadway, movie and Emmy Award-winning actor Richard Thomas.
“The building is full of show folk,” says the affable Thomas as he and his wife Georgiana settle into comfortable seating in their living room to chat. The actor rose to fame as John Walton on The Waltons, and his golden Emmy glows on a table in the window. They note that Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards lives in the apartment directly below them, and that producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh and actress Jessica Hecht have been residents.
The couple moved to New York City in 2004 from a large Italianate villa in Los Angeles. Thomas wanted to return home; he was born and raised in Manhattan, and worked as a child actor. “We liked the high ceilings and bigger rooms here,” says Thomas. “It felt like a house.” Theater friends in the building provided a community. The couple found the edifice to be “inviting, warm and extremely well-made,” and savored “the sense of being in a place that’s substantial.” The location was a plus. When the actor was starring on Broadway, producers offered to send a car but he said he simply preferred to walk to work.
Artwork, books and photographs line the walls of the two-bedroom apartment. Thomas points out four of his seven large drawings of him by the great New York Times illustrator Al Hirshfeld, and a painting by his son Montana, who is an artist. Richard and Georgina have their sights set on living in Santa Fe, and he will star next as Atticus Finch in the national tour of To Kill a Mockingbird when theater life resumes. But for now they warmly reminisce about family life at the Alywn Court, which Thomas fondly calls “the wedding cake of New York apartment buildings.”