Updated: Mar 12, 2021
By Bart Boehlert
Apartment buildings star in the new book by Andrew Alpern.
Illustrations by Simon Fieldhouse; Photos by Kenneth G. Grant
Some New York City apartment houses really know “how to make an entrance.” Ever since these buildings replaced private homes in the city, architects and developers have used striking entryways to set a certain tone and create curb appeal. Now Posh Portals: Elegant Entrances and Ingratiating Ingresses to Apartments for the Affluent in New York City, written by architectural historian Andrew Alpern and published by Abbeville Press, highlights 140 of the most elegant entrances in luxury New York real estate.
With photographs by Kenneth G. Grant and watercolor illustrations by Simon Fieldhouse, this volume covers 130 years of apartment building architectural history, from the classical to the modern, including the West 67th Street Artists' Colony Historic District and Alywn Court, as well as the work of architects McKim, Mead & White; Rosario Candela; Emery Roth; and more.
The affable and articulate author Andrew Alpern worked as an architect for 30 years and then went to law school in his early 50s in order to practice law. Through it all, he wrote books about New York City apartment house architecture; this is his 11th. “What I’m really trying to do with this book and with all my books is get New Yorkers to look,” he says. “To use their eyes, look at the buildings, look at the details, look up at them, and go across the street and look at them from far away and see what the architect has done at the top of the building. Look at the whole thing and get an appreciation for the absolutely fantastically wonderful architecture that we have here in New York City.”
Here Alpern shares his favorite entrances from six different eras:
Built in 1884 by architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh for Singer Sewing Machine President Edward Clark, the Dakota was the city’s first luxury apartment building designed to attract wealthy residents out of their private homes. At the entrance, a monumental two-story arch contains a high archway that leads into an interior courtyard. On each side of the entrance, ornate gas lamps that still work illuminate the facade. “It’s very elegant,” says Alpern. “If you drove up to this building in 1884 in your carriage, you would be very impressed.”
Turn of the Century
This white limestone and pink brick Beaux-Arts colossus was built in 1902. Gates on either side of its entrance are now shut but originally were open so a carriage could drive into the courtyard. The gates are framed by limestone posts topped with giant balls while cherubs play in the center. “It’s grandiose in the extreme,” says Alpern. Farther up the facade, carved limestone sculptures of muscular men support ornate balconies and draped female figures stand guard.
Located across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this building designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1912 was the first luxury apartment house on Fifth Avenue. A unique 51-foot-long iron and glass marquee stretches over its entrance on East 81st Street. “It’s very grand. And it’s practical because you’re undercover the minute you get out of your car,” says Alpern. Behind the large cast-iron gates, which are closed at midnight, a smaller pair of bronze and glass doors leads into a refined marble lobby.
The 1920s, the Golden Age of New York Apartment Houses
Architects Lafayette Goldstone and Francis Burrall Hoffman, Jr. placed the entrance of this 1929 building on East 71st Street and designed a stylized facade based on an English Renaissance country house. The carved limestone entrance marches five stories up the building’s front. Flat vertical pilasters rise for three floors where they meet a horizontal entablature over the third floor windows. A broken Baroque impediment with scrolls on each side is capped off with carved animals and an obelisk. “The whole thing is totally over the top,” exclaims Alpern.
With the 1930s came the new style of Art Deco, which was sleeker and more modern. Completed in 1930 by George and Edward Blum, this building “is Art Deco with a vengeance,” says Alpern. “It brings a smile.” Terra cotta, which is baked clay that is less expensive than limestone, can be glazed in a wide range of colors. Bright blue and aqua terra cotta chevrons were mixed with rose-colored brick for a vibrant composition. In a whimsical note, Alpern speculates that the vertical shape rising over the awning is based on an architect’s T-square.
Designer William Sofield cleverly reinterpreted traditional apartment house elements for this sophisticated 2014 building. For example, here the typical canvas awning and drapery gathered around its poles are all completely rendered in metal. The standard potted trees on either side of the door have actually been carved in limestone; the two-story limestone pear tree vine that is populated with animals and birds was carved by the designer himself. Under the metal awning, the door is enclosed by a marble frame. Over the doorway ascends a graceful two-story, glazed marble arch, which is angled to show its handsome striations. “There is so much subtlety in the way Bill has handled the entire facade,” observes Alpern. “The old is made new again.”