February 4th 2013
The terrace of the River Club, a view of River House from the river, and the grand living room with East River views of the Liman apartment.
It’s everything that’s right with luxury co-operative apartments in New York. But to some, it’s everything that’s wrong with them, too. Its name is River House and it sits on the East River between the cul-de-sacs of East 52nd and East 53rd Streets. Greta Garbo used to live across the way. But nowadays, it’s River House that’s been left alone. Clearly, it’s a great place for the rich and powerful to hide. Henry Kissinger has bunked there for decades now, despite international demands for his extradition. Oddly enough, when Kissinger tried to buy, his celebrity caused “a brouhaha” among some of the resident “stuffed shirts,” says a former neighbor. People still think it’s a stuffed-shirt building, but Kissinger is now Exhibit A.
There are currently a staggering ten listings at River House — and three (and maybe more) so-called pocket listings. The public ones range from a $3.5 million six-room apartment with river views, a cut-up that’s lingered on the market for about a year, to Bob and Barbara Taylor Bradford’s $12.5 million thirteen-room spread, unsold for seventy weeks, frustrating the broker who told CNBC that the apartment is worth three times that. Slightly less expensive, but more dramatic, is the $12.2 million triplex tower penthouse that’s a relative newcomer to the market, having been available about half a year. Once owned by arts patroness Rebekah Harkness, it belongs to lawyer Arthur Liman’s widow, Ellen. The oldest listing, on and off the market since 2003, belongs to Arlene Farkas, whose long slow breakup with her husband Bruce began when she accused him of bigamy some years earlier. The apartment, designed by Valerian Rybar, who installed stainless steel living room floors, has slowly dropped in price from $15 million to $8.5 million.
Which all begs the question, What’s wrong at River House?
The last time River House got its propers was in the early eighties, when the owners of two-thirds of another penthouse triplex, then-Salomon Brothers CEO John Gutfreund and wife Susan, got sued when they put a rig on the roof to hoist a 22-foot-high Christmas tree into their apartment. The contretemps inspired a cover story in Manhattan, Inc. Writer David Michaelis portrayed the 79-apartment building as a “magisterial residence—a palace so exclusive, so magnificent and kingly… that it was truly a kingdom unto itself…secure as a fortress…shielded by mighty walls on all sides…twin plinths, surrounding a single, spectacular, soaring tower, 27 stories tall, topped by a rounded crown.” In contrast, these days, the press has turned its back, razzing the place as an obnoxious has-been, calling its apartments albatrosses, and describing the prices achieved in the rare instances when the impossibly snooty board allowed a sale as “kind of pathetic.”
That’s a hard fall for a building that, when new in 1931, boasted owner-occupants such as Marshall Field III of that triplex, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Ruth Baker Pratt, William Rhinelander Stewart Jr., Harry Cushing, James A. Burden Jr.; in later years, Dina Merrill, Walter Hoving, Josh Logan, John Hearst, Bo Polk, Rodman Rockefeller, Angier Biddle Duke, Pete Peterson, both Libet and Mary Lea Johnson, and Time Warner’s Gerald Levin; and today, Ambassador William McCormick Blair Jr. and his drop-dead-chic wife Deeda, art dealer Arne Glimcher, KKR partner Alexander Navab (who has accumulated three apartments) and Mimi Prentice, widow of a John D. Rockefeller Sr. grandchild. All were attracted by such touches as the private gated motor court and the ultra exclusive River Club, with its five stories of restaurant, bedrooms, swimming pool, and tennis and squash courts. Until the FDR Drive arrived in 1941, the club also boasted a private landing for yachts. Apartment owners have to win a second approval to join this enclave-within-an enclave.
Nowadays, the city feels closer, thanks to the FDR traffic, but River House is still off the beaten track, and suffers (at least in terms of resale values) due to its river view location. Potential buyers might be forgiven for thinking there’s no there there. But Kristi Witker Coons, the former WPIX-TV anchor and reporter, who lived a long time at River House with her late husband, a board vice president, begs to differ. “I loved the whole mood of it,” she says. “It had a wonderful ambience.” But wait. Isn’t it inaccessible? “I never had a problem with taxis. People were always coming and going. And I walked to work.” Inconvenient? “You can come down the Drive, turn on 53rd Street, and sneak right in the back door.” Child-unfriendly? Her son would often hitch a ride to school in an upstairs neighbor’s limousine. And now, says A. Laurence Kaiser of the Key Ventures brokerage, who has sold many apartments there, private schools pick up students nearby. But, then there’s reason number two for the building’s fall from grace, that co-op board, which, in tales improvable if not apocryphal spurned Richard Nixon, Diane Keaton and Joan Crawford. Then married to a Pepsi-Cola executive, Crawford allegedly caused the placement of the mammoth Pepsi-Cola sign across the river in retaliation against the then-board-president, a Coca-Cola executive. River House did reject Gloria Vanderbilt, who sued, claiming she was nixed for her relationships with cinematographer Gordon Parks and singer Bobby Short, but dropped the suit after the board insisted its reasons were financial, not racial; despite her genes (many Vanderbilts had lived there before her), they worried her jeans lacked staying power.
Now, though, the old board has been “refreshed and has been evolving over ten years,” says the new president, investor and asset manager John A. Allison; the public areas and façade are being restored in a multi-year program; a ban on open houses has been eased; and the River Club’s garden, restaurant and room service facilities have been opened to cooperative shareholders. The new board has even rescinded the house rule that caused owners to be “whacked,” as one puts it, if they mentioned their building’s name in the press or listings.
“When we are finished, River House will be up to date,” says board member Nancy Lieberman, a partner at Skadden Arps, “and will epitomize 21st Century graciousness.”
For now, though, its apartments epitomize regal bargains. “On Fifth Avenue you have to pay four times the price, but with very few exceptions, you don’t get the frontage or the views,” says broker Kaiser. “River House has always been one of the top ten buildings and it still is—but you get a lot more for your money there.”