Looking Back on 72nd Street

In the 1970s, the Chatsworth building at Riverside Drive and 72nd Street was a magnificent, romantic wreck. I lived on the 12th floor. There was little heat inside the apartment, the wind blew through the walls from across the Hudson and on a cold winter day, your teeth chattered.

The Chatsworth 1910

The Chatsworth, 1910. c/o NYPL

Still, the views were beyond belief. From three windows the view was straight up the Hudson to the GW Bridge; from the other three, it was west across the river to the Palisades ridge. This was years before the Trump building development blocked the west facing views.

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The 1904 floor plan for the Chatsworth found in the book, Apartments for the Affluent: A Historical Survey of Buildings in New York, showed that my apartment consisted of the original library, parlor, dining room and servant’s quarters. As I moved into the building, Walter Iooss, the iconic Sports Illustrated photographer and his wife Eva, a former model, were moving in, while my neighbor, Clive Barnes, the well known NY Times dance and drama critic, was just moving out of what was the larger part of the original apartment.

The ancient paneled elevator had been automated, but there was still an elevator-man who pushed buttons and a managed the opening and closing of an old-fashioned folding elevator gate.

The current prices of the gorgeously renovated Chatsworth apartments, described in a 2019 NY Post article, ranges from a one-bedroom for $1.94 million to a four-bedroom for $5.9 million. My pre-renovated rent was just under $500 per month.

I had always wanted to live at the Chatsworth and got to experience this dream. Later, as a single mom, I wanted change. Out for a walk, I looked up and saw a sign in one of the windows of 260-268 Columbus Avenue (known as the St. Charles.) The sign read “rent $400/mo”, and when I called to ask how many rooms came at that price, the answer I was given was “twelve”. A shabby throw-back to earlier days, this apartment looked south and west with windows letting in a lot of sun.

St. Charles Building

It was 1977.  When my usually adventurous dad came over, he took one quick look. “Too big, too dangerous. If you’re here with your two little children you’ll never know if a stranger gets into the apartment, “ he said. That scared me. It was the one that got away.

On the same block, closer to Broadway, Long’s Bedding is in the midst of packing to move to the East Side. Still hanging on one of the walls is a piece of history I discovered by chance. It’s a photo of King George and Queen Elizabeth (The current Queen’s mother) riding in a motorcade passing Long’s Bedding on 72nd Street. The sidewalks are thronged with people watching and waving to the royals.

1939 King George V England

The back story is that in 1939, knowing that WWII was imminent, FDR wanted to promote the United States as an ally, so he invited the young couple to visit Washington and New York. They traveled from DC to New Jersey by train, then took the U.S.S. Washington across the river to Manhattan. After an elaborate welcome hosted downtown by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and others, the royals were driven at only 25 mph in an open car, so New Yorkers could catch a good look. The route took them up the West Side Highway, across West 72nd Street and on via the Grand Central Parkway to visit the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, Corona Park in Queens.

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Back across Columbus Avenue, about mid-way down the block, the first of many Dallas BBQ restaurants opened in 1978. Located at 27 West 72nd Street in the Olcott Building, it was huge, high ceilinged and boisterous. The Early Bird Special was a find. A double deal if ordered before 6PM: two rotisserie half-chickens, chicken soup, baked potatoes or fries and cornbread for $10. Dallas BBQ specialized in gigantic frozen margaritas …

72nd Street Hotel Olcott 1970s

Hotel Olcott, 1976. c/o NYPL

But, what was particularly impressive was that diversity was indisputably encouraged here.  While other restaurants in the neighborhood at the time did not appear to discriminate against anyone, they also did not consistently have the same joyful mix of customers.

Eclair Pastry 72nd Street

In thinking about 72nd Street over time, one memory in particular always reminds me of the way we often imagine places and people we’ve known, but not seen in a long time, to remain unchanged. My mother loved to go to the Royale Bakery on 72nd Street, not for cakes or cookies, but for frozen cheese blintzes.  She swore by them and we had this treat, served with a dollop of sour cream once a week. After the bakery closed, the large lettered Royale sign that was suspended along several stories of the building was not removed. Then, what seems like at least ten years later, I saw a woman walking back and forth searching for something.  “Do you know where the  Royale Bakery is?” she asked.  And, I pointed to the sign that still had not been taken down.

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