My weekly rambles have often taken me past a large red brick building called The Windermere that sits on the Southwest corner of 57th Street and Ninth Avenue. Boarded up with broken windows and covered with graffiti, it has sat derelict for many years. Despite its neglect, it remains a striking building, designed with an eclectic mix of styles that include elements found in Queen Anne, High Victorian Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Now completely covered in netting and scaffolding, the windows have recently been replaced and slow progress has been made to bring it back to life.
To my surprise, I discovered it was built in 1880-1881 and is the oldest apartment building on the west side of Manhattan. Constructed as a complex of 3 adjoining seven story buildings; they each vary in size, width and apartment layouts, but are unified in the designs of their facades. The largest of the trio Is No. 400 West 57th Street, which sits on the corner and takes up 40 feet on 57th Street and the entire Ninth Avenue side of the building. Directly to the West is No. 402 West 57th, only 20 feet wide and the only one built without an elevator and the westernmost 404 West 57th is 30 feet in width. When first constructed, the three combined contained a total of 39 apartment units.
If the walls of the Windermere could talk, they would surely have tales to tell. Over the past 136 years, the building has had many transformations. Floor plans were originally designed to attract upper middle class residents. In an April 1881 profile by the New York Times, the Windermere was described as “first class in every particular” and in the first decade, tenants flocked to this new and unique complex. But the 1890’s brought construction of taller and grander buildings that began to siphon off a large portion of the clientele.
With the turn of the twentieth century came the birth of the “New Woman”, single and financially independent, with very few housing choices to speak of. Boarding homes were a common option, but they lacked privacy and were often run by charitable or religious organizations which imposed many lifestyle restrictions. At around this same time, a new superintendent named Henry Sterling Goodale was hired to run the complex. Himself, the father of two talented and artistic daughters, he recognized the opportunity to transform the building into a haven for bachelor women, who by the late 1890’s, accounted for about 80% of the 200 occupants.
In 1899, a fire damaged portions of the building and shortly after, Goodale left New York for Amherst, Massachusetts. At around this time, the neighborhood began to lose its more affluent population due to growth in other areas of the city and the tenant profile began to change again. Jump ahead to the 1960’s and 70’s, when the surrounding area became known as Hell’s Kitchen, largely associated with hippies, drug users and prostitution, and many of the Windermere’s large apartments were converted to Single-Room-Occupancy (SRO). By the 1980’s, it was in serious disrepair and became the subject of a criminal investigation for violent tenant harassment which resulted in felony convictions and jail time for both the manager and landlord at the time.
The building has changed ownership twice since then and the new owner, Mark Tress of Windermere Properties LLC, has filed plans for a hotel. As part of a legal settlement incurred by previous ownership, he is required to provide 20 affordable housing units as set by the Clinton Cure for Legal Harassment. The timing for a complete renovation couldn’t be any better as the neighborhood has once again become a very desirable place to live. I can’t wait to see this beautiful building fully restored.
To learn more about the current renovations, click here.
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