Countless urban house hunters have plotted, prayed and pined to call even a tiny slice of one or another of these famous buildings home, only to be stymied by a two-pronged reality check: the absence of both availability and affordability. Those are serious drawbacks, to be sure, but they are not necessarily insurmountable.
Sometimes the most plausible route into these buildings is not to win the lottery but to pursue their least expensive apartments, however small. An informal look at listings at the Dakota, the San Remo, the River House, the Ansonia, One Sutton Place South and One Fifth Avenue, six of the most sought-after prewar icons in Manhattan, produced a few examples.
“These buildings have eternal clout,” said Frederick W. Peters, the president of Warburg Realty. “But there are many reasons other than money that people don’t get into them. Some boards care only about money, some worry about social connections, some want to know about philanthropic commitments, and others are interested in a buyer’s neighborliness. But if you’re looking to buy the smallest unit in the building, you really don’t need to be rich as Croesus.” (Though it helps.)
The Dakota, the 1884 landmark where John Lennon lived and died, and where his widow, Yoko Ono, still owns several apartments, some large and some small, is purportedly the most famous co-op on the planet and perhaps second only to Versailles and Buckingham Palace in residential renown.
Of its 102 units, just two were on the market in the CityRealty database this month: No. 46, a four-bedroom for $14.5 million, with a description from its listing brokerage, Warburg Realty, that acknowledges “the views are on the inside”; and Penthouse C, a two-bedroom duplex listed by Douglas Elliman that was recently reduced to $5.95 million from $6.5 million.
“But whether you live in a 10-room colossus on the park or a two-bedroom at the back,” Mr. Peters said, “when you’re an owner at the Dakota you’re still walking into that same amazing courtyard and sharing that same atmosphere and ambience.
“These buildings have a historic kind of beauty and architectural integrity that you don’t find anywhere else. It makes people want to be able to say they own there.”
Last year, Suzanne Zinsel, an associate broker at Halstead Property, ended a two-and-a-half year search for a suitable Upper West Side pied-à-terre for her clients, Brendan and Kathleen FitzGerald, at the Dakota’s equally impressive neighbor to the north, the San Remo.
The FitzGeralds had been adamant about finding a renovated apartment with a usable terrace; this oddball two-bedroom estate unit, No. 14A, had three terraces, each with a different exposure. Despite the fact that the place required significant renovation and, at $4.4 million, was nearly $2 million more than they had initially intended to spend, they grabbed it.
“We didn’t really know the building before we went to look at the apartment,” Ms. FitzGerald said. “But when you walk into that lobby, with all of the marble and stained glass and mosaic tile, it’s just angelic. There is so much Old World charm, all of it carefully preserved.
“And when we went up to the apartment,” she continued, “the broker had opened the doors to the terraces, so there was this wonderful breeze even though it was August. We went out one terrace, and you could see all the way to the Hudson. Then we walked onto the terrace off the living room and saw people rowing on the lake in Central Park, and that was it, we were done.
“And now it’s a year later and we’re still renovating. I told my husband I don’t ever want to leave the San Remo, and we haven’t even moved in yet.”
The couple had toured and rejected about 35 apartments, including a candidate at the Dakota, before being smitten by No. 14A. “Although it wasn’t the cheapest apartment ever sold in the building,” Ms. Zinsel said, “it was certainly cheaper than anything on the market there right now.”
The closest thing to a bargain available at the San Remo is No. 15A, a two-bedroom corner unit for $5.95 million, with 50 percent financing permitted and a monthly maintenance fee of $3,759. The apartment is listed by Wendy Sarasohn and Jamie Joseph of the Corcoran Group. The listing notes that the three exposures offer views of “the iconic Dakota” as well as “a peek” of Central Park.
“It can be challenging to find a small-scale home in buildings like the San Remo,” Ms. Sarasohn said, “as many smaller apartments have been combined to create castles in the sky. So it’s a rare occasion when a triple-mint two-bedroom home comes on the market.”
According to data compiled by Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel, an appraisal firm, in the last five years apartments at the Dakota have sold for as little as $1.75 million and $3.4 million (both sales were in 2013). At the San Remo, No. 2F traded for $2.75 million in 2012 and No. 10G sold for $2.9 million in 2009.
At One Sutton Place South, No. 12D cost $1.6 million in 2012 and No. 11D, a two-bedroom apartment with sweeping East River views, sold this year for $2.5 million. At the River House, where homes in the double-digit millions are the norm, No. 3D traded at $2.625 million in 2010 and No. 7C cost $3.325 million in 2013.
At One Fifth Avenue, a one-bedroom unit, No. 14K, sold for $970,000 this year. At the Ansonia, the only condominium in the mix, where prices are less stratospheric and studios and one-bedrooms less rare, 27 sales were under $500,000 from 2009 to 2014.
“I think we tend to stereotype high-end Manhattan residential apartment buildings by assuming that all of the apartments are large, selling for high prices, and affordable only to a select few,” Mr. Miller said. The stereotype, he added, is not irrational. “While these smaller apartments are indeed more affordable than others in the building, they do tend to sell at a premium, pulled up by their larger-size neighbors.”
Often these smaller units are fetishized, to a degree, for their location within landmark buildings.
“People fall in love with the buildings themselves, with their lobbies, with their histories,” said Marsha K. Andrews, a saleswoman with Halstead Property. The Ansonia, which at various times in its history has had a farm on the roof, Plato’s Retreat swingers’ club in the basement, and Babe Ruth among its inhabitants, is a favorite for its relative affordability, castle-like 1904 exterior and quirky layouts.
Ms. Andrews recently served as buyer’s agent for a couple from Queens who ignored their budget ceiling, as well as her counsel against impetuous overspending, and paid $975,000 for a one-bedroom there. It was, at the time, the only one-bedroom available, and after balking at a bidding war there a month earlier over a $700,000 one-bedroom and suffering loser’s remorse, they were determined to snag the unit before someone else did.
“You walk them through the hallways or take them up to the roof deck and their imaginations start running wild and suddenly they’re refusing to look at anything anywhere else,” she said. “These grand old buildings have cachet, and clients get smitten by it, you see it all the time. They’ll say to you, ‘We have to own in that building,’ and they mean it. They’re convinced they’re making the best investment in town.”
What aficionado of the sort of Old World craftsmanship that is all but extinct wouldn’t want to experience life inside an architectural gem, perhaps one with lofty ceilings, turrets, hand-carved plaster moldings, a cobblestone courtyard, private gardens and human-scale vistas (no vertiginous helicopter views here) of parks and rivers and fellow landmarks?
Granted, access to most of these buildings does not come easily — except to billionaires in search of penthouse lairs, and even they are occasionally turned away for less tangible shortcomings (excessive entourages, litigious reputations, et cetera).
Still, once in a blue moon in the uptown co-ops, and intermittently at the Ansonia and One Fifth, opportunities arise to gain a toehold without spending tens of millions of dollars. The bad news: With inventory low and appetite high, the acquisition of an apartment in a prewar classic typically demands a multimillion-dollar portfolio.
“Within the extremely expensive buildings, you might see something small sell for 75 percent less than the most expensive apartment in the building,” said John Burger, an associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens.
Mr. Burger noted that 960 Fifth Avenue, where Edgar M. Bronfman’s penthouse broke a record last summer at $70 million, has smaller apartments in one wing that sell for $3, $4 or $5 million. But these co-op boards are strict about financing; 50 percent is the maximum allowed, and several don’t allow it at all because they don’t want people to stretch to make a purchase.
“No, you don’t have to be a billionaire to buy one of the smaller apartments in the iconic buildings,” he continued. “But in general, a board wants to see two to three times the amount of the purchase price in liquid assets.”
Some of these smaller apartments were built that way because they occupied a less than prime location within the building. Others, often called cut-ups in real estate parlance, were post-Depression reconfigurations that carved two and even three units from a single apartment. But there is nothing cookie-cutter about their layouts, a trait that further differentiates them from this century’s crop of glassy condo towers, where the floor plans tend to be more uniform.
“All of these new luxury condos may have fancier amenities and more glass and better HVAC systems,” said Stuart M. Saft, a partner at Holland & Knight, where he is head of the real estate practice, “but the cachet of the prewar icons comes from two things that can’t be replicated, location and architectural detail.
“They’re on Central Park, they’re on the East River, they’re landmarks built at a time when construction was an art as well as a science,” he said. “They have such thick plaster walls that you could have a bomb go off in the next apartment and hear nothing. And in many of them, the layout and motif of every apartment is different.”
Downtown overlooking Washington Square Park, One Fifth Avenue is the 1929 landmark where Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones paid $10.5 million last summer for a four-bedroom penthouse with three terraces. The most inexpensive sale in the last five years was No. 5K, which traded for $532,500 in 2009. This year, the least pricey sale was No. 14K for $970,000, according to data from StreetEasy.com.
“Since I’ve been selling apartments — 30 years — people have sought out One Fifth Avenue,” said Ann Weintraub, a veteran broker with her own firm. “They want to be in the famous, iconic Art Deco building with the double-height lobby and stately columns.
“They want to be part of the wonderful history of the building,” she added. “One Fifth has always been home to major people in arts and culture.” Wendy Wasserstein wrote “The Heidi Chronicles” from a south-facing apartment there, she said.
Ms. Weintraub embellished a recent $1.175 million listing for No. 3H, a one-bedroom/one-bath, with this admonition: “It is almost impossible to purchase a south-facing one-bedroom in this coveted prewar, Art Deco landmark building.” Someone took that to heart, and it is now under contract.
For a buyer who required two bathrooms and a loftier vantage point, Ms. Weintraub offered No. 26B for $4.75 million, and shortly after it was reduced to $4.35 million, it, too, went into contract.
Occasionally, buying one of the smallest units in a prestigious building can lead to bigger things.
“When you buy small in a building like the Dakota or San Remo or wherever, you may be buying a smaller piece of the overall fantasy, but meanwhile you’re hobnobbing with the rich and famous,” Mr. Saft said. “And once you’re in, and that eight-room apartment you’ve had your eye on for so long finally becomes available, you’ll be in a position to pounce.
“You’ll hear about it first,” he added, “and you can go straight to the seller and say, ‘Look, I already live here, so there won’t be a problem with the board, and you won’t need a broker, so you’re saving 6 percent right there.’ It’s a great strategy.”
Buy small to start and expand later. Or not.
Ann Jeffery, an associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens, has sold several smaller units at One Sutton Place South (the most recent for $2.5 million) and the River House (in the mid-$3 millions) to buyers downsizing on an opulent scale.
“For whatever reason,” Ms. Jeffery said, “they’ve reached a point where they still want gracious, elegant rooms, but they just need fewer of them. Usually the sum of the whole is worth more than the parts, which is why you see people combining or creating full floors. But there will always be a demand for the smaller apartments in the best buildings. You’re reducing your footprint without reducing your standards.”