Emery Roth: Another perilous time for designing icons

Architect Emery Roth's San Remo and Beresford built during city's other Depression

Feb.February 28, 2009 10:49 PM

Architect Emery Roth’s two most ambitious projects, the Beresford and the San Remo, both on Central Park West, were built during an economic meltdown much like the one the city is experiencing today.

Indeed, the buildings could not have been built at a worse time: right before and after the catastrophic stock market crash of 1929. The group of investors who developed both buildings subdivided the largest apartments, increasing the San Remo from 122 to 142 units, and struggled to find renters. The lender to the projects collapsed, bank executives were indicted for speculating with depositors’ funds and then in 1940, the buildings were sold together for a mere $25,000 more than their mortgages were worth.

“It was sort of like buying the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth for pocket change,” said one real estate investor who was quoted in Steven Ruttenbaum’s 1986 book, “Mansions in the Clouds: The Skyscraper Palazzi of Emery Roth.” Like the great ocean liners, Roth’s apartment buildings ultimately came to be recognized as iconic, bringing him great recognition.

The twin-towered San Remo, between 74th and 75th streets, is one of the most recognizable buildings in the city and is home to Bono, Steve Martin and Steven Spielberg, while the Beresford, between 81st and 82nd streets, counts Jerry Seinfeld, John McEnroe and Glenn Close among its high-profile residents.

In addition to the San Remo and the Beresford, Roth put his mark on the city skyline with lavish structures like the St. Moritz Hotel, the El Dorado and dozens of others. Roth — who died in 1948 in his late 70s — not only survived the boom-and-bust cycles of two depressions and two World Wars, but also went on to design roughly 250 buildings and to become one of Manhattan’s most prized residential architects.

Humble beginnings

Roth was born to a Jewish innkeeper in Hungary, one of eight children. In 1884, after his father died and his family plunged into poverty, Roth — then only 13 — boarded a steamer for America with a family acquaintance.

He wound up in Bloomington, Ill., and survived by shining shoes and working odd jobs before becoming an apprentice to a demanding German architect. The apprenticeship paid off when Roth was hired by Chicago’s most prestigious architectural firm, Burnham & Root.

By that time Roth had become a skilled draftsman and was hired to design façades for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. According to history books, it was there that he met Richard Morris Hunt, known as the “dean of American architects.”

In 1894, with the country in a depression, Roth moved to New York to join Hunt’s studio, which counted wealthy New York families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors as clients. That experience would serve him well later in his career, when he began working in the emerging area of luxury apartment hotels.

However, Roth would need to work his way up first. In 1898, he struck out on his own, buying a small architectural firm for $1,000.

His first commissions were small projects from the Hungarian community on the Lower East Side, including a number of vacation houses in Far Rockaway and the Catskills.

Then, in 1899, Roth made the leap to apartment buildings with a seven-story Italian Renaissance-influenced structure on 82nd Street and Broadway called the Saxony. From there he was able to get more work on Manhattan’s West Side — which was popular among newly affluent Jewish New Yorkers, actors and artists.

Breaking the mold

Even as his reputation grew, Roth would find that as a Jewish immigrant with no degree, he was shut out from commissions on the blue-blooded East Side.

Instead, he worked for scrappy developers targeting the nouveau riche, sometimes even taking an equity interest in the building.

The kind of speculators he worked with needed to squeeze in as many apartments as possible under the prevailing regulations, which tightly restrained building height. While many architects shunned such commissions, Roth later said he enjoyed working with that kind of “tough hombre.”

Roth regularly supplemented his drawings with detailed information about costs so “his plans could pass the scrutiny of lending institutions with little questioning,” Ruttenbaum wrote.

Roth ultimately moved beyond those buildings and earned a reputation for masterfully melding pragmatism with aesthetics, blending classical themes into castle-like edifices rising into opulent temple-like domes and cupolas that hid unsightly water towers, an innovation that became known as “Roth Towers.”

Andrew Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, said Roth “was one of the great architects during a major wave of speculative building.”

“He did some very special buildings and is important for designing some significant, high-quality apartment houses for the affluent and upper-middle class,” Dolkart told The Real Deal.

Ruttenbaum wrote that other architects of the day were generally constrained by the placement of fixed columns, which forced them to design quarters branching off a single dark hallway. As a result, food from the kitchen often had to be carried past several bedrooms all the way to the dining room.

In an interview with The Real Deal, Richard Roth Jr. — Roth’s grandson and a third-generation architect who retired as head of Emery Roth & Sons — said his grandfather introduced a new layout influenced by his Beaux Arts training at the Columbia Exposition.

“He dispensed with the hallway and designed rooms branching off a central gallery foyer, which was a more livable arrangement, more space-efficient, and allowed for larger rooms and closets,” he said.

Another of Roth’s grandsons, Richard’s brother Emery Roth II, wrote that Roth “created … a more spacious and gracious way to live. Because he ‘fitted’ them so well, some of his buildings have come to symbolize an age of graciousness and luxury that has not been repeated.”

Soaring career

By 1903, Roth’s Hotel Belleclaire, a daring 10-story Art Nouveau building at Broadway and 76th Street with a newfangled steel-skeleton frame, was completed. It immediately helped push his career to the next level; the development firm Bing & Bing hired Roth and gave him a place to refine his foyer-based design.

Despite Roth’s design innovations, he was always pragmatic. He once said, “The primary purpose of building apartment houses is to create the best possible return on the investment. A building that does not pay is poor architecture, no matter how interesting the design, costly the construction, or clever the layout.”

By 1925, Roth’s career was soaring. He completed the 540-foot Ritz Tower at 465 Park Avenue and 57th Street, which boasted suites of up to 18 rooms, offering unparalleled panoramic views of the city. The city’s tallest all-residential structure until 2001, it became home to actress Greta Garbo and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who bought the building.

Still, some architects disliked the Ritz’s design — one dubbed it a “skypuncture” — and in 1927 Roth was rejected in his first attempt to join the American Institute of Architects.

Supporters successfully pushed for his acceptance a few months later. In his book, Ruttenbaum suggested that Roth was probably rejected because he was Jewish. Nonetheless, Roth never forgot his roots, designing several synagogues, as well as churches, for the Hungarian community in the city.

Twin Towers

At the height of the 1920s boom, Roth employed some 50 people at his firm. But despite his success, Roth remained modest, and often referred to his projects as “skyscratchers” instead of “skyscrapers.”

He was, however, one of the most prolific architects in the city and was at the height of his career by the time he designed the San Remo. It was the city’s first twin-tower high-rise, a design Roth used to comply with the 1929 Multiple Dwelling Act, a restriction on tower volume. The “twin” design cut down on space-wasting corridors, creating apartments with more views and semi-private elevators. Baths, meanwhile, were fitted with glass enclosures and multiple showerheads.

The two-tower design influenced other architects who planted similar structures along Central Park West, including Margon & Holder, who co-designed the Art Deco El Dorado with Roth.

In the 1930s, Roth further embraced the Art Deco movement, designing several such buildings for Bing & Bing. He moved with the times, however, later creating the more streamlined Modern-influenced Normandy masterpiece at 140 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River.

Roth had four children; before he died, his sons Julian and Richard gradually took over the business, later specializing in glass towers across the city. Under their leadership, Emery Roth & Sons either designed or worked on the MetLife building, the World Trade Center, Citigroup Center and the GM Building. On the intersection of Fifth and Park avenues, one of the busiest and most posh places in the city, three of the four corners have buildings designed by three generations of Roth architects.

Soon after Richard Jr. retired, the company ceased operations, but he retains the rights to the firm’s name, while his grandfather’s legacy lives on in the skyline of the city.

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