A Peep Into and A Poke Around 820 Fifth Avenue

YOUR MAMAS NOTES: On the swanky streets that lie west of Park Avenue on New York City’s Upper East Side there are dozens of posh, pricey and essentially anonymous co-operative apartment houses in which a certain set of financially privileged and/or socially connected New Yorkers want to live. However, among the few thousand fancy pants people who pay attention to these things, only a small number of buildings in the one-oh-oh-two-one possess the hyper-exclusivity that allow them to be immediately identified (and envied) by the international upper crust simply by their street number. They include 740, 720, 834, 960 and 820, the dignified 12-story limestone pile that discreetly lords over the natty and nabobish northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street.

Your Mama’s research through the interweb indicates that the solemn and sedate Starrett and Van Fleck designed apartment house was erected in 1916 and when built included ten full floor 18-room co-operative apartments plus two maisonette style units. Each of the full floor units spans approximately 7,500 square feet and was originally designed with 5 bedrooms, 6.5 bathrooms, 9 windows overlooking Central Park, 6 fireplaces, a private elevator landing opening to a 44-foot long entrance gallery, and 7 staff rooms. That’s right children, seven cell-like staff rooms for all the silver polishers, rug fluffers, food cookers and booty wipers required to run a residence of this magnitude back in the day when obscenely wealthy folks regularly lived up in the same crib as their hired help.

In addition to 24/7 uniformed staff to open doors and tote packages, we’re told by a ladee intimately familiar with 820 whom we’ll call Miss Beeswax that all the apartments in the buttoned up white glove building are serviced by three elevators. Two are passenger lifts with attendants whose sole duty is to push the buttons for people apparently too pampered to do it themselves and the third is the service elevator for cargo and staff because the kind of rich people who inhabit buildings like 820 really prefer not to ride the elevator with the Chinese food delivery man or the neighbors’ terlit gurl.

Because there are so few apartments in the building and because the Richie Riches who move in rarely move out, seldom does one of the splendiferous spreads at 820 become available for purchase. So when the New York Observer’s real estate gossip Max Abelson recently reported in his Manhattan Transfers column that home building baron Ara Hovnnian and his abstract artist wifey Rachel Lee Hovnanian are rumored to have quietly floated their fourth floor apartment at 820 on the market with a blistering asking price of $36,000,000, all us other real estate gossips sat up and took notice. Well, at least Your Mama did. Like a dog with a bone, we started digging and searching for information about the rumored to be for sale Hovnanian residence as well as whatever 411 we could root out about the identities of the other insanely wealthy residents who occupy what is considered by those who care about such things to be one of the five best (and most expensive) buildings in all of New York City.

Using previous reports about the building, a look-see through the always informative CityFile, and most especially with the generous assistance of a very special and socially connected gal pal we call The Social Butterly, we’ve managed to piece together a nearly complete list of who we believe to be the current residents of 820. The children should keep in mind that because transaction records for the building are virtually non-existent and, in all likelihood, mortgages are forbidden on apartments at 820, Your Mama cannot promise we are correct with every pairing of owner and apartment and cannot prove ownership with property records. We’ll gladly correctly any errors brought to our attention.

Starting at the bottom and working our way to the penthouse…

FIRST FLOOR MAISONETTE: There has been some confusion amongst our sources as to whether there are one or two maisonette units at 820. What we do know is that international super socialite Lily Safra owns a pied a terre sized maisonette unit in the building that she allegedly purchased for one of her two daughters. Miz Safra, much of whose billions were inherited after the death of her banking magnate husband Edmond Safra in a suspicious fire that gutted their palatial penthouse apartment in Monaco in 1999, has no personal need to occupy the maisonette because she owns and occupies the twelfth floor of 820.

According to the Social Butterfly, 820 has a second, larger doo-plex maisonette unit that occupies the north side of the ground floor and a portion of the second floor that is owned (or formerly owned) by a ladee named Norma Lerner who is a big-shit philanthropist and the owner of the Cleveland Browns football team. Your Mama is unable to confirm whether this is accurate or not. Miz Lerner, the widow of banking baron Al Lerner who made bazillions of bucks from a massive investment in the MBNA America Bank, also owns a sprawling manicured estate in Chagrin Falls, OH where, we’ve heard from two sources, the interiors were did up by venerable decorator to the beau monde Bunny Williams.

SECOND FLOOR: According to another source, a fine and well-bred gentleman we’ll call Fifth Avenue Freddie, and by process of elimination, we’ve determined that the remainder of the second floor that is not part of the Lerner doo-plex maisonette appears to be owned by by housewares honcho, art collector and noted philanthropist Donald Jonas and his wife Barbara. Here’s the thing, we do know that Mister and Missus Jonas own at 820 and we had originally thought they occupied the 5th floor. However several reports point towards a different owner of the 5th floor which, if accurate, leaves only this 2nd floor unit for Mister and Missus Jonas.

THIRD FLOOR: The third floor has been owned and occupied, according to a court document, since 1956, by a delicately built doyenne named Jayne Wrightsman who is the well-preserved octogenarian widow of Oklahoma oil man Charles Wrightsman and the reigning queen of New York City high society. Although the publicity shunning and formidable Miz Wrightsman does not occupy a seat on the board, it is widely reported that nothing gets done at 820 without her saying so, including who gets in and who does not, the color of the carpets in the lobby or the amount of shine on the porters’ shoes.

Ol‘ Miz Wrightsman, who was reported to come from modest means (in an article in Vanity Fair we can not find online), worked tirelessly to cultivate a very serious career as a major collector and patron of the arts extraordinaire. And children, when we say major Your Mama means may-jah. For example, the Wrightsmans possessed a painting called “Study of a Young Woman,” which happens to be one of the very few and very rare Vermeers known to exist in the world. If y’all don’t know who Mister Vermeer is, Your Mama suggests you get on the damn interweb and get yerself some art history.

Missus Wrightsma also owned and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a red lacquer bureau plat (desk) commissioned from the ebiniste (cabinetmaker) Joubert by Louis XV himself for his library at Versailles which is arguably, according to The Social Butterfly, the single most important piece of French furniture on North American soil.

Not only that, Mister and Missus Wrightsman have galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art named after them that are full of sooblime French decorative arts pieces generously donated by the couple. Those would be, of course, The Wrightsman Galleries. In fact, their extensive and extravagant donations form the very backbone of the entire collection of French Decorative Arts at The Met. So, you know children, beehawtcha has earned her big ladee vaunted position in the pantheon of important and powerful patrons of the arts not only in New York City, but around the damn world.

FOURTH FLOOR: The fourth floor is one of only a couple of units at 820 that have changed hands multiple times in the last 10 or 20 years. For many years, the 18-room sprawler was owned by poet, philanthropist, rumored lezbeeuhn, and paper heiress Louise Crane whose family concern, Crane & Co., manufactures high-grade stationary and has provided the paper on which U.S. currency has been printed for nearly 150 years. Miz Crane was about as old as money gets in this young country.

After Miz Crane’s death in 1997, the apartment was sold to khaki pants king Tommy Hilfiger who somehow scooched by the notoriously fussy and stringent board and reportedly scooped the apartment up in the spring of 1999 for around $10,000,000 (or $11,500,000 depending on where you look). After jumping through all the board’s crazy hoops and demands and finally finessing his way into the building, Mister Hilfiger did the unthinkable, he quickly changed his mind about living up in 820 and flipped the apartment back onto the market at a much higher price than he paid. No doubt there were some angry rich people huffing and puffing and burning up the phone lines that day.

Mister Hilfiger did okay flipping his never occupied digs at 820 as it was snatched up by none other than The Widda Safra who reportedly forked over around $18,000,000 to purchase the apartment for one of her two daughters. Soon after a multi-million dollar renovation said to include new lighting and floors–and for reasons unknown to Your Mama–the Safra gurl decided she didn’t want to move into 820 afterall. The unit was listed on the open market at $24,500,000 with legendary New York real estate agent Sharon Baum who–true story–rides around in a chauffeured Rolls Royce with a license plate that reads “SOLD 1.” The apartment languished on the market for a bit and in 2003 was purchased by the current owners, the above mentioned Ara and Rachel Hovnanian, who reportedly paid around $23,500,000 for the rare privilege of living with the hoitiest of the toitiest at 820.

The home building and art making Hovnanians, who were visited by Tragedy in 2002 when their teenage son perished in a boating incident, hired accomplished Dutch architect Piet Boon to work the apartment over. And work it over he did, stripping the place down to the studs and creating a glistening, uncluttered and very contemporary crib that retains a sense of history and place due to the outrageously gorgeous and massive moldings that make a stunning counterpoint the the couples enviable art collection which reportedly includes works by Damien Hirst, Henri Matisse and, of course, Missus Hovnanian herself.

Because no official listing for the apartment exits, there are no listing photos or a floor plan available online for the apartment as it currently exists. However, we did locate a floor plan for the apartment as it was laid out at the time the Hovnanians purchased the unit (see below) and thanks to The Social Butterfly–who has a mind like a steel trap–we learned that the very spare and nearly all white gallery-like tour de force of interior dee-zine magnificence was photographed for the now defunct House & Garden in 2005. Photos and the accompanying article by Eliszabeth Blish Hughes can be found here. (Additional photos can found on Mister Boon’s website.)

The children will note that the wall between the library and living room has been knocked out and several of the staff rooms have been combined leaving just two plus a “servants hall” and large laundry facilities. We have no idea if Mister Boon and the Hovnanians retained this layout but according to the writer Miss Blish Hughes, one of the staff rooms has been converted into a mirrored studio where the Hovnanians pretzel their body with the Bikram yoga. Dear jeezis in heaven, Your Mama can not imagine much more distressing and psychologically damaging than a fully mirrored room where we could look at our soft front side and big ol‘ backside at the same time.
As a final note on the rumored “quiet” listing of the Hovnanian apartment, just this morning we received a covert communique from our well-connected informant Miss Beeswax who whispered in Your Mama’s big ol‘ ear that word on the überluxe real estate street in Manhattan is that quote, “a deal to sell is already locked up in contract.” If true, and given that 820 has one of the strictest boards known to wealthy woman, man and child, Miss Beeswax and Your Mama (and all the other real estate watchers with their eyeballs trained on 820) are on pins and needles waiting to learn who managed to get passed gargoyles of 820. Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

FIFTH FLOOR: For a number of years the fifth floor was owned and occupied by financier Frank Richardson and his 3rd wifey Nancy who is known as a socialite as well as an art and antiques expert of some sort. In the mid-1990s the Richardson’s went splitsville and famously feuded over their high priced Fifth Avenue co-operative apartment as well as their house in the Hamptons. Eventually, it seems, Miz Richardson was granted ownership and soon put it on the market. It was widely whispered and reported Band-Aid heiress Libbet Johnson wanted to purchase the sprawler and combine it with the Crane apartment on the 4th floor which happened to be up for sale at the same time. Some say the board would have been thrilled to have Miss Johnson living up in their dignified dowager but were not so keen on her combining two apartments into one hulking beast of an apartment. Others say Miss Johnson was put off by the buildings notorious renovation restrictions which would might have made the big job of combining the two units into a multi-year affair.

We originally thought that kitchenware king Donald Jonas owned the 5th floor but found several reports that indicate that Miz Richardson eventually sold the 5th floor unit sometime in 2000 to billionaire manufacturing mogul Steven Rales and his ladee-mate Christine who it was rumored offered Miz Richardson somewhere in the neighborhood of $17,500,000. Mister and Missus Rales had recently made a spin through the real estate gossip pages after flipping a 7,200 square foot spread at 740 Park Avenue that they bought in 1999 for $13,000,000, never moved into and sold a year later for close to it’s $16,000,000 asking price.

SIXTH FLOOR: Financier H. Fred Krimendahl and his social wifey Emilia Saint-Amand occupy the sixth floor. Mister Krimendahl spent more than 30 years making boo-coo bucks working in the upper reaches of management at Goldman, Sachs & Co. and now that we all know just how much money wall street kingpins and banking big wigs take home in salary and bonuses we understand how it is the Krimendahls have the dough to shack up at 820.

SEVENTH FLOOR: In the mid-1990s, former Warner Bros. co-CEO and Yahoo! billionaire Terry Semel reportedly paid $12,250,000 (or $12,500,000 depending on where you look) for the seventh floor apartment of oil rich Gordon Getty and his wisp thin wife Ann. It was reported at the time that Mister and Missus Semel were nearly nixed in their bid to purchase the Getty’s apartment by none other than ol‘ Miz Wrightsman who expressed reservations but eventually acquiesced. Mister and Missus Semel’s digs are unique in the building because instead of windows in the living room and library, there are French doors that open to a slim balcony with a limestone balustrade. We’ve heard (but can not confirm) that notoriously despotic architect Thierry Despont worked over the interiors for the Semels.

EIGHTH FLOOR: In 2002, Goldman Sachs honcho Jack Levy paid a reported $15M to purchase the 8th floor apartment from the estate of Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos who had the place done up and did over in the mid 198os by much lauded Italian interior designer Renzo Mongiardino who, the children may recall, also did up the gigantic apartment that financially distressed socialite Veronica Hearst was forced to sell at 4 East 66th Street for around thirty million smackers. We imagine Mister Mongiardino’s exuberant day-core and trademark faux finish masterwork has been hauled out down the service elevator by the current owners.

NINTH FLOOR: The ninth floor once belonged to deceased CBS president Bill Paley and his very fashionable (and dead) wife Babe. The unit now belongs to Michael David-Weill, the former CEO of the legendary investment banking firm Lazard, and although Your Mama cannot confirm it, The Social Butterfuly swears on her gem strewn decolletage that Mister David-Weill’s unit has been dooplexed with about 1/3 of the 10th floor.

TENTH FLOOR: Both The Social Butterfly and Fifth Avenue Freddie have indicated that the remaining 2/3 of the 10th floor (not owned by Michael David-Weill) is owned by the Belgian Consulate, presumably to house their top dignitary or visiting VIPs.

ELEVENTH FLOOR: Enormously influential art dealer, prolific collector and co-op board president William Acquavella and his wifey Donna reportedly spent $9.8 for their 11th floor pad way back in 1993 when they purchased it from the fantastically rich Texas oil and electronics heiress/bizness woman Anne Marion, wife of former Sotheby’s head honcho John Marion.

TWELFTH FLOOR: As mentioned above, lacquer haired high priestess of high society Lily Safra has owned the 12th floor penthouse for at least 20 years. All the children will surely recall that The Widda Safra is the lucky and very rich ladee who owns a pedigreed Belle Epoque estate in the Cote d’Azure called Villa Leopolda which is constantly and perpetually rumored to be for sale for upwards of $500,000,000. Miz Safra is currently involved in an in ugly legal imbroglio with a property mad Russian billionaire who wants his fifty or sixty million dollar deposit returned after backing out of a deal in which The Widda Safra was to get a rumored, reported and stroke inducing $750,000,000 for the legendarily high maintenance estate.

UPDATE on FOURTH and TWELFTH FLOORS (Jan. 2012): Miz Safra sold in late 2009 for $40,000,000 to Chicago-based hedge fund manager Ken Griffin and and his French-born hedge fund manager wife Anne Dias-Griffin. Miz Safra packed up and moved downstairs to the fourth floor that she purchased—for the second time in 10 years—from home Ara and Rachel Hovnanian for $33,000,000.

While currying favor with other residents of the building and sweet talking Ol’ Miz Wrightsman may in fact be more than half the battle of anyone hoping to buy one of the commodious co-operative units at 820, it goes without saying that the board (and every other resident of the building who is not on the board) will also want to absolutely sure that any potential buyer has deep pockets…seriously deep pockets. It has been reported (and whispered to Your Mama by The Social Butterfly) that buyers at 820, like many of the top shelf buildings in New York, must pay all cash for their apartments and they must be able to show at least 10 times the purchase price of the unit in liquid assets. A few flicks of the beads on our well worn abacus reveals then that anyone interested in Mister and Missus Hovnanian’s elegantly spare fourth floor flight of architectural fancy will need well over $350,000,000 sitting around (liquid!!) just to be considered for a potential neighbor. Residents must also, of course, be able to cover any assessments made for building repairs and upgrades and The Social Butterfly swears that maintenance at 820 is at least $17,000 for the full floor units. That’s seventeen grand per month, kids. While Your Mama can not confirm that figure–which just means it’s rumor and hearsay–we’d bet the farm that if ain’t seventeen a month, it’s probably higher.

Anyhoo, former residents of 820 are said to include former governor of New York Alfred E. Smith, Arthur and Kathryn Murray (of the Arthur Murray Dance Studios), Robert Goelet whose family once owned a good chuck of the land under the Rockefeller Center, former chairman of General Motors Alfred Sloan Jr., tobacco heir Pierre Loriallard, and Eberhard Faber, whose family name appears on bazillions of pens and pencils world wide.

Finally, rejected applicants–or those encouraged not grovel for acceptance from the board at 820–are said to include fashion designer Valentino Garavani, billionaire investor Ron Perelman, corporate raider Asher B. Edelman, flamboyant and wildly wealthy Freddie Koch, and legally blind gambling titan Steve Wynn.

Many people who don’t play in the same financial sandbox as the sorts of high-fallutin’ folks who inhabit buildings like 820 and 740 and 960 will surely find the draconian restrictions and seemingly arbitrary and usually secret rules and regulations for being allowed to live in one of the “better” co-operative buildings in New York to be completely insane. And they are. That is unless you’re among the very small group of people who have the power, privilege, money and desire to pick and choose who your neighbors are going to be.

photo: City Realty

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