My life became entwined with the Hotel Belleclaire on the Upper West Side 35 years ago, and together we have evolved.
While living here, I have changed careers, come out of the closet, managed a long recuperation from brain surgery, started meditating, and watched a dear friend die of AIDS in my apartment’s front bedroom. And the building has continued its own endless metamorphosis, shifting from stately residential hotel where Maxim Gorky, Mark Twain and Babe Ruth once stayed, to seedy single-room-occupancy flop joint, to what it is today, a boutique hotel undergoing yet another face-lift.
When I first came East from California in 1981, I moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn. But architecturally I took in all five boroughs, which provided a cornucopia of treats for my hungry eyes.
In 1982, I made my first trek to the “wild wild West” of Manhattan — the Upper West Side. The upswing anticipated for the neighborhood with the creation of Lincoln Center in the mid-1960s had been slower than anticipated. Still, during those seemingly stagnant years, new consideration was given to many of the forgotten architectural treasures the area had to offer, in part thanks to the establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965.
Despite all of that, as late as the early 1980s, the Upper West Side still looked tired.
The afternoon of my first visit, I had lunch with a friend in a seafood dive on the southeast corner of Broadway and West 77th. As I gazed out the window of the restaurant that day, I looked directly at the Belleclaire. There was something about her soot-stained red brick, partially decayed facade and two rounded towers that called to my heart — a once haughty dowager fallen on hard days.
The Belleclaire, built in 1903, was a very early example of Emery Roth’s work and scarcely anticipated his later, more celebrated buildings, including the two towers of the Eldorado on Central Park West.
“Someday, I’m going to live in that building,” I vowed to my disbelieving friend at that 1982 luncheon.
Six months later, I miraculously acquired a lease for a two-bedroom apartment here. Even though the Belleclaire was a registered single room occupancy, or S.R.O., hotel, it had several larger apartments available for lease. My first home here was a high-ceilinged, east-facing space — an oddly laid out mash up of five hotel rooms.
Back in those S.R.O. days, I remember the flickering fluorescents down long, spooky halls; a multitude of drug dealers; the occasional scream from behind thick doors; and a muscular, aggressive pimp and two of his women hanging out in the lobby. I loved it all.
My dotty building was home not only to the tawdry and the drunken, but also the homicidal. The week I moved in, a man who worked at the hotel caught his wife in bed with another man and killed both of them, along with another person in the room. He also killed the manager and injured the manager’s wife before he surrendered.
Much here began to change in the 1990s, after the hotel received landmark status. Sure of the building’s future, the owners kick-started its journey from S.R.O. to stylish boutique hotel. Triumph Hotels — the owner of the Belleclaire since 1999 — has acquired six other historic buildings in the city, including the landmark Evelyn hotel down in NoMad and the stately Art Deco Hotel Edison in the theater district, the largest of the chain.
The Belleclaire’s entrance was a low-ceilinged, narrow cubicle in my early days here, its walls painted a high-gloss brown. The area behind the front desk was an industrial yellow and the floor was a drab linoleum and was later covered with faux wood planks.
But the lobby has since been recreated with an eye toward the hotel’s elegant past. It is now light-filled and wood paneled, with subtle dark stone insets in the walls near the elevators. After much work, the simple original mosaic — worthy of a prosperous Pompeian merchant’s home — has been unearthed. Hiding beyond a black dropped ceiling and lost to everyone’s memory was a vast expanse of glass which once covered the hotel’s fashionable Palm Court and has now been restored to its full glory.
Recently, Art Nouveau mahogany and bent wood windows on the ground floor have been recreated to match the originals. The windows’ shapes are reminiscent of the beautifully maintained Hector Guimard Art Nouveau entrances to the Paris Metro, evidence that keen respect and appreciation make possible the enjoyment of our architectural heritage for generations.
Hotel Belleclaire is undergoing a partial exterior restoration, an undertaking which will help bring back much of its original grandeur. Roth’s finely carved exterior limestone details give the Belleclaire an exciting theatricality, one sorely missing in many of the newer, utilitarian steel and glass high-rises jack-rabbiting skyward all around Manhattan.
Robert Holmes, the manager of the Belleclaire, is keen on the work going on. “I love watching these changes happen,” he said, as we stood together out on Broadway recently, observing blocks of limestone facing being off-loaded from a truck. “The limestone is from a quarry in Indiana, pulled up from a site close to the one Roth used for the original limestone decorations,” he said.
The New York Tribune in 1905 recommended the Belleclaire as one of the finest hotels in the city, with “the roof garden one of its most attractive features.” The roof garden is gone now, but Triumph has done a beautiful job in bringing the rooms of the Belleclaire into the 21st century while maintaining much of the building’s original charm.
Two hundred and fifty of the hotel rooms are for guests. Still, 15 of us have been able to maintain our larger spaces, our leases luckily grandfathered in. Suffice it to say we pay considerably less rent than the going rates here in the Upper West Side’s Golden Triangle.
My apartment has been remodeled through the years — first by me and more recently with the help of Triumph — in step with the changes happening throughout the building. I now have a stylish new bathroom with a huge glassed-in shower and a sleek kitchen with tile floors and stainless steel appliances. Though I occasionally miss seeing some of the hookers I had the pleasure of becoming friendly with — platonically, of course — in the late 1980s, I feel more relaxed 30 years later with the well-dressed travelers I meet on the elevators.
One of the men working on the job recently told me that he had worked on two new luxury condominium buildings now nearly complete, a bit to the east on West 77th Street. “Those were straightforward, easy,” he told me. “The Belleclaire takes a lot of time and consideration. It’s not a blueprint here. We need to look at the pictures we have gathered of the building from early on and make a match as close as possible.” With pride, he added, “It’s a landmark building, you know.”
I do. I haven’t confessed to him I’m a longtime resident. I prefer basking in the delight he exudes when talking about my home.
“Come back and see it when it’s done!”
I walked away smiling. I will.
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