Does anyone actually want to go to Midtown?

Many years ago, when I got my first proper office job located on 57th Street between Park and Madison I asked myself this on an almost daily basis.

Up I would come from the 4/5/6 stop at 59th Street to narrow, rollicking Lexington, jammed full of delis and magazine stores (R.I.P. magazine stores), before making my reluctant way over to 57th and Park. In 2006 it felt like a no-man’s land, devoid of, not life exactly, but liveliness. If you looked closely you could sense the buildings were grand, or had been, but now they just… were. It was not so much a ghost town, as a movie set after all the actors had gone home.

The old Steinway Hall at 109–113 West 57th Street... now a Supertall on Billionaire's Row


There were no delis. There were no cafes. When one wanted lunch your choices were limited to one of those terrible make your own salad, take-away places, or a lucky invite from someone higher up on the food chain whose boss was okay with a $150 table at, say, Michael’s or China Grill at the base of the BlackRock building. If one wanted to shop, well, you could always walk by the austere glassy windows of Chanel down the street and, like that Dorothy Parker story, imagine shopping. But this had to be done during lunch, since everything on 57th seemingly shut down promptly at 6 p.m.

That’s the thing about these sections of Midtown; unlike the rest of the city it closes up with the work day. Nothing happens there. It can be difficult to imagine anything ever has. Unlike some parts of the city which wear their glory days Norma Desmond-like; cracked and aging, but unmistakably attached to past fabulousness, Midtown has to the casual passerby seemingly never been anything but slate grey; in spirit and appearance. An obligation. For those fortunate enough to be employed elsewhere, a place one passes through on the way to places one wanted to be.

Ah, but something has always happened somewhere in New York. Every new “hot” neighborhood has some equally fascinating past. The magic and the folly of this city is its ability to keep rolling, with nary a glance back or often, even, a marker left behind. No one turns to salt here.

Midtown, of course, is no exception. During those early office days, from my 11th floor office window looking out on 57th — reached by an elevator so rickety I was sure it was merely a matter of time before I was featured in some gruesome NY Post cover story that included the phrase “lack of inspections” — it was not yet clear to me I was gazing upon a street that had been home to some of the city’s most storied names.

6 West 57th Street

Tod Seelie / Gothamist

Had I been able to lean out and look four long blocks down to my left, and back 125 or so years, I would have been able to spot Theodore Roosevelt’s home at 6 West 57th Street. It was here that the future New York Police Commissioner, state assemblyman, Vice President and eventual President (the youngest person ever to assume the office) resided. It was here on Valentine’s Day 1884, over the course of a few devastating short hours, that his mother died of typhoid fever and his wife Alice, two days after giving birth to their daughter Alice, died of a kidney infection. It was also from here Roosevelt set out for the West, a move which eventually led to his devotion to conservationism.

444 East 57th Street

Tod Seelie / Gothamist

Roosevelt was not the only society name who found a home on 57th. The New York Times once called 57th between Fifth and Sixth the City’s Rue de la Paix, because of the notable names like the Juilliards and the Roosevelts who coveted the wide streets and the brownstones that lined it, and presumably access to the newly completed Central Park. But when traffic began to push these names upward in the Twenties the street did not lose its allure. It simply moved east.

Very east in some cases. In the fifties, Marilyn Monroe and then-husband Arthur Miller took up residence in a penthouse apartment at 444 East 57th Street, not far from the address Monroe’s character arrived at in How to Marry a Millionaire (though in this case, it may have been Miller who was millionaire marrying). The original supermodel, Suzy Parker, also resided here, and later Bill Blass took up residence.

When Tina Brown decamped across the pond for New York City she eventually settled into a maisonette on East 57th not far from Blass, where she remains to this day.

And while Brown has surely hosted her fair share of glittering parties, among the addresses in New York that one would most delight in being a fly on the wall must be 322 East 57th Street. Built in 1929, it is one of a handful of “studio” apartments in the city. This is the old-fashion designation for apartments that feature double-height living rooms, with the living quarters were split into two levels. There are clusters of these buildings near Juilliard (always facing north, as they were initially for actual artists who covet indirect light), most famously The Pythian, where Lady Gaga grew up. However, they’d be hard-pressed to compete with the history of 322. The array of names feels like the answer to one of those "who would you invite to a dinner party" questions.

Orson Welles is reputed to have lived here. So is Kathy Lee Gifford, back in the mid-nineties when she was married to Frank (Rush Limbaugh tried to purchase it but was turned down by the co-op board). In the thirties, the famous art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, who is collected by both Jack Nicholson and Madonna (who featured her paintings in an array of videos including "Vogue" and "Express Yourself") lived here. In 2010 Nicolas Sarkozy’s ex (whom he left for Carla Bruni) purchased a duplex on the 14th floor in an estate sale. The former owner was actress and former Ziegfeld Girl, Mary Howard, who had been living there since 1947 after buying it for 10,000 (and according to these old listing photos, favored the Swiss chalet look).

There’s more.

In his heyday, Clay Felker, co-founder of New York magazine, lived here with his wife at the time, Pamela Tiffin, who was nearly two decades his junior, and threw legendary parties. Tom Wolfe described entering the apartment thus:

The living room was a 25-by-25-foot grand salon with a two-story, 25-foot-high ceiling and two huge House of Parliament–scale windows, overlooking 57th Street, each 22 feet high and eight feet wide, divided into colossal panes of glass by muntins as thick as your wrist. There was a vast fireplace of the sort writers searching for adjectives always call baronial.

Fourteen status seekers could sit at the same time on the needlepoint-upholstered fender that went around it, supported by gleaming brass columns. When you arrived chez Felker and walked out of the elevator, you found yourself on a balcony big as a lobby overlooking the meticulously conspicuous consumption below. Guests descended to the salon down a staircase that made the Paris Opera’s look like my old front stoop.

Mr. Chow

Tod Seelie / Gothamist

When the party eventually ended at Felker’s (he was notoriously broke, even at the height of his success, or perhaps because of it) it moved downstairs. In the late seventies, Michael Chow (better known to some as the former Mr. Grace Coddington), who’d made a name for himself in London with the original Mr Chow, opened the New York outpost with his then wife, the legendary Tina Chow, on the ground floor of the building, where it remains to this day.

West 57th hung on a bit longer. Home to most of the network headquarters – Billie Holiday famously performed live on TV two years before her death at CBS’s 57th St studio – it was still the scene of many a media party well into the late Aughts, when legacy media rammed up against the duo icebergs of the recession and the Internet.

The last decade though has been an exercise in not just obligation, but deep, utter, uncoolness. Which can only mean one thing in New York: like everything else once celebrated but eventually discarded for being too successful, it’s been out of vogue for just long enough to be good again (and not just for billionaires). The better question to be asking oneself these days is perhaps not, ‘does anyone go to Midtown’ but did you get there in time to reclaim it as your discovery.

Glynnis MacNicol is a writer living in New York — follow her on Twitter @GlynnMacN.