Inside the fight to resuscitate New York’s pioneer Windermere building

The Windermere Building, which housed a new breed of pioneer ‘single girls’ in the early 1900s, may finally be reborn after decades of decay and neglect – thanks to some women who fought for 40 years to save it.

“Someone I know walked by the other day and said, ‘Hey, there’s a new building where the Windermere was,'” former Legal Services attorney Deborah Rand said. , who started helping tenants fight evictions in 1980. “I said, – No, it’s still Windermere. It’s finally settled. He didn’t even recognize it.

The Queen Anne-style Windermere, one of the city’s oldest grand apartment buildings, dominates the southwest corner of 57th Street and Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. One historian called it “an exuberant display of textured, corbelled and polychrome bricks”.

For years, it was a place where Manhattan’s early Carrie Bradshaws didn’t just have a room, but an apartment of their own.

Women entered the workforce in record numbers by the late 1800s, but single, independent women were stuck in boarding houses or charity-run establishments, according to Michael D. Caratzas, Landmarks Preservation historian Commission.

But by the turn of the century, the Windermere – helped with its superintendent, father of two writers daughters – offered something new.

Many of the women who lived there worked as sales assistants or secretaries, while others were in the arts, and all lived “without supervision, master key, and chaperone.” One, a writer, lived for a time in a room on the roof.

A new owner plans to transform the Windermere into a luxury hotel and retail space.
A new owner plans to transform the Windermere into a luxury hotel and retail space.

An 1898 New York Times article described Windermere as “sacred to the new woman.”

Decades later, however, the building became the site of epic landlord-tenant battles, and it had deteriorated into a house of horrors when the last tenants left in 2008.

Although the Windermere was declared a City Historic Landmark in 2005, it has been vacant since 2007. It is one of the only apartment buildings of its kind in Manhattan – especially one in such a prime location – in fall into such a long disuse.

But he never lost his grip on some former tenants, as well as lawyers and activists, who fought for him.

“It attracts you, people are obsessed with it,” Rand told the Post. “There is drama out there every minute.”

“This might be my favorite building,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told The Post.

She was working for city council member Ruth Messinger in 1980 when she got a call from Rand telling her that some Windermere tenants had been illegally locked out. Brewer called the police.

Lawyer Deborah Rand (left) and former Windermere resident Cappy Haskin were determined to give the building a chance to regain glory.
Lawyer Deborah Rand (left) and former Windermere resident Cappy Haskin were determined to give the building a chance to regain glory.
Helayne Seidman

“What a waste,” she recalls. “I went there for the first time in 1980 and it looked like a demilitarized zone.

Brewer represented the Hell’s Kitchen area from 2002 to 2013 and worked to save the Windermere during that time. Last week, she sent a letter supporting the necessary zoning permit for Windermere’s new vision, which would reinvent it as a boutique hotel with retail and dining spaces.

“[The building’s] so lived. It has such a spirit of those early women who lived there when it was built, ”Brewer said. “I can’t wait to see him reborn.”

The Windermere was built in 1881, just ahead of other multi-storey buildings from the same era – like the Gramercy (1883), Osborne (1883), and Dakota (1884) – but didn’t have the same endurance.

When it opened, the structure contained 39 apartments, each with five or six bedrooms with etched marble fireplaces and mirrored living room walls, according to a 2002 report. Amenities included livery servants, hydraulic elevators, and telephone service .

When the neighborhood lost its luster after the turn of the century, unmarried girls moved in and a more gritty and artistic crowd settled there. Actors Steve McQueen and “Live and Let Die” villain Yaphet Kotto lived there in the 1960s. Part of the Windermere became a lackluster SRO.

Cappy Haskin, now 74, moved into a tiny two-bedroom apartment in 1970.

“We were a real mix of people,” Haskin, a former computer programmer, told The Post. “There was a Romanian violinist in a beret, there was a Puerto Rican woman, there was a seamstress from Chile. It was then a somewhat difficult area. We called it “Northern Port Authority”. But we were all good people paying our rent.

The building took a strong downward spiral in 1980, almost exactly a century after it opened.

Rand first met residents, most of whom lived in the ORS part of the building, when they came to see her in desperation that year. She has handled at least 100 of their cases, helping to dismiss many deportation cases.

Then-owner Alan B. Weissman was trying to get rid of the tenants so he could sell the place, and the Windermere became the site of some of the worst landlord-tenant harassment in town history.

There have been assaults and death threats, and a tenant’s apartment has been broken into four times. Once, according to the 1983 indictments, “cleaning fluids were spilled on his books, clothes and bed.”

“Weissman started sending people into the building to threaten people,” Rand told the Post. “It became violent. They knocked on doors and entered. They brought in pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. It was terrifying. Many people were vulnerable and old. They told them that if they didn’t move, they would be in danger, that something bad was going to happen to them.

Management officers and the superintendent went to jail after being charged with conspiracy to force tenants to move out, as well as burglary, coercion and attempted robbery.

Haskin was part of a group ordered by the city to leave in 1983.

“We were forced out… because the building was deemed in danger of imminent collapse,” Haskin said. “We were given a week to pack our bags – the day only – and we couldn’t sleep there. At the end of the week one evening, police cars were in the building with flashing lights and barricades. It was horrible.”

You can never forget it [the Windermere]. It stuck in my heart.

Former tenant Cappy Haskin

She and a few former neighbors then spent a decade struggling to get back before giving up.

“You can never forget it,” Haskin said of the Windermere. “It stuck in my heart. I was naive at the time. I thought that since we were good tenants everything would work out but I was wrong. None of this made a difference. We had to leave and it was more traumatic than I thought at the time.

In 1986, the building was sold to an eccentric Japanese businessman who allegedly saw the Windermere from a tour bus and bought it without setting foot in it. The landlord let the building collapse in an apparent attempt to empty the tenants.

The old building has turned into a dumping ground strewn with pigeon excrement covered with netting and scaffolding. After 1996, there were only a handful of tenants left, living without electricity. They collected drinking water from the sidewalk fire hydrant.

Even after leaving Legal Services in 1987 to work as an attorney for the city, Rand continued to defend Windermere tenants for the next three decades.

Spurred on by former Windermere tenants, the building was designated a historic monument in 2005, foiling any demolition plans.

In 2007, the city ordered the last remaining tenants, who had all been there for around 40 years, to vacate as the building had become a fire hazard.

Rand, working on behalf of the city with tenants’ attorneys, went to court to force the landlord to make the necessary repairs so the tenants could return to their homes. A lengthy lawsuit ensued, Rand said, and the court ordered the owner to make the repairs.

But before the tenants could relocate, the landlord decided to sell. As a condition of the sale, the tenants received $ 500,000 each to waive the right to return to Windermere.

The city, meanwhile, was fined $ 1 million for all violations of laws on the preservation of historic monuments.

“It was bittersweet,” Rand said. “I started by trying to keep all the tenants in the building and that has always been my wish.”

FEW people have seen the current state of the interior of Windermere. Among them is Moshe “Mark” Tress of Lakewood, NJ, who bought the place for $ 13 million from the absent Japanese owner in 2009.

“It was a mess when I got it,” Tress told The Post. “There was no running water and it was a danger inside and out. It was like walking through a combination of a haunted house and a fun house.

Tress restored the exterior to its former grandeur with a multi-million dollar facelift to the rich red brick facade. Three ornamental pillars of special granite were transported from Scotland to match the original decoration.

“It’s a big and rich part of old New York City,” Tress said. “It’s a gem in the rough and it’s back.”

The plan is to transform Windermere into a 175-room boutique hotel with shops on the first floor. Tress expects to get a permit to add a story that will allow a rooftop restaurant.

Tress “got an incredible deal,” said a person familiar with the situation. The building will likely be worth between $ 100 million and $ 150 million when fully renovated.

Brewer supports the request, now in the process of uniform land use review,

Either way, Windermere’s new incarnation will include 20 affordable housing units – required by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to compensate for past harassment from tenants.

“It felt good to have been successful,” Haskin said. “The building survived. It was a fight that was not in vain. It’s pretty horrible not having a house. But something good came out of all this suffering.

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