Though it no longer spices the real estate imaginations of the superrich (or the wannabe superrich) as it once did, or commands the stratospheric prices of the pencil-thin skyscrapers that nowadays sway over Midtown Manhattan, River House is still one of New York City’s most illustrious and difficult to get in to co-operative apartment houses.
Designed by the architecture firm Bottomley, Wagner & White, completed in 1931, and situated at the quiet, cul-de-sac end of East 52nd Street with sweeping views up, down and across the East River, the iconic and often gossiped about Art Deco-style edifice has two 15-story wings that flank a 26-story central tower aptly topped by a crown-like flourish. The building’s 70-some units are serviced by a uniformed army of discreet and solicitous staff, and residents are granted automatic membership — if they pay the annual fees — to the onsite River Club, a private and posh athletics and dining establishment that caters to the city’s elite.
Some of the building’s earliest residents include Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Marshall Field and Huntington Hartford, heir to the A&P supermarket fortune, while later residents include heiress/actress Dina Merrill, 20th U.S. Secretary of Commerce Pete Peterson and late and infamously profligate banker John Gutfreund and his equally spendthrift surviving wife Susan.
Current residents are no less notable and include the 39th U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, former Condé Nast chairman Jonathan Newhouse, and actress Uma Thurman, who picked up her 13-room spread in late 2013 for exactly $10 million from romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford.
Still, for all the high-net-worth residents, it’s the laundry list of rich and famous folk who were denied residency by the building’s powerful and choosy board that really gets the tongues wagging. Richard Nixon, Diane Keaton and Gloria Vanderbilt were all denied, but one of the more legendary rejections was that of Tinseltown diva Joan Crawford. So the story goes, Crawford was so pissed at then board president Robert Woodruff, a former CEO of Coca-Cola, that she arranged with Pepsi-Cola, on whose board she became a member when her fourth (and final) husband, Pepsi-Cola Company CEO Alfred Steele, died in 1959, to install their gigantic and now famous neon sign directly across the East River so that whenever Woodruff and other board members looked out their windows they’d be reminded of the error of their ways. Alas, the less thrilling truth of the matter is that the Pepsi-Cola sign was installed long before Crawford made her failed bid to reside at River House.
One of the fortunate and extraordinarily well-financed few to gain approval from the notoriously persnickety board, however, was now 66-year-old British-American businesswoman Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, wife of now 89-year-old British banking scion Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, who has heaved her Michael S. Smith-decorated duplex on the market at $20 million, a good bit less than the $22.5 million price tag it was saddled with when it was first listed more than two years ago and, curiously, substantially more than the $15.75 million it was listed at earlier this year.