Nothing could be simpler than the purpose of a building’s door — to let people in. But Andrew Alpern complicates things immediately in the introduction to his sumptuous new book, “Posh Portals: Elegant Entrances and Ingratiating Ingresses to Apartments for the Affluent in New York City” (Abbeville Press).
“A successful apartment house entrance must perform several functions, all of which must be kept in a delicate balance,” Mr. Alpern, a lawyer, architect and architectural historian, writes. It has to welcome those who have legitimate business in a building and discourage everyone else from approaching. And even as a doorway encloses, it discloses. “Almost by default, the appearance of the entrance tells the visitor and casual passer-by of the status of the residents within, and something of their collective taste.”
With its ornate title, minutely detailed photographs, by Kenneth Grant, and whimsical watercolor drawings, by Simon Fieldhouse, “Posh Portals” is a coffee-table bonbon and envy generator.
Its scores of buildings mostly date to the they-don’t-build-’em-like-that-anymore era between the late 19th century and World War II, with their segmented archways, ruffle-topped columns and wrought iron gates entwined with patinated foliage. Some of the entrances have terra-cotta figurines supporting porch roofs; others, lamps with giant, milky globes. Still others are flanked by urns planted with evergreens, or topped by Juliet balconies where no one was ever expected to stand and soliloquize, or furnished with waterproof canopies sticking out like tongues.
“Posh Portals” opens with the Dakota, on the Upper West Side, an 1884 Gilded Age pile that is festooned with turrets and gables and scarred by tragedy. The first luxury apartment building in New York, it was designed to lure upper-middle-class townhouse owners away from vertical living by offering stair-less comfort, splendid appointments and a citadel-like feeling of grandeur. Even those enticements did not make it an easy sell. “For such an unusual building, it had to have an impressive entrance,” Mr. Alpern said in a recent phone interview.
That entrance is a barrel-vaulted arch that leads to a huge interior courtyard, where carriages could drop off residents at one of four corner lobbies and turn around. The Dakota’s courtyard also provided light and air to the rooms that opened onto it.
For middle-class apartment buildings, too, portals were calling cards. Nineteenth-century developers embellished them to distinguish the buildings from tenement houses and created more modest entrances for tradespeople or servants that might have been separated by only a few feet from the main ones.
Names were carved over doorways that evoked Sir Walter Scott novels like “Ivanhoe” and European grand tour destinations like the Acropolis. Later, in a kind of reverse snobbery, some of the finest buildings became known familiarly only by their street numbers. “If you talk amongst real estate brokers, they won’t even mention the avenue,” Mr. Alpern said. “They’ll just talk about 998 or 740,” referring to addresses on Fifth and Park, respectively.
As New York apartment buildings became sleeker, architects lost the inclination to get fancy with their facades, and you will find nothing modernist in “Posh Portals.” Richard Meier’s millennial Perry Street towers, for instance, are “very grandiose, unbelievably expensive, very luxurious, but in my view don’t feel residential,” Mr. Alpern said.
But he has not given up entirely on the 21st century. “Posh Portals” shows several buildings designed by Robert A.M. Stern, an architect who luxuriates in materials and ornament on a scale not introduced to New York since the Art Deco creations of Rosario Candela. The celebrity-and-plutocrat-packed 15 Central Park West (2008) and waterfront 70 Vestry Street (2018) — which has a drive-in courtyard that is no less of a selling point now than it was when the Dakota was built — are both in the book. It also makes goo-goo eyes at 135 East 79th Street (2014), which was designed by William Sofield with an arched, two-story entrance flanked by espaliered pear trees hand carved in limestone.
What are the demands of traditional portals in an age of accessibility ramps, security cameras and touchless entry technology that keeps viruses at bay?
Daniel Lobitz, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, said ornament has always been useful in performing the limbo trick of making entrances both friendly and forbidding. A beautiful front door with a flouncy metalwork grille — “it’s a security feature but at the same time it’s a decorative feature.” (If only security cameras were designed to blend more seamlessly, he lamented.)
So, too, a pair of glowing bronze-and-leaded-glass LED lanterns that flank a front door create a feeling of safe home “that goes back to the beginning of time,” Mr. Lobitz said. He described the building exterior as a fluid space that blends into the public realm, illuminating the sidewalk beyond the entrance and inviting pedestrians to pass by for the sheer pleasure of being in its orbit.
Mr. Sofield also considers the public experience. He personally carved the limestone espaliers at 135 East 79th Street, adding an owl and a peacock to the branches, partly to amuse people standing at the bus stop just outside. (You have to work quickly while the stone is still wet, he said about the unfinished mouse in the composition.)
Neither did he stint on the service entrance, which he designed with the same black-lacquer elegance as the building’s retail shop doors on East 78th Street. “That’s because I and my staff are escorted to the service entrance,” he said. “There is a level of graciousness around them mostly because of the way I’ve been treated.”
Stepping away from the poshness celebrated in Mr. Alpern’s book, I invited Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University, to comment on the portals of buildings in my Upper Manhattan neighborhood. We looked at photos of late-19th-century brownstones with their separate tradesmen’s entrances at the base, leading into what had been the kitchens of single-family homes (until many were converted into garden apartments).
Mr. Dolkart identified one brownstone with voluptuous figurines as an 1890s tenement house that probably hired immigrant stone carvers to attract residents exactly as the developers of more affluent properties did. “The carving just might be a bit cruder, and the materials of lower quality,” he said.
Such buildings often have names, too, possibly inspired by the owner’s European birthplace, or maybe a family member. “If you see a tenement named Bertha, you can be sure the developer’s wife was named Bertha,” Mr. Dolkart said.
In the economic chaos of the 1970s, some tenement rows were scooped up and combined into single structures with a dominant entrance. Mr. Dolkart eyed the main portal of a triplet on Manhattan Avenue at West 122nd Street that had been reborn as a building called Angelou Court. (It was likely named in honor of Maya Angelou, who owned a house on West 120th Street.)
“Look at how fancifully wonderful it is,” he said. “Three little spindly columns supporting this rather heavy escutcheon and beautiful foliate carving around the door.”