An apartment in Chelsea after 60 years

Andrew Alpern spent six decades in this 17th-floor co-op, which he bought new for $3,000.
Photo: Annie Schlechter

It was at the end of 1964 when I finally had a small income that I decided, OK, now I can get rid of Mother’s cast-offs,says Andrew Alpern during a tour of the one-bedroom co-op in the middle-income Penn South complex in Chelsea he has lived in since 1962 when it was new. “And I went to B. Altman” – the long-gone department store whose distinguished building still stands on 34th and Fifth – “and bought that sofa you’re sitting on. I paid 468 $, on sale, which at the time was a lot of money.

Alpern, 83, often digresses during a conversation, one thing leading to another that reminds him of a number of references and stories relating to his original subject, as he is an expert at digging the story of life in this city, where he lived all his life (just like his parents).

Alpern grew up on West 82nd Street. He went to Columbia University, where he studied architecture; As a student, he bought this learned apartment on the 17th floor while it was still under construction. After working as an architect for over 20 years, he had a second career as a lawyer. But he is well known for his 11 books on Manhattan architecture from around 1860 and wrote on, among other subjects, the buildings of Rosario Candela and the Dakota. (His most recent book, Chic gates: elegant entrances and interesting entrances in apartments for affluent people in New York, was published in 2020.) He wrote them all while living in Penn South, which was sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, where resale prices are capped, as are buyers’ incomes, so to maintain affordability. (There’s a long waiting list.) Meanwhile, the blocks around it, especially next to the High Line, are home to some of the fanciest buildings of our current Golden Age.

Alpern’s apartment in 1969, photographed by Louis Reens for Home & Gardenit is Guide for young living. It hasn’t changed much since. The Safari chairs were replaced with Wassily chairs, and the homemade plywood cubes were replaced in 1975 with a stacked book coffee table by Maitland-Smith. He eventually donated his harpsichord to a music school and installed the filing cabinet in its place.
Photo: Louis Reens

Alpern only paid $3,000 for this apartment. When he moved in, he demolished – by hand with a small mallet – two walls that closed off the eat-in kitchen. He built libraries; filled the walls with posters of the now long-defunct Wittenborn art book shop; and bought paper lanterns from Azuma, the beloved and long-gone place for Japanese paper lanterns and home accessories – as well as a small cube lantern from Isamu Noguchi. He covered the balcony’s concrete floor with redwood gratings from the lumber yard across the street (redwood was still legal at the time). But it was her decision to tilt the furniture at a 45-degree angle in the south-facing living room that really opened up the space.

Her apartment was featured in Home & Gardenit is Guide for young living in 1969. The black and white photographs of Louis Reens show him well as he is today. Over the years, as books and collections of skulls, claws and toy soldiers accumulated, more shelves were added and he donated his underused harpsichord to the Berkeley Carroll School to make room for more storage.

The balcony in 1969. Alpern covered its concrete floor with redwood slats and filled the aluminum railing with bamboo.
Photo: Louis Reens

The balcony today. He closed it to make room for more books and mirrored the ceiling for more light and views.
Photo: Annie Schlechter

The balcony was enclosed, adding more space for books. Today, a spectacular carved oak throne in the shape of a skeleton sits near the unsigned portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, the fourth Duke of Urbino. (“I have a three-volume set of the six Dukes of Urbino,” says Alpern, “so I know he was born in 1490. He died, probably poisoned, in 1538.”) The portrait “was in a miserable state. I had it relined, re-tensioned, cleaned, repaired and framed,” he says. “The only other known painting of him was by Titian in 1538, the year of his death. It hangs in the Uffizi. While the skulls, claws, and possibly poisoned duke all look a little macabre, it is appropriate to note that Alpern had a notable collection of drawings, books and ephemera by Edward Gorey which he donated to Columbia in 2010.

Has Alpern ever been tempted to move? “When I bought the place off-plan when I was 21, my intention was for it to be my permanent home,” he says. “And knowing the Manhattan real estate market, I knew that once I had my own place, it would be forever. We Alperns don’t move around much. And that B. Altman sofa didn’t either no longer moved from where he first put it.

The kitchen and the dining room: Alpern has designed two bookcases to close the kitchen from the kitchen. The original redwood cabinets are still in place; two are covered with reproductions of the walls of the Studiolo Room in Gubbio’s Ducal Palace at the Met. “They’re just screwed in the back,” says Alpern. “They turn out to be an exact match, and the color just happens to be the right one.”
Photo: Annie Schlechter

Alpern added shelving in the kitchen to accommodate its ever-expanding library.
Photo: Annie Schlechter

His skeleton chair in front of an unsigned portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, fourth Duke of Urbino.
Photo: Annie Schlechter

Bedroom: The window had no view, so Alpern put the bed against it. “I never turn on the heating or air conditioning in the bedroom, which allowed me to put the bed with my head against the window,” he says. “But the real reason for this placement was to accommodate the two-bedroom bookcases. They’re the only ones I didn’t design and build myself. Photo: Louis Reens (black and white), Annie Schlechter.

Bedroom: The window had no view, so Alpern put the bed against it. “I never turn on the heating or the air conditioning in the room, which frees…
Bedroom: The window had no view, so Alpern put the bed against it. “I never turn on the heating or air conditioning in the bedroom, which allowed me to put the bed with my head against the window,” he says. “But the real reason for this placement was to accommodate the two-bedroom bookcases. They’re the only ones I didn’t design and build myself. Photo: Louis Reens (black and white), Annie Schlechter.

Andrew Alpern today: He stands next to his dining table in front of a painting by Argentinian artist Fernando Maza. The walls are covered with a light fabric covered with small shards of tinted cork.
Photo: Annie Schlechter

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