Book Review: House of Outrageous Fortune

A guilty pleasure of mine is keeping up with the gossip columns, whether they be articles posted on my friends’ facebook pages or on Dealbreaker. I suspect it’s something that we never really grow out of from high school: we always want to be part of the “in crowd,” or at least know what the “in crowd” is doing.

This was what drove me to read “House of Outrageous Fortune” by Michael Gross. It turned out be more than the story of just the building’s tenants. The book positions the building as yet another chapter in the evolving Upper West Side history from the pre-Civil War days, and, in some ways, overshadows the stories of its current tenants. It is also a story of the Zeckendorfs, a family who could have been sharing the same celebrity status as Trump in NYC. In many respects, the apartment was a dream that captured the world’s new elite who now contribute to 15CPW’s nickname, “the world’s most powerful address.”

“House of Outrageous Fortune” begins by hearkening back to 1854, when Central Park itself was only an idea and the Upper West Side didn’t exist. It sets the stage of how difficult it is to create an affluent address. While it seems inconceivable now, Columbus Circle was not a desired address until very recently. Only through plans, mistakes, and sheer force of will was the area turned from a slum to a center of wealth and culture.

If the idea of building a luxury condo wasn’t hard enough to accept, then the price of it would have definitely killed it. The Zenkendorfs, who have built notable buildings in the city, created an apartment building sparing almost no expense in an environment and backers who were only interested in profits (or at least Michael Gross portrays some of the partners). The family has been in NY real estate for many generations, but debt had nearly wiped out all of the family’s capital. Taking the lesson of financial prudency to heart, the current generation (Arthur and Will Zenkendorf) deploys their capital and time prudently, but still believes in quality over cost. With clever marketing and structural ingenuity (both in the building and the deal), they were able to build almost without compromise.

The stories of the tenants, which is the allure to reading the book in the first place, are just as contentious. All of them, however, have one thing in common: they are the “new money.” These are not the Rockefellers or the Crowns, but those who have made their fortune in the recent trends of the market. Because the majority of them are in the finance field, their negotiating and their competitiveness between each other lead to very colorful stories of people outbidding each other, or creating sweetheart deals by leveraging their capital. Though while the new money like jostling among each other, they loathe to show their wealth in public for one reason or another. So don’t expect the building to look gaudy and flamboyant from the outside.

If I had one real criticism for the book, it could have spent more time emphasizing the history of the East Side, and the rise of the co-ops. A strange factor that arose from the days of old, the majority of NYC apartments are co-ops rather than condos. In the past, apartments were like mini-clubs; neighbors were usually good friends or family, and the board had the ability to say no to anyone. This hastened the growth of the UWS, which sought to replicate its east side reflection but accepting the “new money.”

Technology has always been my focus, but real estate has the allure of tangibility. When Bill Zenkendorf was effectively bought out by his sons, he notes that his contributions are clear and evident in the NYC skyline, and didn’t have any regrets. People, in their heart of hearts, want to be remembered for something they have built, and the story of CPW15 is one of recognition and remembrance for all those involved, from the early architects of the UWS to the current tenants that may or may not be occupying the apartments. Certainly, the apartments are expensive, but they’re worth it.

Link to the book: http://www.amazon.com/House-Outrageous-Fortune-Fifteen-Powerful/dp/1451666195

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