Greeter Lester Barnett shared his infinite knowledge with us about West 57th Street. He’s lived on that street for 33 years.
Starting at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, home to world renowned retailers such as Louis Vuitton and Bergdorf Goodman, we walked west. Lester spoke of the street’s three different eras: 1870s, residential; 1890s, the arts, theatre and galleries; 1910, the arrival of businesses. Today, with the construction of towering 90-story co-ops, the street is known as “Billionaire’s Row.”
Lester brought old photographs of what 57th Street used to look like. We saw elaborate single-family brownstones of the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rothschilds; the 57th Street elevated subway, torn down in the 1950s; “Piano Row” with the elegant Steinway Hall. The original Russian Tea Room looked like an ordinary deli, but became much fancier (with sculptured golden dancing bears on the building) when celebrities like Nureyev and Balanchine were regular customers.
Lester also had juicy stories. Marlon Brando and Wally Cox were friends and lovers who lived at 53 West 57th Street. They wished to be cremated at death and have their ashes mixed! The architect of Carnegie Hall had only designed public schools which is why it looks like a public school. Bill Clinton wanted his office to be at Carnegie Hall Tower, but he was voted down by building management, so he headed up to Harlem.
The pièce de résistance was our visit to Lester’s home, the historic Osbourne Apartments at 7th Avenue and 57th Street. Built in 1883, it was home to many luminaries through the years: Leonard Bernstein wrote West Side Story there; Van Cliburn, Imagine Coca and Craig Claiborne were also residents.
The lobby was designed by J.A. Holzer, head of the Tiffany Mosaic Studio; the New York Times called it “the greatest residential lobby in the city,” where walls and ceilings are resplendent with gold, glass and lapis lazuli.
As magnificent as the lobby is, Lester’s apartment was every bit as dazzling. It’s been lovingly restored to its original detail, which made us all realize that Lester is a direct descendant of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
We also agreed if we lived there, we’d never leave home.