Architectural Ambler: The Belnord – 225 West 86th Street

The Belnord courtyard facing west

The Belnord courtyard facing west

This month, the Architectural Ambler ventures into the little-seen courtyard of The Belnord, a palatial apartment building in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It’s privately owned, but if you’re in New York City this month, you can visit the courtyard in-person – now through December 16 (2 p.m. – 5 p.m., weekdays only). Reservations are required for admittance; email rsvp@architecturaltrust.org to make a reservation.

One hundred and one years ago when The Belnord was completed, it was touted as the largest apartment building in the world, and one of the most luxurious places to live in New York City.

Occupying a full city block bounded by West 86th and West 87th streets, Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, it also boasted “the largest private open air garden in the world” – a courtyard 231 feet long and 94 feet wide.

View from the roof

View from the roof

Resembling a Medici palazzo of Renaissance Florence, The Belnord was designed to attract the city’s most affluent residents. To coax them out of their old-fashioned brownstones in lower Manhattan, The Belnord was big, grand and impressive, 13 stories in height, and with all the latest amenities for 20th-century living – including a central vacuuming system and refrigerators that could make their own ice.

Archway Freschi

Archway Freschi

Every apartment had a parlor, a dining room, a spacious entrance foyer, one or more bathrooms, and up to six bedrooms, along with separate servants’ quarters and plenty of closet space. Rents started out at $175 to $500 a month, which was high for the time.

And the views from the rooms were excellent. In response to the critique that apartment buildings generally had poor views – overlooking the backs of tenement buildings or alleyways, for example – architect H. Hobart Weekes designed The Belnord around a garden courtyard, guaranteeing that no apartment would ever overlook a less-than-savory backyard scene. Most of the bedrooms of The Belnord’s nearly 200 apartments look out onto the courtyard – ensuring a pleasant view and a quiet setting.

The courtyard serves functional purposes as well, and while it was not unique among early 20th-century stylish residences of the Upper West Side, its size was. At 22,000 square feet, The Belnord’s courtyard was the largest in the city in 1908 – and big enough for carriages to enter, loop around in, and exit, dropping off or picking up residents and their guests along the way.

Archway from West 86th Street

Archway from West 86th Street

Two barrel-vaulted passageways cut through the West 86th Street façade to connect the courtyard to the street – the right passageway for entry, the left for exit. The arched ceilings of the passageways are painted with neoclassical, Roman-inspired scenes – muses in togas holding urns and lyres against a Pompeian red background. (The entrance gates and guard house are not original.)

Fountain in the courtyard garden

Fountain in the courtyard garden

Inside the courtyard, the driveway loop encloses a series of formal flower beds, pear trees and postage-stamp lawns. At the center of the courtyard is a fountain – a neoclassical, garland-festooned chalice made of Italian marble and set upon a Baroque-scrolled pedestal standing in a square pool of water. The fountain has been restored in recent years, as have been the original lamp posts with clusters of globe-shaped bulbs. At the angled corners of the courtyard and at the center of the long side opposite the barrel-vaulted passageways are the glass-canopied entrances into the building.

Underneath this formal courtyard is a vast, subterranean service “courtyard” for delivery trucks, accessible from a vehicular entrance on West 87th Street. Glass-covered vaults once pierced through the ground of the formal gardens to light it.

Around the courtyard, the building’s facades are entirely rusticated – meaning that the joints between the walls’ limestone blocks are wide and deep. Windows are not evenly spaced, because their placement is dictated by the floor plans of the apartments inside. Window treatments are simple – plain jack arches with keystones. Copper-sheathed stacks of bay windows – double stacks in the centers of the short walls and two separate columns in each of the long walls – add to the texture and visual tactility of the walls, as do the string courses – one per floor – encircling the courtyard.

Courtyard doorway

Courtyard doorway

Street-side, The Belnord’s facades follow a more formal design typical of large city buildings built in the early 1900s. The facades are broken into four horizontal segments separated by large molded stringcourses: the lowest section of each facade is heavily rusticated, the next one up is less so; the largest section – of seven floors – is smooth-faced with the exception of the outer bays, which are slightly rusticated; and the top floor is ringed by an alternating pattern of windows and incised panels. A large cornice tops it all off.

Look carefully, and notice that while the building stands 13 stories tall for most of the West 86th and West 87th street facades and for all of the Broadway façade, it stands only 12 stories tall on Amsterdam Avenue and for a few bays (those closest to Amsterdam Avenue) of the West 86th and West 87th street facades. This is because the Belnord was built into a slight hill – the lowest floor visible from the street contains the service courtyard, accessible through the West 87th Street vehicular entrance.

Garden in the courtyard

Garden in the courtyard

The Belnord was designated as a New York City landmark in 1966, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. All of its facades – both street-side and courtyard – are protected by a historic preservation easement held by the Trust. If you are unable to visit the courtyard this month, check back with the Trust throughout the next year for more opportunities to experience this garden oasis in the midst of Manhattan.