by Krista Madsen
The Van Tassel (lovingly called “VT”) is no ordinary apartment complex. Its history is rich and fascinating, as we discovered from a handful of long-time residents who gathered at the latest Warner Library Oral Histories session.
• The bas relief medallions flanking the top of the main entrance are portraits of explorer Henry Hudson and Katrina Van Tassel, the building’s literary namesake, as suggested by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of development investor John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (JDR).
• Residency came with: golf club membership, free bus service to the train station and twice monthly “for the ladies” to NYC, a ball room, Gentlemen’s Club, a staff of 22 trained attendants, and a “magnificent” three-acre garden in which grew Japanese evergreens, seasonal trees and flowers.
• The incredibly solid construction initially required no fire escapes with its outer doors of steel, brass piping, slate and bluestone stairs, and Holland bricks that were transported from river barges to horse-drawn carts up Beekman. The apartments boasted double floors, chromium nickel-plated fixtures, and radio antennas. The kitchens were equipped with electric refrigerators, gas ranges, and dumbwaiters.
• Despite all the amenities, the units were tough to fill in hard times. Conceived as a co-op in 1928, the building was complete in 1929 at a cost of nearly $2 million. In 1933, JDR, Jr. purchased it back from stockholders at a foreclosure hearing for $950K, converting it into nearly 260 smaller rentals. By 1942, he resold it at a great loss for $325K.
But more about those dumbwaiters…
Pat Munroe described growing up in the Van Tassel apartments as a children’s paradise. He seems to have explored every inch of the place – parts that are no longer accessible to residents – from the “spook cellar,” called as such since the kids couldn’t find the lights, to the rooftops. He and his friend communicated through the floors by banging on the heating pipes in the corner of their bathrooms. They squeezed one small kid (“we’d fold him up like a pretzel”) into the dumbwaiters and transport him between apartments.
While tenants say they enjoy the feeling of security here, they did recall some robbers getting access through the dumbwaiters. Most people have since sealed them off, but back in the day you could ring a bell and lower your trash to the basement where someone would collect it for you or raise your milk delivery.
The roof is now off-limits, but residents once enjoyed the panoramic view for fireworks and meteor showers. They would use it to hang their laundry, and then there was that one guy who practiced his bagpipes.
Side by side and neatly stacked in alphabetical entryways, VT residents consider themselves a community, though here long enough can certainly mark a shift in how much community people are up for these days. Grounds once “magnificent” are now pretty sparse; the benches that people used to talk away the hours on are in disrepair. Residents complain of dogs (supposedly forbidden but common) and the noise of Beekman nightlife.
“It’s not soundproof,” said Barbara Stevens. “If my neighbor sneezes, I’ll say bless you.”
Nonetheless, what was once a “weak and untimely business investment,” according to archivist Anke Voss- Hubbard, has had no trouble filling every unit every since GM’s production resurgence after WWII, says William Maguire.
“It was a great place to grow up,” says Munroe, who as a boy first laid eyes out of his VT window on the girl who would later become his wife…but you have to listen to the audio to hear more.
Futher historical information for this article comes from an essay by archivist Anke Voss- Hubbard printed in the Rockefeller Family Archives newsletter, Fall 1997.
To listen to the full Van Tassel session and clips see below. Next up: did you grow up foraging your way through the town flora? Join us to share stories of your local edible adventures at the next oral history session at Warner Library on Friday, May 13, 1 p.m. To sign up, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.