I was in Irving Berlin's penthouse today...! - July 19, 2013
Today, I went just to take a look at the building on West 46th Street that was built by Irving Berlin in 1921 to house his music publishing company, writing studio and penthouse apartment. I didn't see a plaque on the street anywhere. There was a sign saying the penthouse was available to rent, but no plaque. A man walked out of the building but I was busy Facebooking a photo of the front door. By the time I saw him, he was gone and it was too late to talk with him. After a few moments, he returned. I quickly followed him to the door and asked him if I could see the building. He wanted to know if I was hoping to rent the penthouse. I said, "No, I'm a songwriter and I want to see the building." He said, "Follow me," and we went into the small lobby. He told me to take the elevator to the 4th floor and to tell the staff that he'd said to show me around. When I got to the 4th floor, everyone was glad that I wanted to see the place. They know there's history in the building.
The place was designed in the Arts and Crafts style, so there was a lot of dark walnut and leaded glass. The guest coat closet door had leaded glass! I was shown the 4th and 5th floors--the rooms where the music publishing offices were and also where Irving wrote on his "Buick" piano. They said they didn't have access to the penthouse. I thanked them and got into the elevator. As it got near the lobby, I realized that standing behind me was the real estate agent who had been showing the penthouse. I asked him if I could see it.
He asked if I wanted to rent it. I said, "No, I'm a songwriter and I'd like to see it." He said OK and took me up to the penthouse. Somehow, it was pretty much as I'd imagined it, yet I don't believe I've ever seen a photo of the place. There was a sunken living room, down about 10 steps from the entrance. A big fireplace with slate tiles on the back wall. One ceiling fixture that was ugly and new, and another ceiling fixture that was definitely original, probably Tiffany. It was intricately decorated with flowers, leaves, and a spider web. Another guest closet on the landing with a leaded glass door. Up another staircase from the center landing was the bedroom, with more walnut trim and a walnut fireplace mantel with a ceramic border showing two faces of peasants, also in the Arts and Crafts style.
Both the living room and bedroom had a sort of chimney in the ceiling surrounded by vertical windows, allowing light to come in but with privacy. The real estate agent wondered why the bedroom door and bedroom closet door were two inches thick. Later, I remember that Berlin used to sleep late and stay up all night to write. That's why the bedroom door was two inches thick--so his wife could sleep while he wrote songs on the floor below. The sunken living room and the raised bedroom probably allow for several feet of sound insulation below the bedroom.
So this penthouse is for rent for about $6,500. The real estate agent wasn't finding any takers. I told him which music organizations would be good for networking. Some very successful songwriter would probably love to live right in midtown (when they're actually in town). Or maybe a music publisher would love to have an office where Irving Berlin lived. Seeing this building was on my bucket list. It feels great to know I was there. Having just returned from Memphis, where I visited Graceland and the Stax Museum, it would be a crime if I didn't do some of the same right here where I live in NYC. And Irving was a childhood hero of mine. There's something satisfying about having stood in the rooms where he lived. As the old Yiddish proverb says, "A cat can look at a king." Or, at least, at his penthouse apartment.