Hoping for enhanced sales and prestige, many boards are
branding their properties.
You live at 123 Main Street. Booorrrr-rinnnnng! You live at The Ansonia! The Dakota! The San Remo! Now those sound like co-op or condo buildings you want to live in. What’s in a name, anyway? Class, distinction, and a valuable sales tool (“branding your product,” as sales folk put it) that is leading even modest New York City co-ops and condos to sport names.
“It’s a way to make your building stand out to people who want to buy an apartment there and to call attention to it in a positive way,” says Steve Wolgast, a former co-op board president of 447 Fort Washington Avenue, at West 180th Street in Upper Manhattan, who was involved in turning 447 into The Pinehurst – or, technically, in restoring its name.
Explains former board member Rita McKee: “We’d been doing a lot of research on the building for its 100th anniversary in 2007. We weren’t able to find the original building drawings, but at the New York Public Library we found a book about New York City apartment houses with an original  advertisement for it as ‘The Pinehurst.’ We had [a copy of the ad] up in our elevator for awhile so people could see it.” The residents in the 43-unit building soon agreed to re-adopt the name.
There’s a reason that virtually all new residential developments rising in New York have names, from The Edge, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and The Laurel, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Lafayette Estates in Sound View, The Bronx. For existing co-ops and condos, says Steve Greenbaum, director of property management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate, “anything we can do to improve marketability and give the building a little edge is helpful.”
He himself has been involved in the naming of – the branding of buildings – including The Sterling cooperative at 209 East 56th Street in Manhattan and Hardenbrook House, a condominium at 404 East 66th Street in Manhattan. “It just seemed to have a better cache and gave the building a better viability as being more upscale,” Greenbaum says of the latter, noting that the historically apt name comes from that of the 20-acre Hardenbrook Farm that in the early 19th century spread from 64th to 66th Streets between Third Avenue and the East River.
In fact, naming buildings is a centuries-old tradition in New York City, brought over by the first settlers from England. In the old country, names were used to identify houses in areas that did not have street numbers – a functionality that by the Victorian era had become a fad, with buildings in London given such manorial names as Grosvenor Gardens and Albert Mansions. In 19th-century New York, apartment house naming became a vogue, even inspiring a backlash. One writer in the 1890s ridiculed the naming of certain tenements as The Pembroke, The Warwick and The Bayard, names that historian Elizabeth Collins Cromley says were precisely bestowed “by developers who wanted to upgrade the image of their buildings.” Plus ça change....
While building names aren’t a magic bullet, they can give even a tenement an individual personality and make its dwellers feel less like cogs in numbered boxes – sometimes, occasionally, even inspiring a pride that leads to bettering a place.
According to Arthur Minton in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Association, by 1945, one-fourth of New York City’s apartment buildings had names. About a third included the words “Court” or “Arms,” and a significant number used “Hall.” Other popular endings were as “Gardens,” “Plaza,” “Terrace,” and “Towers.”
So, let’s say your board is considering naming your building. How do you go about finding the right moniker? Are there legal ramifications? What’s the best way to present the idea to your shareholders/unit-owners? And what do you do with a name once you have it?
Put it on staff uniforms, for one thing, which, paradoxically, provided the reason for The Sterling getting a name. The 106-unit co-op was looking to buy new uniforms, “and this building had a particularly long street address,” recalls Greenbaum, its managing agent. “We’d be writing the address across their chest and up their arm. We figured a short name would look a loot better.” The building, he says, had talked about acquiring a name “for a couple of years” before.
“The trick is to come up with a lot of names and then whittle down the list. To me, ‘a lot’ starts at 100 and goes up,” says Athol Foden, founder and president of the Northern California branding and marketing firm Brighter Naming, which specializes in building names. “I tell clients, ‘Remember, we’re not picking the final name today. We’re just trying to shorten the list.’ Then, after you do that, you polish the names and blend names.”
After some discussion, board member James Marotta published a four-page newsletter that included, among other topics, a call for a building name. Concurrently, longtime board president Mary Ann Savarese e-mailed residents for name requests. They received 30 responses, including The Chateau, The Larchmont, The Scarsdale, and “bizarre names like The Honolulu, The Bermuda, and The Bartholomew,” along with the board’s eventual three finalists, The Prestige, The Sterling, and The Sutton Grand. “We didn’t want to do anything with ‘Arms,’ because people thought it’d be too militaristic,” Greenbaum says.
Marotta distributed ballots with the finalists, instructing residents to choose their favorites in order and to write down any strong objections they might have to a particular name. Simple and straightforward, right? Not so much, as it happened. Residents called and e-mailed to complain, and one of them even showed up at Marotta’s door. Another got 20 signatures on a petition to find more names. Some objected to Sutton Grand since the building isn’t on Sutton Place. Others didn’t feel the building was prestigious enough to be named The Prestige. And so it goes.
The board solicited another round of names from residents, yielding 13 more for a total of 43. Although a new name, The Ashton, made a good showing in a second heat voted on by residents, says Greenbaum, the votes ultimately went to The Sterling. “Nobody can say they weren’t part of the decision,” says Greenbaum. “Everybody got a vote and a big majority was in favor of that name. We didn’t hear any uproar like, ‘Oh, my God, The Bartholomew, I don’t want to live in the Bartholomew.’”
Are there legal minefields to avoid in choosing a name? Fewer than you’d think. You can’t trademark a common word like “apple,” although logos containing common words can indeed be trademarked – Apple Computer, Apple Bank, and Apple Records. Trademark law is as much science as it is art, but generally, different business can all be called “Apple” so long as the businesses are distinct and unlikely to cause confusion. The same holds usually in terms of building names: common words such as “towers,” “hall,” “arms,” “plaza,” “gardens,” and the like are all fair game. New York City is home to both a condo called Chelsea Modern and a rental apartment house, also in Chelsea, called The Modern.
“The interesting thing with naming buildings is there are not that many legal issues, meaning you could pretty much call your building whatever you want to call it,” says Foden. “Trademark law is involved, and while Donald Trump is a branding guru, if your last name really was Trump, you could call your building some variant of that. I had a friend in New York named Charles Smart who called his company Smart Software. Other companies wanted to as well, and objected, but he could do it because it was his name.”
In New York City, the main branch of the New York Public Library, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, has resources on local architecture and history, primarily in the Art & Architecture Collection, in Room 300. The library subscribes to the Avery Index of architectural periodicals, to help you find articles that may contain floor plans, drawings, sketches, photos, and construction information on structures.
The other place to find blueprints, plans, and drawings of buildings in New York City is the New York City Department of Buildings. Also, the Landmarks Preservation Commission publishes reports on its website, another great resource.
So, in the end, what’s in a name? History, tradition, and branding, but also an intangible sense of a place with its own identity where you can hang your hat. “It’s a nice way to think of a building,” says Wolgast. “It’s not just a stack of bricks that you go home to at night.”
A TRADITIONAL APPROACH
One of the best ways of naming your co-op or condo is to keep with New York history and tradition – as the board of The Pinehurst did in discovering the building’s original name, or the board at Hardenbrook House did after discovering the area’s legacy. Some standard sources can help.
Columbia University has its New York Real Estate Brochure Collection online and searchable at:
You can learn what buildings – perhaps your own, perhaps those around you – were named through low-cost, readily available books. Among them:
• Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments (Cornell University Press, 1990), by Elizabeth Collins Cromley
• Living It Up: A Guide to the Named Apartment Houses of New York (Macmillan, 1984), by Thomas E. Norton and Jerry E. Patterson
• Naming New York: Manhattan Places and How They Got Their Names (NYU Press, 2001), by Sanna Feirstein
• The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins (Fordham University Press, 1990), by Henry Moscow
• West of Fifth: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Manhattan’s West Side.(Atheneum, 1987), by James Trager
• The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale University Press, 1995), by Kenneth T. Jackson