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Where Art and Humans Grow Side by Side

Kathy Ralph,Former Board President, Master Apartments
Resident Since:1977
Joined Board: 2013

Back in the spring of 2012, Kathy Ralph had a sparkling idea. She’d been living in the Master Apartments at Riverside Drive and West 103rd Street for years, and she thought it was time to tap into the vision of the Art Deco building’s architect, Harvey Wiley Corbett, who foresaw it as a place “where art and human beings will grow and develop side by side.” 

“Knowing how many interesting people live in the building, I thought I would try to showcase them,” says Ralph, 65, who works as a consultant in the healthcare quality field. “It could be an opportunity for people to learn about their neighbors and what they’re doing and, with wine and cheese, a chance to socialize.”

So Ralph, a seasoned volunteer on co-op committees, put together the first “Monday Night at the Master” program. Monty Freeman, a shareholder who works as an architect, gave a talk in the side lobby, where a grand staircase leads up to a second-floor space that once housed a museum and an art institute. The turnout was large, the response electric. On that night, an enduring institution was born.

 “The board was thrilled,” recalls Ralph. “And people were thrilled to learn about their neighbors and what they’re doing. Plus, it was intellectually stimulating.” Since that night, shareholders have flocked to the side lobby for talks and presentations and readings by an eclectic roster of their neighbors, including filmmakers, writers, an archaeologist, a master stone carver, an advocate for safe streets, a chronicler of Greta Garbo’s art collection, a public parks administrator, and a conservator who was restoring an antique harpsichord at the Metropolitan Museum. 

The year after that inaugural Monday night event, Ralph got elected to the co-op board and served for four years, most of them as president. The year of her election, two other shareholders, Jan Fort and Michael Alicia, took another step toward realizing Harvey Wiley Corbett’s vision by inaugurating a rotating art show on the capacious wall of the main lobby. Currently showing are some magnificent photographs by a neighborhood resident named Donna Svennevik, whose pictures chronicle her time living amid two very different immigrant cultures in Brooklyn – a Scandinavian family and twin-brother Puerto Rican bikers and their family.  “Our idea was ‘Let’s return the building to its original mission,’” Alicia says. 

That mission, as stated by Corbett, sprang from the building’s most remarkable early resident, Nicholas Roerich, a flamboyant, globe-trotting Russian philosopher and painter who once designed sets for Igor Stravinsky. Roerich, whose artwork was shown in the second-floor museum, was the master who gave the building its name.

The building itself is a work of art, a 28-story Art Deco jewel that opened the month of the stock market crash in 1929, featuring elaborate brickwork and the city’s first corner windows, which afford sweeping views of Riverside Park and the Hudson River. The building was converted to a co-op in the late 1980s and now has 300 apartments. It’s managed by Don Skupinsky of Orsid Realty.

When she ran for the co-op board, Ralph felt some uncertainty. “I always thought board work was for people with backgrounds in finance and architecture,” says Ralph, who never married and lives in an eighth floor apartment with a river view. “But once I got on the board, I realized it involves human-resource problems, managing a staff, preparing procedures and policies, editing documents – things I’m used to doing in my work at hospitals.” 

Ralph left the board last year but continues to put on “Monday Night at the Master” programs. There’s no shortage of candidates. “People approach me all the time and say they have something they’d love to talk about,” she says. Up next is a talk by long-time resident Frank Hugus, who will discuss his recently published translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s first novel, The Improvisatore: A Novel of Italy. Another lively overflow crowd is expected. 

“This is a friendly building,” Ralph says, “and the friendliness starts at the front door – getting greeted by the doorman, entering the beautiful lobby, seeing the art gallery on the wall. I think it all makes people realize there’s a vibrancy and a vitality to the building.”

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