Paula Chin in Board Operations on January 17, 2020
Monty Freeman, an architect, had just begun a renovation at the Master Apartments, a 28-story Art Deco gem at 310 Riverside Drive and 103rd Street, when his client told him about a derelict penthouse in bank foreclosure that he should look at. The place was a wreck, but when he stepped out onto the terrace, he was smitten. “I thought, "Oh, I could live here!’” recalls Freeman, who soon bought a one-bedroom on the 18th floor. “I fell in love with the architecture and bohemian ambiance of the place. It was the best move I ever made.”
Freeman joined the co-op board eight years ago, and as he and his fellow directors know firsthand, with architectural grandeur comes great responsibility. Maintaining an older building is a never-ending challenge, but at the Master, which dates to 1929 and was designated a New York City landmark in 1966, the task is even more daunting. It’s not just about bricks and mortar, but also about preserving its architectural integrity – and in this case, its spirit. The Master was originally an apartment hotel atop a cultural center and museum.
“This is a building that has creative arts as its very soul – writers, dancers, filmmakers and theater people.” Freeman says. “It’s our charge to be stewards of its legacy.”
Thanks to prudent steps the board has taken to maintain the Master’s beauty and integrity, it is aging gracefully. The board established a building committee that works in tandem with a finance committee to initiate repairs and renovations and come up with a five-year plan and budget – a job that is a form of triage. “We have to prioritize what would be nice architecture-wise, and what’s urgent and essential,” Freeman explains.
The Master’s rich artistic heritage is, of course, priceless. The building’s architect, Harvey Wiley Corbett, envisioned it as a place “where art and human beings will grow and develop side by side,” and in recent years the board has focused on remaining true to that original mission. In 2012, Kathy Ralph, a seasoned volunteer on co-op committees, began the “Monday Night at the Master” program, which features presentations and readings from an eclectic roster of residents, including historians, authors, and archaeologists who have talked about everything from the civil rights movement to George Gershwin, who lived right across 103rd Street. The popular events are held in the side lobby, where a grand staircase doubles as a “chaircase” for overflow crowds. “People are thrilled to learn about their neighbors and what they’re doing,” Ralph has said. “And with wine and cheese, it’s also a chance to socialize.”
Two years later, two shareholders, Jan Fort and Michael Alicia, inaugurated a rotating art show in the capacious main lobby, inspired by the building’s most storied early resident, Nicholas Roerich, a Russian philosopher and painter, the “master” who gave the building its name. His artwork was shown in a second-floor museum.
“Roerich’s mission was to share art and keep culture alive, which is what we’re doing,” explains Fort, a food stylist who has lived in the Master since 1985. The board spent $10,000 for a sophisticated system for picture hanging and gallery-quality lighting, which has greatly improved the ambiance in the whole lobby. Four artists are featured every year – not just residents, but also people in the neighborhood or those who have a connection to the building.
“It’s a testament to the thriving art community around us, and it’s open to all,” says Fort. “We want it to be that quiet little find for people who are strolling through Riverside Park.”
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