A decrepit building at 33 West 63rd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a short hop from Lincoln Center, a hairline’s skip from blue-chip high-rises, and a half century’s jump away from a slum. In fact, this architectural oddity is the last (barely) living reminder of a neighborhood that was once a ghetto; an area of the city so terribly blighted that, in its final days, exterior settings for Robert Wise’s West Side Story (1961) were shot there.
The story behind 33 West 63rd Street, long a puzzle to passers-by and audiences leaving the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas across the street, is in danger of being lost to time. Built in the 1890s, the tenement is one of the many dozens of architectural holdouts dotting the city — among them, the Smith & Wollensky building at Third Avenue and East 49th Street, and the small corner building, since demolished and rebuilt, that forced Macy’s to cut a notch out of its flagship at Herald Square. It is unclear, though, whether the West 63rd Street building still exists out of stubbornness or foolishness, or both.
The building stands as a testament to, and last laugh of, a man who was a wispy philanthropist, a ponderous tightwad, and a curmudgeonly eccentric named Colonel Jehiel R. Elyachar. According to Alexandre Levitksy, one of the few people who still remembers him, the Colonel was “a tiny, bent over little gnome of a man.” He earned his “colonel” title while working in World War II military intelligence and insisted that everyone address him as Colonel…including his children.
A stickler for routine, the colonel ate the same breakfast every day: a plain roll cut horizontally — vertically cut rolls he would not touch — and strained chicken soup. “He was really, really cheap,” Mr. Carlovich said, “yet he would walk around with $40,000 in his pocket.”
In the late 60s, property tycoon Paul Milstein had planned to build a 43-story office, retail and apartment tower complex in the neighborhood of West 63rd Street and Broadway. His construction required the demolition of several crumbling buildings in the vicinity; every owner agreed (eagerly, I would assume) to sell…with one notable and unfortunate exception: the Colonel, of course. Milstein made him an offer on his West 63rd Street tenement…an “offer that the colonel seemed delighted to refuse” but equally delighted to negotiate ad infinitum.
Thus began a series of offers and counteroffers, negotiations and proposals, until the Colonel suddenly agreed upon a figure…and just as suddenly changed his mind. He now insisted on a direct swap: if Milstein would purchase a similar walk-up on the East Side, he’d exchange it for the desired West 63rd Street tenement. Milstein agreed and bought the East Side walk-up; but, in the meantime, the Colonel had suddenly changed his mind once again.
However, this time the Colonel changed his mind with a twist: he suddenly waxed “philanthropic” and demanded that Milstein donate $100,000 to his favorite charity. It should come as no surprise that Milstein gave up and walked away, mumbling a few expletives along the way.
Mr. Carlovich [the Colonel’s former building manager] said it was most likely that the colonel never intended to sell. He did not need the money, having paid off the mortgages on his properties. The colonel also suspected that Spencer Dvorkin, who was then his son-in-law, was working with the Milsteins to push the sale through. “The colonel was very, very suspicious,” Mr. Carlovich said. “I think he didn’t sell to spite his son-in-law.”
The Colonel passed on to that Big Tenement in the Sky in 1989 at age 90, following bitter fights with two of his children over property ownership. Paul Milstein died in 2010 at age 87. But 33 West 63rd Street still remains. “’It sticks out like a sore thumb,’ Mr. Cobin [a current resident of the building] said, ‘or a finger — which is probably what the colonel had in mind.’”
- Upper West Side Journal: Standing Among Skyscrapers Decades After Standing in One’s Way (nytimes.com)
- O Urban Pioneers! (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)