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Dorothy Parker Scholars Split on Whether Her Home is Worth Saving

By Leslie Albrecht | October 11, 2011 1:47pm
The owners of 214 W. 72nd Street, at right, say the building was damaged by construction of The Corner, the high-rise on the left. They want to tear it down.
The owners of 214 W. 72nd Street, at right, say the building was damaged by construction of The Corner, the high-rise on the left. They want to tear it down.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — A childhood home of legendary writer Dorothy Parker could have a date with the wrecking ball, and scholars of the Jazz Age writer are split on whether it's worth saving.

The owners of 214 W. 72nd Street, where the talented yet troubled Parker lived as a young child, say the building is a rundown mess — they want to tear it down and replace it with a 12-story apartment building.

Parker, an Upper West Sider until her early 20s, lived in the building for a few years around age 7, decades before she became famous for her poetry and razor-sharp book reviews in The New Yorker.

More than a century later, the structure has fallen into disrepair, says owner Peggy Ma. The building, believed to have been built around 1890, was heavily damaged by the construction of The Corner, the gleaming luxury high-rise at West 72nd and Broadway that's right next door, Ma said.

One of 214 W. 72nd Street's walls was punctured during demolition of neighboring buildings, several walls have cracks, plaster has fallen out of the ceilings, the basement floods frequently, and the entire structure leans almost 2 inches to the east, Ma's daughter, Tiffany Ma, told DNAinfo.

Tiffany Ma said her mother has had to lower rents substantially, and that she has no other choice but to demolish the five-story building and replace it with new apartments, which she said would be designed to blend in with the Upper West Side's unique character.

The Mas recently approached Community Board 7's Preservation Committee about the proposed demolition, which could only happen if the building was exempted from a historic district extension proposed for the neighborhood.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, founder of the Dorothy Parker Society, said losing 214 W. 72nd Street would be a "tragedy."

Fitzpatrick, a licensed tour guide who leads walking tours of Parker-related sites, said he panicked a few years ago when he saw buildings demolished at West 72nd Street and Broadway to make way for The Corner, because he knew that one of Parker's childhood homes was on that block.

"It got spared once and I'm hoping it gets spared a second time," Fitzpatrick said. "It would be a shame to have it knocked down."

Fitzpatrick's passion for Parker was sparked when he read a biography of the writer and realized he lived near her childhood home on West 72nd Street. His fascination led him to start a website and write a book about Parker, who was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table writer's circle.

Parker, whose well-off father was in the garment business, was an Upper West Sider for about 25 years. Living in the neighborhood shaped her personality and later writing, Fitzpatrick said. Parker even made a self-deprecating reference to her West End Avenue upbringing in the short story "Soldiers of the Republic."

"She was a city kid," Fitzpatrick said. "You wouldn’t get that kind of attitude where WiIla Cather grew up in the Midwest. She was a very sharp, insightful writer and a lot of that has to do with growing up [on the Upper West Side]."

A building at 310 W. 80th Street where Parker lived as a teenager has a small plaque outside commemorating the writer. Fitzpatrick said if he had the money for it, he would pay to put up plaques at all the Parker residences on the Upper West Side.

But Marion Meade, author of the Parker biography "What Fresh Hell is This," doesn't think dilapidated 214 W. 72nd Street is worth saving, and she says Parker herself probably would have agreed.

Of the several Parker residences on the Upper West Side, the 72nd Street building is probably in the worst shape, said Meade, an Upper West Side resident of four-decades. Other buildings, such as Parker's red brick apartment house on West 80th Street, have been better maintained over the years, she said.

Parker's parents, the Rothschilds, owned the entire house at 214 W. 72nd Street, Meade said, employing Irish servants who lived on the top floor. The family's wealth made for a comfortable life, but the 72nd Street building wasn't a place of happy memories for Dorothy Parker, Meade said.

The writer's mother died while she was living in the West 72nd Street house, and Parker, who later attempted suicide and struggled with alcoholism, spent her entire life trying to overcome the trauma, Meade said.

The Rothschilds moved out of 214 W. 72nd Street because it carried too many bad memories, according to Meade.

"They had everything," Meade said. "They had money, they had luxury, and it all collapsed when the mother died. The family was absolutely crushed and they had to get out of there. So it was not a place that Dorothy Parker looked back on with fond memories."

She added, "She probably would think it's pretty neat if someone built [new apartments] there."

Want to learn more about Dorothy Parker's time on the Upper West Side? Parker scholar Kevin Fitzpatrick's next walking tour is on on Saturday, Nov. 12, 12 - 2 p.m. The cost is $20. Check out dorothyparker.com for more details.

Fitzpatrick is also giving a free talk, "Dorothy Parker's New York," at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library on Nov. 3, 6:30 p.m. Mid-Manhattan Library, 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, Sixth Floor.