Inside New York’s ‘Most Bizarre’ Secret Penthouse
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, as the sun turned the stained-glass skylight of a Midtown penthouse into a dazzling display of jewel tones, Prosecco was poured into flutes. A saxophonist and a violinist who had met moments earlier decided to play a Charlie Parker tune together. When they finished, a small, international and impeccably dressed crowd cheered.
In another part of the room, a hat designer was showing off his one-of-a-kind creations, involving emeralds, snakeskin and feathers from Peru. Nearby, a pink-haired painter from Cyprus was explaining her most recent work, hung on the wall behind her.
For the past year and a half, Luxuny — the atelier occupying this penthouse high above Bryant Park — has been the setting for various live performances, trunk shows and chef tastings. Part luxury store, part art gallery, part private club, Luxuny is a bit difficult to define. Its founders, K.C. Jones and Luca Santonato, say their mission is to foster a space where “commerce meets culture and community.”
That may sound like a 21st-century sensibility, but this particular space, designated a city landmark in 1988 and once called “the most bizarre studio in the city,” has a century-long history of hosting fantastic events — and fascinating people. The building was home to a women-only bar. An artist who might also have been a spy lived upstairs for decades. The penthouse once housed a pipe organ and a stuffed buffalo head. A shimmering fireplace made of onyx and crystals, over five feet tall, has survived to this day.
A native of Rimini, a city on the Adriatic coast, Mr. Santonato was looking for a unique space to showcase his custom suit designs, and Ms. Jones, a stylist, pushed him to think beyond a store — and beyond fashion. “We wanted to transmit to our clients the feeling — what we call in Italy la dolce vita,” he said.
Walking by 80 West 40th Street, you might notice the spectacular double-height windows. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine what is happening, and all that has happened, inside.
The building opened in 1901. Its construction was funded by Col. Abraham Archibald Anderson, who commissioned the architect Charles A. Rich to design a 10-story structure with tall, north-facing windows that would contain space only for artists. Originally called Beaux Arts Studios, it was the first high-rise building of artist studios in New York City. Colonel Anderson, who had studied art in Paris and then married into money, imagined it as a place for artists to live, work and mingle.
To describe Colonel Anderson as a portrait painter — Thomas Edison was one of his most famous subjects — doesn’t capture the half of it. He was also an explorer, a rancher, a hunter, the first superintendent of Yellowstone Forest Reserve and eventually, at age 70, a pilot. He took up residence in the penthouse, which he designed himself, and filled the space with paintings, mostly landscapes and portraits (he hated impressionism), as well as an elk head, a pipe organ, an enormous Buddha statue and an ancient suit of armor.
A 1929 article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described Colonel Anderson’s penthouse as “the most bizarre studio in the city.”
The reporter detailed unique elements of the penthouse that still exist: the stained-glass dome, the rock crystal fireplace (“brought all the way from an extinct geyser” on the colonel’s Wyoming ranch) and the bathroom, which, with its brass scallop-shell sink and rows of abalone shells, “gives one the feeling of being at the bottom of the cool green ocean.”
Sadly, some features of the apartment have been lost over the years. There is no longer a “wide, winding stairway guarded by a writhing, twisting dragon from whose horrible mouth gushes not sparks of fire but water, into a clear little pool, fern-banked and half hidden under the stairs.”
Colonel Anderson often entertained in the penthouse, gathering not just artists, but also the rich, international and well-known. One dinner he hosted for the Prince of Monaco included politicians, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
A restaurant and nightclub, the Café des Beaux Arts, occupied the ground floor of 80 West 40th Street when the building, now called Bryant Park Studios, first opened, according to David Seeve, the current property manager. (Mr. Seeve gives tours of its little museum of memorabilia to anyone who is interested.) The cafe was known for its creative crowd — and the women-only bar tucked inside. The movie star and speakeasy maven Texas Guinan sometimes worked there, according to Mr. Seeve.
In 1920, the building was leased to L.K. Schwartz Company, an entity that in 1928 tried, and failed, to evict Colonel Anderson. The building survived a fire in 1936. Colonel Anderson died in 1940, and by 1943 the building was sold at auction. But it continued to attract artists.
In 1959, a painter named Dorothy Hart Drew moved into the penthouse.
Born in Missouri in 1910, Ms. Drew studied art in New York and specialized in portraits. Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, the actress Lillian Gish and President Herbert Hoover were among her subjects.
However, Ms. Drew may have been spying on her fellow artists in the building. In 1957, she testified before Congress, accusing the abstract art movement of harboring “radical elements” and Soviet influence. The year before, she painted a portrait of Representative George Dondero, Republican of Michigan, and some historians concluded that she secretly provided Mr. Dondero with information about fellow artists — some of which he submitted to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1959, Ms. Drew received the Gold Medal of Honor from the American Artists’ Professional League “for courageous and patriotic service to American art.”
Other notable tenants of Bryant Park Studios included the photographers Irving Penn and Bert Stern and the painters Florine Stettheimer and Fernand Léger. Mr. Seeve said that, during a deep clean in the 2000s, they found an outgoing letter written by Mr. Penn that had been trapped inside the mail chute since the 1950s.
The photographer Edward Steichen had a studio on the ninth floor. The sculptor Jo Davidson, who created the statue of Gertrude Stein that now sits in Bryant Park, also worked in the building.
But over the years Bryant Park Studios became more of a commercial space, housing fashion companies and garment district showrooms.
By 1991, according to one report, Ms. Drew was the “one artist left” in the building. She died in 1994.
Three decades later, art has returned to the penthouse. Paintings, sculpture, suits, shirts, shoes, mirrors, furniture — almost everything a visitor sees in Luxuny is for sale, and almost all of it is customizable.
Ms. Jones and Mr. Santonato are romantic partners as well as business partners, and they came up with the concept of Luxuny during the pandemic. He quit a corporate job to pursue men’s wear, and Ms. Jones had been thinking a lot about community and making genuine connections. “I am very business-oriented,” Mr. Santonato said. “She’s like a bomb. She’s like an explosion of ideas.”
Creating a store that’s more than a store may sound like esoteric gibberish until it is experienced — the International Brazilian Opera Company performing in front of bespoke suits, or a “reverse dinner party” in which the appetizer looks like dessert (cannoli, but stuffed with crab) and the dessert looks like a first course (a tortellini soup, but the pasta is filled with chocolate and the broth is pear and apple juice). A bit bizarre, just as the colonel would have wanted.
Future events include a play about the penthouse, a panel talk on empowering women, and possibly a private client “build your own suit” event with an international bank.
“I design my own line of bespoke garments,” Mr. Santonato, 41, said, “but I’m not the first one doing this, and I’m not going to be the last one doing this.” The difference he offers is the unique atmosphere inside a historic space.
Ms. Jones, 36, said that they were “still tweaking” the concept, and compared it to making spaghetti: “Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.” But she spoke with reverence about the first time she walked into the vestibule of the penthouse and saw the tiny hand-laid tiles on the floor.
“I was like, Oooh. OK. I’m at home,” she said. When she learned the history of the building — and specifically the top floor — she was even more sure. She felt, she said, “like stars aligned.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.