About That Greta Garbo Apartment

Rodman Paul, AIA
August 23, 2017

Many years ago, long before Google, I responded to a managing agent’s request that I meet with a client — un-named — to discuss “how to install a laundry” at 450 East 52nd Street, otherwise known as the Beekman Campanile. From the moment I walked into the apartment, it was clear that it had an aura. The client introduced herself as Gray Reisfield, and she indicated that she had recently inherited the apartment from “an aunt.” The apartment had an incredible view over the East River, but as a life-long Fortuny fabric aficionado and as an art lover, what caught my eye was that the place was awash with fine old Fortuny and an incredible art collection covering all walls. It was “pre-war” of the old school: the kitchen and maid’s room hadn’t been refreshed in decades, and the public areas were only marginally better off.

My new client, as she became, toured the apartment with me, and finally admitted that her aunt was none other than Greta Garbo. It all began to make sense: soft pinks and greens throughout; Fortuny and more Fortuny; faux bois pine paneling; rhodonite figurines; the “Closet Room,” still filled with Chanel suits, matching shoes below; the Bedroom, with more Fortuny and V’Soske carpets; and lovely French furniture, and the art, throughout—all under a thick layer of dust.

We started a long and difficult project, which involved coming to terms with the fact that Garbo had inexpensively patched up the apartment when she purchased in 1953, and hadn’t done much since. A “gut job” was soon agreed to, and a “gut job” it was. Apart from the beautiful living room, the entire rest of the apartment was re-planned with Gray Reisfield’s intense involvement.

With my partner, Tarek Ashkar, we created new floor plans and an intricate decorating scheme to pay homage to Garbo and her taste. After many new combinations of Fortuny, and almost two years of efforts with V’Soske on an immense new wool and silk carpet, I felt we had honored Garbo and her memory. Equally important to the occupants, the apartment also had gained central air-conditioning, a modern kitchen, numerous marble bathrooms, and the aforementioned laundry.

Gray was a generous client with regard to our detailing: for a dining room to showcase the fine Jawlensky paintings, we created a vaulted ceiling with strap work and tiny lights at the strap work intersections; beautiful plaster moldings were the order of the day; and the floors were intricate parquets.

Gray originally insisted on a complete ban of any kind of photos or publicity, and by contract we agreed to forego any of the usual photography or publicity. I am delighted to see in the New York Times that current efforts to sell the apartment have now resulted in so many photos being exposed to the public — nearly thirty years on, the rooms are untouched, and still look wonderful.

Takes me back!